RC Lens v Gazelec Ajaccio: Ligue 2
Saturday 17th December, Stade Bollaert-Delelis
Ch’ti may look like a urbanite contraction of “shitty” but a visit to RC Lens really is anything but. The stadium looks like it belongs in the English Premier League, the fans create an atmosphere that could rival most Bundesliga teams and yet the whole experience is so French that you expect the stadium to ask you if it can borrow a cigarette.
For anyone who has a level of French that goes beyond asking for a croissant, directions to the tourist office or nasally whining “haw hee haaww or Sacre Bleu” in a casually racist way, watching Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis is an uplifting and wonderfully light-hearted story of a man who, as a punishment for lying in a job application and interview, is redeployed in the north-east of France. As the story evolves, this punishment turns out to be a blessing, and our protagonist accepts he held many misconceptions about the people, the region and about what he wanted from life. He finds much of acclimatisation overwhelming and surprising, and is taken to the passionate pit of Stade Bollaert to see Racing Club Lens play. He has the look of a CEO who has dozed off in a meeting and woken up at an illegal (are they ever legal?) dog fight.
“Ch’ti” may look like a urbanite contraction of “shitty” but a visit to RC Lens really is anything but. The stadium looks like it belongs in the English Premier League, the fans create an atmosphere that could rival most Bundesliga teams and yet the whole experience is so French that you expect the stadium to ask you if it can borrow a cigarette. And despite Lens’ proximity to the Belgian border, being caught up in the middle of a strike reminded me that I was very much in France.
The drive from the leafy outskirts of Brussels was damp, unremarkable and punctuated with roadworks and a corrugated surface that frustrated like a moguled piste. All in all, the kind of drive that makes you think “in what way is this fun?” After passing Lille, the last fifteen minutes of the drive was like a montage of post industrial despair: sculpted slag heaps, crumbling red-brick houses and pessimism, deep-fried into the faces of the of the abandoned.
Yet, this area also has the feeling that it’s recoiling before it springs back to success. There is the sense that the magma is close to the surface and ready to erupt, and that the landscape, smothered by a metaphoric lava of yesteryear, is fertile again.
Resisting the urge to be hypnotised by the windscreen wipers, I found myself sitting in a queue to a “he who dares, wins” roundabout near the town centre after about one hour and forty five minutes of driving. Whilst trying to decipher the local language of the road, I noticed that the train station was 400m from this point. Police were stopping some motorists, asking for documents, but this was probably to ascertain that they were comprehensively insured before navigating the pedestrian-populated road to the stadium. Whilst romanticising about taking the train and having a few beers, I remembered that Lille is the main transport hub, and city, in this area and that connections to Brussels were both expensive and infrequent.
Tickets and Lens
Tickets for RC Lens league matches (Ligue 2) range from 10 Euros behind the goals to 30 euros in the centre of the main tribune. They can be bought online at http://billetterie.rclens.dspsport.com/dsp/WEB/Site/index.htm?wId=RCL&rId=Ticketing and printed at home.
Having seen that the ‘fankurve/kop’ area of the stadium was along the long side of the pitch (Section ‘Marek’), I thought that being close to this area without being in it – it’s season tickets only in it – would be the best compromise of view and atmosphere. So I plumped for 22 euro tickets in the ‘Xerces’ stand, in the tier above ‘Marek’.
The website allows you to choose your seat and is perfectly functional. One word of warning though – it is very unclear how or where one reserves parking. The result: people abandon cars in every unsafe nook and cranny and the car parks next to the stadium are virtually empty. I asked a steward how much it was for the car park only to be told I had to reserve in advance. I tried to explain that I tried to do this but couldn’t see an option but that I could pay the correct price in cash. He simply shrugged indifferently, like I was disturbing him from his job of telling people that these car parks were not for people to park their cars in. If the club charged let’s say 5€ per car, they could easily rake in around 10000€ per match just in parking. Has to be said that their rivals in Lille have this down to a tee; prepaid and no fuss.
So, I parked up in a tight space on the High Street, causing all manner of disruption as I required 3 attempts to park my seven-seater in a space designed for a 2CV or Twingo. Next step was find the parking meter. The meter has a card slot but, upon closer inspection, it is for residents to insert their resident card into for discounted parking. “Out-of-towners”, like me, have to pay cash. So, I scrabbled around for all of my change, thinking that it would be enough, to discover that the places have a maximum of a two-hour stay. This was one hour before kick-off. Again, a little joined up thinking here could pay dividends for the town council: there is an undercurrent of perverse logic running through this place, which I will allude to later.
Lens only has a population of 36011 yet it has a stadium with a capacity of 41233. Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume its infrastructure and amenities will be comparable to, say, Lille. That said, there was a Christmas Market and a reasonably busy high street and there was a hubbub about the place that contrasted with the desolation of the residential areas on the way in to the town. There are a couple of bars near the Roulette Roundabout, where a pre-match tipple appeared convivial and colourful.
The stadium is set in a residential area close to the town centre although it is surrounded by trees. This was a Euro 2016 Venue and hence the stadium was refreshed in advance of this. The four separate stands and proximity to the pitch reminded me somewhat of Villa Park. It all sits and comes together a little oddly, like one of these composite faces made from the eyes of one celebrity and the jaw of another.
Security was in place around the perimeter of the stadium fencing and again at the turnstiles under the stands. There are plenty of street food purveyors in residence, all selling pretty much the same thing. I bought a merguez and chips combination, which seemed expensive at 7 euros, but there was so much of it that I didn’t eat again all day. The chips (fries, for the non-Brits) were fantastic and that they are a local speciality kind of sums the place up.
