#2 – Street Sweeper Baby

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A tidy game this was, satisfyingly tidy considering the irregular start against Pau last week and SO Cholet’s drubbing of US Créteil-Lusitanos, a drubbing that put them at the top of the table, both in points, differential, and psychic capital. Regis Brouard tinkered with the starting 11 and tossed in enough quirks to be noteworthy – the ever nameless Matias Ferreria earned another start at right back, an anonymous 34 plunging forward on the flank, and new signing Omenuke Mfulu slid in next to Lefebvre in the midfield (in place of Lud Sylvestre, who I swear I read was battling a stomach flu, but who was also subbed on in the second half with no apparent jokes to be made). Let me say now and tempt any cosmic karmic energy that I could not be more thrilled to have a player with OMEN in his name donning the number 13 kit – after losing both Pierrick Croses and with Dada off in soccer purgatory, this roster needed an injection of nomenclature weirdness.

Perhaps it’s the recency bias, or even a bit of novelty, but I couldn’t help but notice Mfulu to a much higher degree than his teammates (a mostly quiet night from Lefebvre and Teuma only bolstered the illusion), and certainly in the positive –  his ability to bomb forward quickly and effortlessly and to overlap in the attacking third with Abdoulaye Sané and Sekou Keita lends itself to a much more dynamic midfield than the solidly defensive (but good!) duo of Lefebvre and Sylvestre. In fact, he seems a perfect complement to allow Lefebvre to do what he does best, namely close on opponents with one or two flourescent strides and win the ball back all over the midfield.

And it played well, even after only eight minutes of game time, itself after only a handful of days of being on the team. Ferreria, flying around in boots that can only be described as “Pepto Bismol,” collapsed on a SO Cholet attacker, rockets a line drive pass up the right flank to Mfulu, who in turn puts it off a defender for a corner. Teddy Teuma’s corner, taking a cue from high school science textbooks, was both accurate and precise, and right to Formose Mendy’s forehead and into goal. 1-0 heroes. Mendy has been around for a while (at least, compared to much of the roster) without doing a whole lot of being noticed, so I’m going to assume that it’s his Nelly-style face bandage finally pushing him to a higher level.

I mentioned it last week, but watching an inspired Red Star team play with creativity and energy is intoxicating, and the Mfulu/Keita/Sané triplet appears (AGAIN after the bare minimum of time playing together) to be as dynamic as any triplet on the roster – lots of speed, lots of physicality, enough skill to put National defenders back on their broken heels. As long as Fererria and Lefebvre can consistently win the ball and make overlapping runs on the right side, they can really be dangerous (and so far, they seem to be up to the challenge. Lefebvre defends like a bat devouring mosquitos). The fact that they’re all young only makes the bashful, involuntary grinning that much sweeter.

And speaking of skill and energy and single-handedly keeping the Championnat National Defenders Ankle Insurance Program afloat, let’s talk about Idriss Mhirsi. I (and much of the fanbase) expected him to come into the season with a bashful, involuntary pout after not jumping ship for a Ligue 2 team this summer. I’m still not convinced if he’s the next coming of Näim Sliti we’ve been trying to pretend he is, but it’s obvious his talent puts him in a different stratosphere than most of the 3rd tier defenders that have to…defend him. It’s been a treat, then, to see him not pouting away on the bench and contributing his share of rococo dribbles and swooping flip passes. His pinball-bouncing assist to Keita basically sealed the result before some tired legs contributed to a late Cholet goal. Fans fainted while I’m entertaining/Wild, ain’t it?

Three points on the road is always more than acceptable, and Brouard et. al keep adding experience to a team that is coalescing around a bunch of hyperactive early 20-somethings rising to meet a promotion push. Things are good! Things feel good. Momentum is at our back, and a full week of rest before Saturday’s match against Marseille Consolat should help bring the Bauer its first league victory since 2015.

Coupe Round 1 – À bout de souffle

Among the more consistent frustrations the past few years has been Red Star’s complete inability to make the Coupe de la Ligue matter, or at least be enjoyable – after both 2015’s first round exit at the hands of AJ Auxerre and last year’s particularly annoying implosion against Paris FC, we comforted ourselves by brushing off the competition all together, falling into the comfort of “now we can focus on league play,” etc. etc. etc. Why allow your heart to be broken into a golden cup when it’s so completely unreachable, even in the primary stages?

