Continental competition, all in one neighborhood

Eight minutes into the final match of the 18th Africa Nations Championship, players on the Mauritanian team scored three times in quick succession.

Balls hitting the goalkeeper’s small net sound like cannon blasts. bubble. bubble. bubble. The last two happen so quickly that many in the crowd miss them.

“Have they recorded?” asked an Ivory Coast fan, looking stunned. “Yes, twice,” a Mauritanian fan on my side responded gleefully.

It doesn’t take long to understand that the annual football tournament for the 18th arrondissement of Paris is different: the stadium is a small stadium tucked away in the middle of the Goutte d’Or – the dense working-class landing place for every new wave of immigrants to the city, a place where African wax shops and tailors to bobos compete with the busy boulevards and crowded streets.

The tournament was one of a lot about paris Inspired by the 2019 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, or Coupe d’Afrique des Nations in French, the continental competition is usually held every two years. The events became so popular that the finals of one of them in Créteil, a suburb southeast of Paris, Streamed on Amazon Prime last summer.

At Goutte d’Or, Mamoudou Camara’s primary goal was not only to positively highlight the immigration and community spirit in his neighbourhood, which, behind Gare du Nord – Europe’s busiest train station – is among the city’s poorest, grittier and most diverse. He was only thinking of a tournament that might help his friends survive the hot nights of Ramadan. He popped the idea on Snapchat, and by the end of that evening in summer 2019, six bands had signed up. A day later, there were six more.

Instead of holding the event in a remote stadium, Kamara and his friends decided to host it in their childhood nest, the little playground in the middle of the urban park where they spent their summer nights and weekends, grappling over a ball and rounds of Coca-Cola or Fanta. (Loser pays.)

It provides a very different atmosphere than the marble statues and manicured flower beds of the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens. On game nights the park, Square Lion, teems with older men crowding around checker tables, young children climbing on playground equipment, and older women in West African clothing selling bags of homemade cake and liquid ginger ale that tickles and soothes the throat.

Just before the start of the final match, the tambourine player beats the beats.

Kamara, 26, said, “In our region, we have all nationalities. We are proud to say that we are multicultural.”

About 30 percent of this neighborhood’s 21,000 residents were immigrants or foreigners in 2019, according to France’s national statistical institute.

This year, the fourth edition of the event, sixteen teams signed up to play 31 matches over three weeks. On this June night, we made it to the finals. Ivory Coast, a veteran team that won the inaugural tournament in 2019, is back in its orange and green jersey, trying to regain the title. And their challenge is Mauritania – a team full of young players, many of them semi-professionals, dressed in yellow and brown. The shirts were created by a celebrity Local designer who collaborates with Nike, who is invited to the presidential palace.

It’s just one sign of how mature the tournament is. This year, the neighboring town hall provides a small grandstand to one side of the court. Everywhere else, spectators stand up, claiming their spots an hour before the match begins.

By the time the referee blows his whistle, we’re standing eight rows thick.

The playing field measures 25 meters by 16.5 meters – about 82 feet by 54 feet – roughly one-seventeenth the size of the field recommended by FIFA. It is surrounded by a low concrete wall, which is topped by a tall chain link fence.

The confined zone makes for an intense game of precision, trick tricks, bursts and an exploding ball that bounces off walls and crashes into fences every few minutes.

This is football by the inch, where the team loses and wins the ball in a matter of seconds.

Kamara and other organizers devised the rules: five players per team on the court; no offside kicked corner kicks; Any foul after the fifth during the first half results in a penalty kick; Games last from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on their importance.

Live broadcast of two-person matches, and another camera on for the referee to review plays.

In the first year, all players had to be locals, but the rules have since been relaxed, allowing players from elsewhere to participate. But those who have grown up competing on the field quickly reveal themselves using the sidewalls to their advantage, paring passes around defenders to teammates and back to themselves.

Martin Ridler, who three years ago made up the French team for the tournament, compared it to a boxing ring.

“You have to be on your toes the whole time, which makes the experience very intense,” said Ridler, who attended Santa Clara University in California on a football scholarship. He has filled his team with elite players who can hit the crossbar from the halfway line for a full pitch, but who also find the arena overwhelming. “You know you won’t sleep at night after the game.”

Players hit each other on the lawn, and then pick each other up. They fight constantly against the wall, so close that a spectator might herd them over the fence. They deliver close passes for amazing maneuvers, hurling the ball over their opponents’ heads and spinning it around their feet. The referee, a Bengali-Suri, told me that this is one of the most beautiful things in the small field. It’s a pressure chamber of artistic plays.

“There is no space,” he said, “but they create space.”

When the player jumps up and kicks the ball into the net, Suri turns to the fence and expresses his admiration.

The crowd is part of the fun. Shouting from the loudspeakers, spectators shout their notes to the sounds of African rhythms. It is agreed that the number 7 for Mauritania – who plays for a team in Italy – is a serious force. And although Ivory Coast is increasingly on the back foot, the game could turn around at any moment.

“I’ve seen a team that loses 4-1 come back,” said Mackenzie Kabaya, a 37-year-old entertainer who grew up in Goutte d’Or but later moved to a less cramped apartment elsewhere. Like many in the crowd, he’s back to watching games and reuniting with childhood friends.

“If you have problems, people here will help you, no matter what your origins are,” Kabaya said.

Goutte d’Or, a dense working-class area, often makes news for unpleasant reasons – drugs, prostitution, violence. the library closed to Three years ago because employees said they were repeatedly threatened by merchants who sell near its doors. In the aftermath of the police shooting of 17-year-old Nael Marzouk this summer and subsequent nationwide protests, the local police station has come under attack.

Eric Legwinder, mayor of the 18th arrondissement, noted that local volunteers have been quietly helping with homework, cooking, and housing for years. A group of therapists at the Goutte d’Or Hold regular hearingssetting up chairs in an abandoned plot of land for passers-by to offload their burdens.

For all its problems, Legwinder said, this neighborhood has a big heart.

“The locals know her, but sometimes we need her to look amazing,” he said. “For me, CAN is one of those moments where a neighborhood can really enjoy being a little bit extraordinary.”

After the end of the first half, the Ivory Coast players gathered, bringing the score to 9-7. But Mauritania is pulling the plug on its energy and dreams. As the sky darkens into the dark night, and spectators hold up their phones like lanterns, Mauritania scores again. and again. and again. Boom, boom, boom. Players start doing small dances after each goal.

As Suri blew his whistle all the way, a crowd rushed onto the pitch to embrace the young Mauritanian team in a whirlwind of joy.

Kamara, who will take a few weeks off before starting preparations for next year’s event, said he was constantly surprised by how much joy the mini-tournament brought to the neighborhood. At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is running high and identity politics are heating up in France, he said he sees it as a unifying event. He said, “We thought we were just starting something for fun, but we’ve come up with something bigger.”

Red and white fireworks explode over the small garden in the heart of the Goutte d’Or. The celebration will go on for hours.

Juliette Geron Gabriel Contributed research from Paris.