Watching France from the Blue Wall: Strained hip flexors, skinny dipping and shots with Napoleon

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“This is sport!” Ludovic Alabert from Montpellier shouts amid a haze of blue smoke and cries of “Allez Les Bleus” as the sun beats down on thousands of French fans parading towards Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion for the game against Poland.

“You want your team to win. But all coming together around a festive European event… you feel the emotion in the stands, you shout ‘Allez Les Bleus’, waving your flag, it’s magnificent. Nothing could be more beautiful!”

Alabert is just one of the 300-strong fan group, Les Baroudeurs du Sport (Sport adventurers), founded by president Olivier Chicha, who started the organisation from scratch with 30 members just six years ago following France’s victorious World Cup in 2018.

“Nothing had been done for years,” says co-founder Alexandre Mauran from Annecy.

The fans’ group prepare for the march to the stadium (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

Mauran, 31, was frustrated that there was no impetus within the France Football Federation (FFF) and domestic clubs to create fan groups after the 1998 World Cup. Now Les Baroudeurs is the second largest supporters’ association, with members from all over the country — and it is not just football they support.

France is a big sports nation, but not a football-mad country like England. Passionate about all sports, many members have tickets for this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris. They pride themselves on their community spirit, welcoming new members, families and children with open arms.

“Hundreds of people in France are now sharing that joy under one umbrella,” says Mauran, who woke up at 5am and drove nine hours, passing through the Alps and Switzerland, to make the game. “We are not here to fight or to hurt anyone. This is how fans should behave.

“Sometimes in France, a stadium is like a hospital — and that’s not normal.”

They are joined today by Samuel Couvel, who flew 18 hours from Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, to watch Didier Deschamps’ side. When I meet them at 1pm in the Wenkers am Markt square in Dortmund, packed with French and Polish fans, they hand me the dark blue No 13 shirt of N’Golo Kante and tie a Baroudeurs scarf around my neck.

Charlotte Harpur with the Les Baroudeurs du Sport in the Wenkers am Markt square (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

For the next nine hours, we would share stories, debate France’s line-up, dance, sing and support Les Bleus.

Francois Santoni, hailing from Corsica but a Marseille fan, pops out some throat lozenges and takes a swig of pastis, a cloudy yellow liquorice-flavoured aperitif. It has been an exhausting 10 days in Germany, but the group are fuelling themselves with traditional German food and beer ahead of France’s last group game.

“I’m a bit tired, but I’ll be 100 per cent for the game,” he says. “Adrenaline and seeing all your friends gets you through.”

Santoni recalls his favourite memories of skinny dipping in the Volga river after France beat Uruguay 2-0 in the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals in Russia and avoiding police as they searched for flares in Turin during France’s Nations League semi-final win against Belgium in 2021.

The French fans try to rally their team (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

Othmane Marhaben from Paris, sitting on a wooden stool dressed as Obelix from the comic book series Asterix, recalls the World Cup semi-final between France and Argentina six years ago as one of his “best games”.

“You can’t upset the Argentinian fans, but (Kylian) Mbappe revealed himself to the world — it was crazy,” says the 33-year-old, who also attended the 2023 women’s World Cup in Australia. He has experienced disappointment, too, and the picture of him sobbing holding a trophy after the 2022 World Cup final has featured in the outros of a Netflix series.

Marhaben laments defeat in the World Cup final in 2022 (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The chat is paused for a second as the group gather in front of a mobile phone screen for French media outlet L’Equipe’s live stream. Then there’s Fabrice, a Liverpool fan who goes to Anfield every month and declares his biggest love is the English Premier League side as opposed to Les Bleus, and Julie Galoche, who is attending her first live match.

“No matter your religion, social status, race — everyone is united behind one country,” she says. “That’s the beauty of it, that’s what I love. I’m going to make the most of it, savour the moment!”

Jean-Baptiste Leduc, known as JB, is head of logistics for today and interrupts us. “Fifteen minutes until we leave,” he shouts over the table. Santoni has already left to set up the banners in the stadium and reserve the group’s spot.