We can take this broader – for all of the soaring highs of the last handful of seasons, in a lot of ways Red Star’s general ascent, both upward through the tiers of French soccer and in the general, hipster-centric consciousness, actions on the field have more or less been defined not so much by the achievements, but as the subsequent tripping and falling down the stairs moments. Promotion was paradigm-shattering, of course, and the elation and disappointment of pushing for a spot in Ligue 1 (one point! Fucking Bob Bradley, double agent.) was so outside of what seemed intellectually possible that it still sort of feels like a fever dream (having a completely different roster, coaching staff, and stadium since doesn’t necessarily cement the reality of that season, either).

The boring, frustrating stank of last season, despite getting the team back to Bauer, has set the attitude for how to conceptualize the team, unfortunately. Yesterday’s match is exactly the sort of contest we expect to lose, and then the team fulfills these cranky expectations with gusto. Which is exactly why it’s so delirium-inducing to watch a squad that’s been together for what…a month? show such flashes of creativity and, fingers crossed, fun.

For as stagnant and listless as last season’s offense consistently was, this team played a high level of inspired, forward-seeking soccer consistently against an ostensibly much higher grade of competition. Grégoire Lefebvre is a revelation in midfield, streaking to the ball like a sherbet-booted electron. Ludovic Sylvestre is as steady as ever, adding a dimension of rhythmic calm to an otherwise very young team. One day the nameless Matias Ferreira will graduate to a complete kit after a few more sneaky-quick rushes from the right wing. Charley Fomen is a slab of beef.

And Teddy Teuma…I’m resisting the urge to anoint him the Bauer’s Next Big Thing™, but it feels like Régis Brouard has knocked this one out of St-Ouen. He may be young, and (yes, still) unproven, and he may have the hairline that’s more banlieue fish monger than world class footballer, but an energized Mhirisi dropping through balls to TT’s feet beneath a flash of Keita and Sané up top has the potential to be something electric.

Revenge has our teeth buzzing, especially against regular antagonist (and former tablemate) AJ Auxerre, and we seem, at least, to have a little bit of momentum for the second round matchup against Gazélec Ajaccio on Corsica.

Winning is fun! Cup wins are great fun! But watching Bauer jolt to life like an electrode-studded frog when Teuma slotted in the winning penalty – in a game that Red Star felt obliged to crumble in years past, no less – that’s enough to leave you breathless.

Fat Man and Little Boy

There’s a sharp contrast in Paris, between an earth-shaking amount of cash pumping up from Qatar toward a future we can’t yet properly conceptualize, and a relegation provoked by a slog of a season that inadvertently reorients the future toward a long absent history. Two atom bombs pointed in different directions in the French capital.

Neymar’s move to PSG, swinging quickly from joke to whispered rumor to record-breaking reality is historic, of course, in the same way that the Sears Tower topping out is historic, or roaring across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 200 miles per hour is historic. The goalposts are forever moving forward, and even if this jump is particularly dizzying, it’s still functionally within the same boundaries as any other big signing – or at least it will be, once the transfer market gradually catches up. For now, the sheer verticality of this move is vertigo-inducing. The fact that Barcelona set an arbitrarily unreachable buyout cause that PSG (really, the Qatari government) casually shrugged at and matched feels like a laptop-smashing Football Manager moment come to life.

We’ll see what happens from here – Barça will take a breath, and inevitably make a move to reclaim their post-Messi future, as one does. And presumably, PSG will need to tweak a roster that should blow past the rest of Ligue 1 like a Titan rocket (which, incidentally, cost around $350 million, or apparently 1.52 Neymars) but doesn’t feel like a shoo-in for the Champions League title. In the meantime, The Ringer’s Ryan O’Hanlon put a nice temporary bow on the late capitalist weirdness of the situation:

Normally, so much has to be leveraged and organized and preplanned to make a world-record signing. Soccer teams are rich, but they’re not multinational corporations. Except, PSG kind of is — and it’s impossible to disentangle this transfer from the chaotic politics of the Middle East. The club was both able and willing to pay so much more for a Neymar than any other athlete in recorded human history, and that makes it seem like they’re operating on a financial plane where concepts like “budgets” and “balance sheets” don’t matter. We’ve never seen something like this before, which means it could all suddenly end or it could be only the beginning.

