Welcome to disorientation week: the World Cup is over, the fun has gone out of everything, and your circadian rhythms are still attuned to Kaliningrad. Now you can become the sort of sad person who looks up Real Madrid’s pre-season friendlies because you can’t wait to see Raphaël Varane again; or you can fall down the rabbit hole of footballer Instagram; or you can spend a moody evening on Netflix and get it out of your system at once.
We weren’t entirely sure about recommending Ballon Sur Bitume (Concrete Football) at first. On the one hand, a documentary about the hard surfaces and hard knocks by which banlieue or suburban working-class migrant kids learn to play football: totally on-point, right? But Concrete Football, released last year by Nike, ran the risk of being a little too on-the nose. Its opening sequences are slick as an oil spill; the film too processed through an Instagram filter; the mood, in an ironic echo of the title, all surface.
We’re glad we persisted. Among other things, this is the film that tells you why Paris is unmistakably the world capital of football. It’s liberal and innovative and welcoming of all kinds of talent - except in the banlieues, where it’s tough, miserly and dangerous for poor migrants. But the cool kids of Concrete Football are masters of exploiting the little they get. From here comes their astounding ability to work miracles with the ball in near-negative space, just as they do halfway around the world in Rio de Janeiro.
The difference is that Brazil’s tenements produce great Brazilian players; the banlieues produce not just the best French footballers, but athletes who go back to represent the countries their parents came from, places such as Ivory Coast and Morocco and Algeria. It’s a long shot: almost no street footballer makes it to the top. (When they do...) Yet playing in the tiny fenced-in concrete pitches of their ‘hoods is about freedom and style, about beauty in unexpected circumstances. It’s also, as we learn in the most interesting twist in the film, about French football’s deep-rooted connection with hip-hop (check out the Matuidi Charo freestyle!).
If Concrete Football is the slick, arty background to this Sunday’s final, wait until the whole set dressing comes into view in the magnificent Les Bleus: Une Autre Histoire de France. You probably know the basic outline of the story already. In 1998, France won an historic victory at the World Cup, boosting progressives eager to celebrate their young and racially diverse team. Then French football got bad, really bad - like, dramatically, embarrassingly, get-the-popcorn bad - before it became good again.
The story of that wild ride, and what it meant to France, are the subject of this riveting documentary. It’s also the most French thing you’ll see this year. It’s so French it makes Emmanuel Macron’s victory whoop look like it came from Australia. It’s the sort of documentary where the most villainous voice is that of a philosopher. Its footballers sound like journalists, its journalists sound like historians and its historians sound like politicians. (The politicians - and please note that the then-sitting president of France, Francois Hollande, made himself available for this movie - sound like priests.)
Whether you love football or don’t care that France even has a football team, you probably know some version of the argument that’s been tearing the country apart for decades, which is: can the success of athletes from marginal backgrounds help transform a racist and communal society? (You probably know it from quite close to home, actually.) The French took a good shot at a positive answer. It’s hard to think of a more spectacular progressive miracle than that France ‘98 team. That’s the whole problem, Les Bleus argues: sport is too easy a vehicle for politics. But it’s not a battleship; it’s a souped-up jalopy of spectacle, meant for pleasure and catharsis. It can’t do what politics is supposed to do; so when politicians try to exploit it, it breaks down.
We hope that sets you up nicely for your forthcoming nights of empty gloom, reader. Watch them quickly, and then bounce to the infuriating, entertaining Mexican soap Club de Cuervos if you’re still goal-less. By the time you’re done, European league football will be underway. But you, checking Raphaël Varane’s whereabouts, probably already knew that.
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