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Spending a Fun Friday Night with the Local Soccer Club

March 17th, 2019 · No Comments · Football, France, Languedoc, Paris, soccer

Living in western Europe, the assumption by most Americans, including this one, is that professional soccer teams must not be far from any point on the maps of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

That assumption would be wrong.

Where we live, in the Occitanie region (previously known as the Languedoc) of southern France, plenty of rugby (!) teams are knocking heads somewhere nearby, but fully professional soccer clubs are thin on the ground.

In the top flight, there is Marseille, historically competitive, two-plus hours to our east, and Montpellier, surprise Ligue 1 champions in 2010, an hour away, and Nimes a bit further north.

But that is about it with, typically, zero Ligue 2 teams.

Till the promotion this season of relative newcomers AS Beziers from Beziers — the “big” town closest to where we live, barely a half-hour drive away.

We have lived in this area for more than three years without seeing a French club soccer match. But, with Beziers now fielding a Ligue 2 team, and the end of the season coming into focus for French clubs, we thought it our duty as (not actual) citoyens to go see this freshly professional club, even on a brisk and windy night, and after handing over 10 euros each we entered the Stade Mediterranee and took a seat in the lower bowl of the 18,000-capacity stadium.

And we not only immersed ourselves in the Beziers football world, such as it is, we saw the team win its first home match of the season in Ligue 2 — the second division in the French system and the only other, besides Ligue 1, to call itself fully professional.

We picked a game of some significance, it turns out, because the club formed in 2007 is fighting to avoid relegation and was playing host to a struggling Auxerre club.

Our presence apparently lifted AS (Avenir Sportif) Beziers to new heights.

Thanks to an 85th-minute goal by midfielder Dorian Bertrand, Beziers won at home for the first time this season (and yes, the season began last summer), 1-0, creating a path to avoiding relegation from the 20-club Ligue 2 — and back to the truly obscure French semi-professional ranks.

I was stunned at how many people were at the game. Official attendance numbers are hard to come by, but I would guess 3,000 to 4,000 fans were at the match. (From a city with a population of 75,000.) I had expected maybe 500. This is rugby country, I keep hearing, and AS Beziers is 19th in the 20-team Ligue 2 standings (the bottom three are relegated), and a lot of fans do not like to be linked to a failing sports club.

What do the impressive attendance numbers say about Beziers? Some guesses.

–The Bitterrois (the local name for natives of Beziers) like the idea of their local team playing in one of France’s top two divisions — putting it one fine season (but not this one) from playing in Ligue 1 with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Lyon and Lille. Maybe the level of civic pride, in one of France’s poorest cities … is stronger than I think.

–The city,  considers an appearance in the second division of France, for the first time, to be a big deal, even when the club is struggling. Beziers is nearly marooned, in the south of the country: Ligue 2 is packed with teams from the north of the country, the soccer hotbed. Teams like Metz, Brest, Lorient, Lens, Le Havre, all of which have played in the top flight, are north of a line 46 degrees of north. Ligue 2 has exactly four clubs south of 46 degrees — Grenoble, Clermont-Ferrand, Ajaccio of Corsica — and Beziers. The other 16? From the north, often the far north of France. Road games are easy, up there.

–Watching Beziers play is like a mini-United Nations of soccer. The club leans heavily on players whose origins are in former French colonies, with footballers playing under the flags of Togo, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Congo, Algeria … The goal-scorer is a French citizen whose parents lived on the island of Reunion.

–There is not all that much to do on a Friday night in Beziers, especially for sports fans, during the brisk months, like March, where to sit outside is to require at least three levels of clothing.  This new club wearing red and blue … let’s layer-up, try to ignore the wind, and go see them in person!

The club charges 10 euros for the lowest-level ticket, and moves up to 15 euros or 20 a pop to sit on the side of the field with the VIP and press sections.

We plumped for a night among the budget-conscious fans on the other side of the stadium. As everyone knows, fans in the cheap seats are always the most enthusiastic, and that was what we wanted to observe. Well, we hoped to be close to interested fans, and not goofy teens more interested in hanging out on a Friday night than the drama of AS Beziers. Eventually, we had a good serving of both.

For the first 60 minutes or so, we were worried about the home team. We had noticed its record, entering the match: Five victories, eight draws, 15 defeats in 28 matches, and the fact that it had scored fewer goals (17) than any club in the league.

Beziers had trouble getting the ball to its one obvious threat to score, forward Alexandre Ramalingom, and Auxerre, a mid-level club, had hit the post a time or two. Also, Beziers’s goalkeeper was hurt in the first five minutes and left the game. Dommage!

But things turned in the 67th minute, thanks mostly to a red card shown to an Auxerre defender as he tried to keep pace with Beziers’s most dangerous player, midfielder Steeve Beusnard, who had been tormenting Auxerre all night with dashes up the right side.

In this instance, Beusnard, the fastest man on the pitch, got the ball at a sprint in the center of the field, and he was dragged down from behind before he could escape on goal, and that made for an Auxerre red card.

Given a rare break, this season, Beziers took advantage, with midfielder Dorian Bertrand scoring on a fine volley into the upper-right corner of the goal, five minutes from time. The home team hung on, and most of the fans on the cheap-seats side gave them a standing ovation and clapped them off the pitch. That included the two new fans.

Beziers was plucky, determined and playing for their lives, which is what you like to see for a team at risk of relegation. As for that dire threat … the victory gives Beziers 26 points, only one behind Sochaux and three behind AS Nancy Lorraine, with nine matches to play — including a home match against a struggling Ajaccio side in two weeks.

We might be there. We might well be there. Now that we know something about the “home” team of this part of France, we could become regulars for as long as Beziers can hang on in Ligue 2.


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