That the stadium is many shades of grey is a little disappointing, especially when the blood and gold colours that abound are so vibrant. If I was designing a stadium, especially one that has only one tenant, I would want it to be characterful and memorable as opposed to being magnolia, concrete and anonymous.
Once inside, the ‘no frills’ feel is tangible; from the unfinished paint jobs to the cavernous nature of the concourse in Xerces, as though there should be more amenities there but somebody ran out of interest or money. I ordered a 25cl of beer, Kronenbourg I was assured, that induced a stream of grumbles, huffing and sighs from the attendant. It was almost as though I wasn’t allowed to order this; like I’d given the wrong answer.
My seat was in row 19 of Xerces – second row from the rear. The row behind had what I thought was a massive dust sheet on it, as though the chairs were out of order. Turns out this was a tifo that would engulf most of the stand later on. This thing caused chaos. Person after person came up, looked at this huge obstacle, glanced back at the ticket quizzically and had their suspicions confirmed that their seat did infact have this huge tifo on it. No stewards in sight and me at the end of the row, I was the guy getting asked “what are we supposed to do?” At least with this being France, I was able to converse with the confused masses instead of my ‘just landed from the moon’ stare that I do when I get asked questions in Germany.
The view was excellent, once people stopped milling around looking for seats, although I could only see the front few rows of the tier below, which was a pity as it is undoubtedly the most animated and colourful. This disruptive sequence played havoc with my normal pre-match photography, tweeting etc.
RC Lens v Gazelec Ajaccio
The Corsican visitors had eight fans. However, given the time of year and that the two teams weren’t exactly neighbours (only the length of France and a big blue sea between them), this wasn’t unexpected. So, when the teams were announced, the lack of interaction from the Lens fans disappointed and desperation from the stadium announcer made me think I was at a Premier League match. However, the confuddlement at the complete silence as the teams emerged from the tunnel was just unsettling.
I could search through all known memes and vines and still not find a face or expression that adequately described this event or my thoughts. The teams emerged in almost total silence. Something was wrong, it had to be. Nobody else seemed that confused. Maybe the Lensois are just bored, I mused.
But then, just as the match kicked off, so did the cheerleader man in front of me. Just like an orchestra has a conductor, a denim-clad heavy-set man normally fulfils a similar role in most Ultra or Fankurve areas, with a megaphone or microphone. This has mixed results: sometimes it really adds something e.g. Hertha whereas in other places, such as Lille, it can feel like remote trepanning.
However, he didn’t kick-off in the normal fashion. No, he explained why the fans were going on strike for the first half. His announcement (rant) lasted about three minutes, and the short version is that they weren’t happy with the board. So, to show how much ‘Marek’ is needed and would be missed, they urged the stadium to stay silent for the first half. No walk-out, no staying at home and hurting the club pockets. No, like an infant giving the silent treatment after falling out with an older sibling, they milled around quietly. It was quite possibly the perfect manifestation of being French that I had seen in a long time. This part of the collective psyche that turns everything into a binary conflict is surely culturally endemic. Even the football fans go on strike. The magma really was bursting through. The atmosphere felt malignant.
One small group behind the goals started to cheer and sing and they were swiftly admonished for their show of support. So, in amongst this Nihilist theatre, a game of football broke out. The standard was patchy, with moments of classed woven together by the threads of mediocrity where athleticism suppresses talent.
However, in order to see a rainbow, you need to withstand the rain. On the 12th minute, Cristian scored a delightful back heeled volley to put the home side 1 up. A polite spattering of applause ensued. The man next to me came with his son, who was maybe nine or ten, and just after the goal he gave his son a look that said ‘yes I know we would normally celebrate this goal, but not today. We must show solidarity’.
The match continued to follow the pattern of Lens controlling the play with Gazelec countering until the 27th minute, when a world-class volley flew into the top corner from Yohan Court’s laces. It was one of the best goals I’ve ever seen. I would say that the home fans were stunned into silence but, in all honesty, there was no perceivable difference.
The match ebbed and flowed until half-time rather uneventfully. So, in advance of the teams emerging for the second half, the tifo was unfurled. Being underneath it, I didn’t get to see how it looked for myself, but a couple of photos from the Lens official site have been included to illustrate its size. The unfurling of the tifo was the watershed moment. From this point on, I was treated to an atmosphere that was surely as fabulous as it could be in these conditions, on this day.
The fans in Marek led the stadium into song, generating a great noise, bouncing around without regard to their own safety (which is why all stadia should have some standing areas!). Les Sang et Or suddenly felt like a soulful club, followed by a passionate people, hurting from perceived mistreatment and prolonged disappointment. It felt like the start of a revolution.
There were 26460 in attendance for this match. Lens went on to win 2-1 and should have won more comfortably. However, this match won’t really be remembered for the football, Yohan Court’s strike notwithstanding. It will be remembered, by me anyway, as the day when football was reminded what it would be like without fans: hollow, flaccid and benign.
RC Lens are known as the blood and gold. Their fans are like gold to the club: owners know this. However, blood brings oxygen to organs around the body. Its role may not be glamorous, but it is life-sustaining. This is a club that, if it can stop bleeding, can go from strength to strength, giving a passionate community hope again.
By the way, I didn’t get a parking ticket.
- Quality of match: ***
- Stadium character: ***
- Stadium atmosphere: ****.5
- Hospitality: ***
- Ease of access: ***
- Things to do around the stadium: ***
- Overall: ****
Verdict: I have to go back and sample this place when the fans are not demonstrating. It’s vibrancy is infectious. It makes you almost forget the little niggles about the stadium and the average football on offer.