At 2.30pm, the group make their way to the start of the fan walk at Westfalenhalle, just outside the stadium. JB leads the songs and the corresponding moves as both sets of fans weave in between one another as the sun shines over cornflower blue skies.

The fans walk to the stadium (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

The smell of flares fills the air and fancy dress is in full flow.

Two figures clad as Napoleon pour shots for their soldiers. There are chicken heads, ninja turtle masks and plastered noses in solidarity with their star striker Mbappe. There are berets, chef hats and boasts of France’s superior cuisine.

News of the starting line-up begins to filter through the crowd. Mbappe starts alongside Bradley Barcola.

Upon entering the stadium, the group ignores the row numbers. Santoni has marked the territory and everyone convenes in the front three rows, standing on seats packed in like sardines behind the goal.

Facing the stands, Cyril, bare-chested with a blue, white and red scarf around his neck, sporting a baseball cap turned backwards, inserts his earplugs and holds the megaphone. JB, the group’s conductor, is alongside him. They will remain with their backs to the pitch for nearly the whole game.

From left to right: JB, Le Coq France mascot, and Cyril (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

“It’s a sacrifice for the Baroudeurs so they can have the best atmosphere,” says JB.

“We’re used to not watching the match,” adds Laetitia, who replaces the tired drummers when needed. “That’s not why we’re here. If I wanted to watch the match, I’d watch it on television. I’d rather see what’s going on in the stands than on the pitch.

“It’s all about creating an atmosphere.”

As kick-off approaches, the drum beat begins and the sequence of chants starts. They replicate the Icelandic clap, followed by calls for scarves and flags to be held aloft. The group share a round of La Marseillaise with the corresponding fans. “Aux armes!” bellow one side, with the call echoing back.

“Aux armes!” bellow the fans, with Charlotte Harpur in their midst (Edith Geuppert – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

Santoni is happy. Austria have taken an early lead against the Netherlands. When JB and Cyril hear the oohs and aahs, they turn round briefly only to watch France spurn their chances.

There is outrage that the referee does not play advantage when Mbappe has the whole field ahead of him, only for a foul to be given instead for a shirt pull.

The calves get a workout as Cyril shouts in the megaphone: “Qui ne saute pas n’est pas francais, eh!” (If you don’t jump, you’re not French) and his followers dutifully bob up and down. Suddenly, Kante surges forward and passes to Ousmane Dembele on the right, but nothing comes of it.

“Assis, assis!” (Sit!) comes the instruction. Hip flexors are strained as we crouch down, squished together. The volume starts quietly and as the noise increases, the fans jump shouting “Allez Les Bleus!”.

The group assemble behind the goal (Charlotte Harpur/The Athletic)

There is a brief pause at 22 minutes. The game is hardly scintillating and the fans know it, but they have to maintain the energy. As Mbappe goes down in the box, there are screams, but the referee waves the appeal away.

At half-time, most take advantage of the break by resting their feet. “It’s s***!” Maximilien Zanier, 42, says, channelling his inner Gary Lineker.

“Do you think?” I ask.

“I don’t think it. I’m sure of it,” he replies.

“We have all the strikers that we need, Mbappe and Barcola, and we’re not scoring,” adds Julien Abbassi, wearing a beret with a baguette behind his ear.

Time for a supersub.

Alabert takes over the megaphone for the second half. France are coming closer as Mbappe’s shot is palmed away and his second attempt flies inches wide of the post. Beer is the only drink being passed around to rehydrate. Water may be for sale, but it’s not the refreshment of choice.

There are calls for Olivier Giroud and then, suddenly, shouts of “Penalty!” as Dembele goes down in the box in the 56th minute.

“Finally a goal,” Santoni says confidently before the penalty is even taken. Mbappe steps up right in front of us and dispatches it into the bottom corner. The sweat on my back is now replaced by the spray of beer. France go top of Group D.