Up in St-Ouen, the slow-motion catastrophe that was Red Star’s 16-17 campaign is setting the table for a somewhat triumphant homecoming, or at least one that is long-awaited. After two years in exile, the Audonians are returning to the wonderfully gritty, graffiti-covered State Bauer on Friday. Sure, the Bauer is only now a possibility because the poorly coached and mismanaged squad was relegated to the National, which has much lower standards for stadia, but what better way to lick your wounds than in your ancestral home?

Relegation has, if nothing else, sanitized much of what made last season so dreadful – gone is most of the roster (alas, poor Pierrick Cros and Pierrick Cros, I knew y’all well), the manager, training staff, and the rented stadium. Patrice Haddad and Steve Marlet have hitched onto a handful of young, mostly unproven players, as one does. They signed Charley Fomen, who at 5’9” and 180 pounds is the Bartolo Colon of third-tier French fullbacks. The Keitas are back, as is Dada (hypothetically, at least – Raheriharimanana and the (likely) soon to be gone Idriss Mhirsi are duking it out for the title of “Ghost of Stade Bauer”), and Lefebvre.

Expectations, as at the beginning of any season, are high – only a small handful of the teams in the National are professional, and we can hope for a quick bounce back into Ligue 2 – but as the pieces currently fall, this is a team yet to break out of limbo. It didn’t help that the French Football Federation dangled the chance of returning to Ligue 2 on a technicality before snatching it away, potentially handcuffing management from making the proper moves to cement a third-tier roster. It also certainly doesn’t help that the status of Mhirsi has seemingly yet to be resolved – he seems to think of himself more in the Naim Sliti mold than he probably deserves, and likewise seems to expect a transfer back up a tier. (It’s also probably not a good sign that the team has yet to release this year’s kit design – low on the priority list, but not the mark of a well-oiled machine ready to roar back to promotion.)

At any rate, 2017-18 is looming. The Bauer will be full on Friday, the kop loud and bouncing and prideful, and Red Star is expected to remind Pau FC of their rightful place at the bottom of the table. Perhaps one of the youngsters will emerge, a la Sliti in 2014-5, as the dynamic leader the roster seems to lack. Perhaps the good vibes of playing at home, finally, finally, after two years without a true home match, will carry this team further than Hameur Bouazza and Anatole Ngamukol ever could. With crossed fingers and held breaths, the team enters with an intoxicating mix of exuberance and expectation and anxiety and uncertainty – but how interesting would it be otherwise?

Video for Binoculars

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Let’s for a moment think about something that seems to slip under the radar when we discuss big-picture implications of our digital, perhaps post-human world: the spatial and temporal weirdness of being able to casually watch, say,  a Zimbabwe/Tunisia African Cup of Nations match at two o’clock in the afternoon from a library in Georgia. Ontologically speaking, how do we tangle with the fact that we can, at any time and from any place, more or less instantly look at soccer being played practically anywhere else with about as much discomfort as it takes to click through a small flurry of spyware ads?

Perhaps since our tools for interacting with the world have become so overtly digital in and of themselves that of course our watching of sport comes at a distance, through a bandwith-encrusted live stream, just fuzzy enough that you can take your glasses off and let your eyes unfocus without considering the fact that the tiny man setting a slick pass flickering across your Macbook screen is an electronic simulation of a real, not-tiny man setting a slick pass a half a world away, in more or less real time, while even more tiny pictures argue with each other over whether Arsène Wenger should/shouldn’t be fired. Is this such an obvious part of our existence anymore, ontologically speaking, that it goes without saying, or at least saying much about?

Which maybe, ontologically speaking, makes it fairly uninteresting that Red Star managed to outplay and steal three points from table-topping Stade Brestois this afternoon 1-0, while I watched from a glowing box across an ocean. I’m not sure how we can resolve the idea of fandom, which seems like it should be so bound up with markers of meaning (locality, loyalty, history, etc. etc.) contingent on occupying the same physical and mental space as the team you support, with the digital, something that zaps these markers into smoking piles of pixels. Maybe I shouldn’t have been able to pump my fist and attempt to muffle my exuberance (in a library in Georgia, remember) when Julien Toudic, newly signed and freshly subbed-in, volleyed in a Hergault cross to give Red Star a deserved lead. If it weren’t for the digital, after all, I’d have no window to watch the match, much less have a rooting interest or, frankly, care at all.

