June 24, 2024

Continental Competition, All in One Neighborhood

At the eight-minute mark of the final of the CAN 18 soccer tournament, the players of the Mauritanian team scored three times in quick succession.

The balls hitting the goalkeeper’s clean little sound like gun blasts. Boom. Boom. Boom. The last two happen so quickly that many in the crowd miss them.

“Did they score?” The Ivory Coast fan asks squished next to me, looking stunned. “Yes, twice,” a Mauritanian fan on my other side cheerfully replies.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the annual soccer tournament of the 18th arrondissement of Paris is different: The stadium is a small caged turf court in the middle of the Goutte d’Or – the compact, working-class landing ground for each new wave of immigrants to the city, where African wax shops and boubous tailors for boulangies compete with boulangeries and street crowds.

The competition was one of them enough around Paris inspired by the 2019 edition of the African Cup of Nations, or Coupe d’Afrique des nations in French, the continental competition that usually takes place every two years. The events are so popular that the finals are held in Créteil, a suburb south-east of Paris. aired on Amazon Prime last summer.

In the Goutte d’Or, Mamoudou Camara’s main aim was not to shed a positive light on immigration and community spirit in his neighbourhood, which is behind the Gare du Nord – the busiest train station in Europe – and which is one of the poorest, roughest and most diverse areas of the city. He was thinking that a competition could help his friends survive the hot nights during Ramadan. He pitched the idea on Snapchat, and by the end of that evening in the summer of 2019, six teams had signed up. The next day, there were six more.

Instead of holding the event in a stadium far away, Camara and his friends decided to host it in the nest of their youth, the mini court in the middle of the urban park where they spent their summer nights and weekends, fighting over a ball and rounds of Coca-Cola or Fanta. (The loser paid.)

It offers a very different atmosphere than the marble statues and manicured flower beds in the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens. On game nights, the park, Square Léon, is always crowded with elderly men around check tables, small children climbing up playground equipment and older women in West African dresses selling bags of homemade donuts and ginger slushy drinks that tickle and soothe the throat.

Just before the final game begins, a drum player beats the rhythms.

“We have all nationalities in our neighborhood,” said Camara, 26. “We’re proud to say we’re multicultural.”

About 30 percent of the 21,000 residents of this neighborhood in 2019 were immigrants or foreigners, according to France’s national statistics institute.

Sixteen teams registered this year, the fourth edition of the event, to play 31 games over three weeks. On this June night, we are down to the finals. Ivory Coast, a veteran team who won the first tournament in 2019, are back in their orange and green jerseys, looking to regain the title. A challenge for them is Mauritania – a team full of young players, many of them semi-professional, wearing yellow and brown. The jerseys were created in celebration local designer who collaborates with Nike, and was invited to the presidential palace.

It’s just one sign of how the competition has matured. This year, the neighboring city hall provides a small stand on one side of the court. Everywhere else, spectators stand, claiming their spots a good hour before the game starts.

By the time the referee blows his whistle, we are standing eight rows thick.

The court is only 25 meters by 16.5 meters – about 82 feet by 54 feet – about one seventeenth the size of the pitch recommended by FIFA. It is framed by a low concrete wall, topped by a tall chain link fence.

The confined area makes for an intense game of precision, tight tricks, bursts of speed and a bursting ball that echoes against the walls and crashes into the fence every few minutes.

This is soccer in inches, with a team losing and winning the ball within seconds.

Camara and other organizers devised the rules: five players per team on the court; no distraction; corner kicks are thrown in; any foul after the fifth inside half results in a penalty kick; and the games last between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on their importance.

Two live stream games, with another camera rolling for the referee to review plays.

The first year, all players had to be locals, but the rules have since been relaxed, allowing players from other places to participate. But those who grew up competing on the court quickly reveal themselves by using the side walls to their advantage, bouncing passes around defenders to their teammates and back to themselves.

Martin Riedler, who founded the tournament’s French team three years ago, compared it to a boxing ring.

“You have to be on your toes all the time, which makes the experience so intense,” said Riedler, who attended Santa Clara University in California on a soccer scholarship. His team is packed with quality players who can hit the crossbar from the halfway line of a full pitch, but who also consider the field too big. “You know you don’t sleep at night after a game.”

Players slam each other to the turf, then pick each other up. They fight continuously against the wall, so close that onlookers could graze them through the fence. They give a close-up display of amazing manoeuvres, flicking the ball over their opponents’ heads and spinning it around their legs. That’s one of the beauties of a small court, referee Bengaly Souré tells me. It is a compression chamber of technical plays.

“There is no space, but they create space,” he said.

When a player jumps and kicks the ball into the net, Souré turns to the sideline and expresses his admiration.

The crowd is part of the fun. Spectators shouted their opinions to the sounds of African beats, booming from loudspeakers. It is agreed that the player wearing the No. 1 is a dangerous force. 7 for Mauritania – who plays for your team in Italy. And although the Ivory Coast fall further behind, the game could turn at any moment.

“I saw a team that was losing 4-1 making a comeback,” said Makenzy Kapaya, a 37-year-old artist who grew up in the Goutte d’Or but later relocated to a less cramped apartment elsewhere. Like many in the crowd, he’s back to watch the games and reunite with childhood friends.

“If you have problems, people will help you here, no matter what your background is,” Kapaya said.

The Goutte d’Or, a tight-knit, working-class area, often makes the news for inconsistent reasons – drugs, prostitution, violence. The library closed for three years ago because employees said they were repeatedly threatened by dealers selling near its doors. After the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk this summer, and the subsequent nationwide protests, the local police station was attacked.

Éric Lejoindre, mayor of the 18th arrondissement, pointed out that local volunteers had been quietly helping with homework, cooking and housing for years. A group of therapists in the Goutte d’Or hold regular listening sessionssetting out chairs in an abandoned field for passers-by to unload their loads.

For all its problems, the neighborhood has a huge heart, Lejoindre said.

“The locals know, but sometimes we have to come up with it in a great way,” he said. “For me, CAN is one of those times when the neighborhood can enjoy being a little bit exceptional.”

After half time, the Ivory Coast players rallied, bringing the score to 9-7. But then Mauritania takes the plug on their energy and dreams. As the sky falls into a native night, and the spectators hold their phones like lanterns, Mauritania scores again. And again. And again. Boom, boom, boom. The players start doing little dances after each goal.

When Souré blows his whistle for full time, a crowd spills onto the small court to embrace the young Mauritanian team in a squealing cyclone of joy.

Camara, who will take several weeks off before starting preparations for next year’s event, said he was always surprised by the joy the little tournament brought to the neighborhood. At a time when anti-immigration sentiment is growing and identity politics are on the rise in France, he said he considered it a unifying event. “We thought we were just starting something for fun,” he said, “but we created something bigger.”

Red and white fireworks exploded over the small park in the heart of the Goutte d’Or. The celebration will continue for hours.

Juliette Gueron-Gabrielle he sent research from Paris.

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