“A little goal, now let’s score a second and third,” says Abbassi.

Mbappe scores and France are top of Group D (Antonin Thuillier/AFP via Getty Images)

The belief is that the first goal will unlock conviction in what has been an underwhelming performance to date.

Minutes later, Austria retake the lead against the Netherlands, which bodes well for France. But the anticipated goals do not materialise in Dortmund. “Tranquille (calm),” Santoni says after Robert Lewandowski takes a shot.

Some fancy footwork from Mbappe at one end pleases the crowd, but at the opposite end, furthest away from us, Karol Swiderski goes down and Poland want a penalty.

The big screen confirms a VAR penalty check is underway. Abbassi looks up and, when they see the referee going over to the screen, they know it’s bad news. “Ah, putain!” come the cries.

Goalkeeper Mike Maignan’s name echoes around, Lewandowski steps up and Maignan saves! Cue celebrations almost as exuberant as those which greeted Mbappe’s goal, but they are soon quashed as the referee deems Maignan to have stepped off his line too early.

For a rare moment, my ears can breathe a little, silence. Groans follow as Lewandowski scores in the 79th minute on the second attempt.

Charlotte Harpur takes notes behind Leonardo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

A minute later, Austria regain the lead for the third time against the Netherlands, now winning 3-2. Santoni checks the group rankings… France are second. Suddenly, Poland fans scream, JB turns around for a second, but the shot goes over the bar. “We can’t lose,” says Santoni.

Cyril takes the megaphone for one last push. The fans are incensed when Theo Hernandez is brought down on the left wing but, as the full-time whistle blows, the overall feeling is of disappointment.

“I’m not happy,” says Abbassi, who knows that now France have finished second in the group, they face a much more difficult draw. The reassuring thud of the drumbeat and accompanying familiar chants mask any lingering frustration.

Talal Mazroui, 37, laments France’s lack of efficiency in front of goal. “If you don’t know how to score, you’re screwed,” he says. “If we want to win it, we’ll have to beat the big teams anyway. I’m not very optimistic. I’m trying to believe in something to give me hope.”

The group disintegrates as they leave the stadium as the fatigue of the last 10 days kicks in.

“I’m tired, but it’s the good type of tired, like after playing a good football match,” says JB. “You’ve given everything for your team and your fans.”

“My voice has taken a beating,” adds Laetitia, who has been with the association for two years. “We’ll recharge the batteries for three days, wash our clothes, eat a salad.”

Many will go back to their hometowns before hopefully returning for the knockout stage. And, of course, there are the elections to vote in, too, following French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to dissolve the National Assembly. The elections are conducted over two rounds and will take place on Sunday, June 30, and July 7.


France, racial politics and why ‘the Mbappe effect’ is shaping a bitter election

“If France goes to the extreme right, the players will be less motivated and proud to wear the shirt,” says Santoni. “It won’t be the same for them. They’ll be less united and they are right. Players are often criticised for not getting involved, but I think it’s good when they do because they have an impact.

“We’re proud of what Mbappe said. It’s very brave because he puts his head above the parapet. We must not think it’s a minority. It’s starting to become more and more of a majority, so he’s going against almost 40 to 50 per cent of the French population by saying that. That’s very brave.”

So far, the French team have impressed off the pitch, but not on it.

“They really need to raise their game, otherwise they won’t make it through (to the latter stages),” adds JB as we walk back to the city centre. “They lacked the spark to tell us this team is going all the way. Deep down, we trust them, but we needed to see that on the pitch and, unfortunately, we didn’t.

“My confidence in these players remains. I’m disappointed we didn’t manage to show the world. Let’s face it, the whole world expects France to be the best in every match, with players like Mbappe who are world-renowned.

“We’ve been struggling for several games now. We mustn’t let that go on, otherwise our opponents will start to doubt us. That would be a tragedy.

“It’s up to us to show it from the round of 16 onwards — to send out a message. ‘OK, we’re going all the way guys!’.”

(Top photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

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