Even so, it was a deeply satisfying win, ontologically speaking of course. The table has basically converted into a five team micro-tournament to avoid relegation; by doing what was unthinkable heading into the match, Red Star is currently four points up on the relegation guillotine. This remains a deeply weird team – two players named Keita (Tiécoro and Sekou, both of whom missed some chances to score today), a Dada (Stephan Raheriharimanan, the pride of Malagasy Scrabble), TWO Pierrick Cros-s, (Brest, for their part, provided a Pelé: Bryan) a huge hole where goals should be, and a gaggle of 30-year-old Ligue 1 retreads, but for the first time since last spring, it feels like the pendulum is starting to swing in the right direction.

Volley’d and thunder’d

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It isn’t exactly accurate to say it only took six minutes for Red Star’s 2017 to start with a sigh when they needed a bang – Abdoulaye Sané drew a straight red in the sixth minute of yesterday’s 3-1 loss to Clermont, sure, but the Étoile Rouge suffered a bigger blow before kickoff when Hameur Bouazza skipped across the Mediterranean to sign with Algerian champions Étoile du Sahel (glad I didn’t name this blog Bouazza’s Beard…), taking his team-leading 3 goals with him. It’s never ideal to play a man down for the last 84 minutes of any match, but it especially hurts for a team without its leading scorer, captain and most bedrock-solid defender (which unfortunately isn’t saying much about Lloyd Palun, away with Gabon at the African Cup of Nations), a new (possibly interim) head coach, and in the fog of a poor run of results in which they’ve grabbed only four points since Halloween.

Even so, Red Star managed to show a moderate amount of spark and spunk for a team quickly falling behind in Domino’s Ligue 2 table (”In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay a delicious medium two-topping pan pizza, only $8.99 si vous plait.” -Albert Camus, official Dominos’s Ligue 2 spokesperson.), if by “spark and spunk” you mean “short balls played directly to the defense, long balls over everyone’s head, and lots of knees and elbows in various Clermont torsos.” After Sané was sent off by the 24-year-old referee Willy Delajod, any structure to the planned 4-3-3 deflated into a floppy 4-4-1, with Ngamukol stranded at the top, desperately unlinked from his midfielders. On the occasions that Red Star managed to win the ball, Mhrissi (or Mexique, or Hergault) turned to find an ocean of space between them and the nearest forward green kit, with waves of Corrine Diacre’s players in between. Mhirissi in particular seemed to lose the ball with surprising vigor, dribbling directly into a clutch of collapsing defenders and kicking off his time in the #10 with a bit of a yikes match.

About the only semblance of pressure Red Star managed to direct goalward was Hergault shooting up the right flank and leading through balls to Mexique or Ngamoukol, who proceeded to either get trapped deep against the goal-line or send in a flurry of harmless headers to nobody in particular. Clermont, for their part, sealed the center of the pitch – the handful of drives in which Red Star found central space and drove to the net led to their best chances, including Chavelerin both drawing a penalty (which Ngamukol converted, the team’s only goal) and sending through a precise through ball that Mhrissi proceeded to send into the stands.

The ultimate difference in the result is that Clermont managed to hold firm at the back, while Red Star’s defense often devolved into more “Charge of the Light Brigade” than “parked bus.” Both of Clermont’s goals that came during the run of play were scored largely because Pierrick Cros, et. al. could only clear loose balls careening off of each other, bouncing around (almost comically at times) and either into the net (CF63’s first goal was a ricochet own-goal off of Cros) or to an unmarked attacker. It was solid defending in the way that falling from a mountain is the quickest manner of descent.

Red Star continues to sit in 16th on the table, with the second-worst goal differential (-11!) and upcoming matches against table-toppers Brest and current third-place Stade Reims. Unless Claude Robin can bring in some needed reinforcements, and some tactical reorganization, a team that was fighting for promotion at the end of last season could be in danger of sinking back into the murky depths of the Championnat National.