Friendly fires

James Eastham attends a star-studded charity match and feels that a similar situation would look very different in England

May 25, 5pm. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez’s private jet touches down on the tarmac at Marck aerodrome, 183 miles north of Paris. Out steps a smiling Zinedine Zidane. He strides over to greet 200 or so supporters eagerly waiting for an autograph or photo.

An hour earlier, Fabien Barthez, Laurent Blanc and Marius Trésor had arrived from Bordeaux. Shortly after that, former France captain Didier Deschamps, now coach of newly crowned league champions Marseille, and his Lyon counterpart Claude Puel landed from the south of France.

The gathering of the great and the good was not for a TV appearance or an inauguration into some sort of sporting hall of fame, but for a charity football match to mark the tenth anniversary of the appearance of part-time club Calais in the Coupe de France final. Yes, some of French football’s biggest names had travelled thousands of miles for a kickabout offering no obvious personal gain. Nobody was being paid to be there and all gate receipts were going to a charity set up by former tennis player Yannick Noah.

Back in 2000, fourth-division Calais made headlines by getting to the Cup final. They beat league title holders Bordeaux in the semi-final before losing to a controversial last-minute penalty against Nantes at Stade de France in the final. In a memorable moment, captured under the headline Two Winners in the following day’s L’Equipe, Mickaël Landreau and Reginald Becque, captains of Nantes and Calais respectively, went up to collect the trophy together.

For the first time since that final, every member of the Calais team was together at the same time to play in the match. Zidane and the other stars were representing Variétés Club de France, most aptly described as a travelling collective of former pros that has participated in these sorts of occasions all over France since its foundation in 1971.

Nothing was at stake, but Calais had clearly trained for the game. They played some tremendous football in the opening 45 minutes, bamboozling the visitors’ defence and leading 5-1 at half-time. It didn’t last, though, as Variétés Club raced back after the restart. Jean-Pierre Papin netted four times, including a thumping 25-yard volley that recalled his prime. Looking thinner than when he retired in 2006, Zidane left the field to a standing ovation on 67 minutes as a greying, portly Dominique Rocheteau came on. Barthez was as enthusiastic as ever, too. Handed an outfield role, he ran about with the unfettered joy of a puppy let off the leash in a park.

Variétés Club won 7-5, but the most refreshing aspect of the event was the absence of corporate fanfare and celebrity nonsense that accompanies such matches in England. I’ve just read that members of N-Dubz reportedly threatened a fellow rapper, Lethal Bizzle, at the Soccer Six charity tournament held at The Valley on May 31. Thankfully the organisers in Calais had generally decided against inviting the French equivalents of Jonathan Wilkes and that bloke off Soccer AM. The only attempt at creating atmosphere was a man with a microphone unsuccessfully trying to instigate a Mexican wave before the kick-off.

No doubt chief executive Richard Scudamore is right when he says the Premier League donates large sums to good causes, but there was something hearteningly old-fashioned about an 11-a-side match being played in a windy northern outpost without a live television camera in sight. Even more remarkable than the presence of ten former France internationals with 677 caps between them was the fact that five Ligue 1 managers showed up. The game took place just ten days after the league season had ended. At that time of year you’d have thought they’d want to be anywhere but on a football pitch.

I’m as cynical as the next fan about the modern game, but as fans streamed away and Noah (who also played) strode onto the pitch to collect an €80,805 (£66,765) cheque for the Enfants de la Terre children’s charity, I couldn’t find anything to sneer at. The evening was a marvellous way to honour one of the most remarkable achievements in the recent history of French football and a reminder that sometimes the sport and those that profit from it most handsomely can behave impeccably.

From WSC 281 July 2010