Watching the Netflix documentary ‘Concrete Football’ takes us back to our childhoods; those first friends we had before we all moved away, and the taste of family cooking that satiated the built-up hunger after playing hours of heads and volleys, Wembley singles or ‘two on twos’.
The documentary covers various inner-city ‘fields’ around Paris, caged courts of creativity and competition. The stomping grounds for players such as Riyad Mahrez, Anthony Martial and Serge Aurier. In some cases, World Cup winners. Concrete Football is a part of daily life in these parts, for the residents of the hood and the blocks of social housing that tower over the pitches.
What’s clear from the outset of the film is what football means to this arguably neglected demographic, a cross-section of French culture that also exists in other parts of Europe. The circuit of venues the program explores introduces us to the different groups of players and coaches around the city; each with their own story and motives for getting involved, but all with the common bond of seeking refuge from fairly austere life.
We’re introduced to gatherings of all ages, ethnicities and genders coming together to play, socialise and bond. All they need is a ball and their friends, giving them the opportunity to express themselves. Sound familiar? For most us, isn’t this childhood? For this group, it is also the escape from relative poverty they find themselves in on the Parisian outskirts.
The skill on show is highly impressive. As an English kid growing up it was all about Patrick Vieira fuelled tackles, Steven Gerrard forty-yard screamers or possessing the vision of Paul Scholes. We’re treated to kids who magnetise the ball to their feet like a Subbuteo figurine. The ‘va va voom’ is just one part of the whole show.
In England, we grew up in the remnants of a class system which also drew on respecting your elders. For many of us from working-class backgrounds, our parents still managed a couple of quid needed for us to join the local Saturday team where we trained and played in our respective age groups. This age segregation permeated through the schoolyard and streets prohibiting the mixing of ages over a game of football. Older kids wouldn’t play with their juniors as the challenge was never appetising enough.
Concrete Football shows us the role the beautiful game has in crossing the boundaries of age. Younger players face off against the youth of yesterday and shows the journey players go through; entering as the more junior, fitter and more inventive players at the expense of the elder statesmen of the tarmac turf. After all, there is only one pitch, one ball to share between all.
There is the humiliation suffered from one skill that does not discriminate against age; the nutmeg. Sofiane Ganso, who plays at Choisy Le Roi in the city’s south, laughs how he nutmegs a veteran of the court, only to watch over his shoulder around the projects for the next 48 hours. It’s in good humour, but inflicting ‘megs’ can bring anyone down a peg or two, no matter the social standing.
In the 21st century, retail has evolved massively and football has no doubt got caught up in that. I can still remember the excitement of browsing the Nike shop in Manchester’s St. Anne’s Square during the 2002 World Cup. Nike printed a small guide to the World Cup. In it, tear out cards you kept in your pocket and handed to your victim after slipping the ball between their legs. Wherever you sit on the socio-economic scale, whatever your age or ability, the nutmeg is the global leveller, and Concrete Football captures it beautifully.
My favourite venue, the one which possessed the strongest identity, was the ‘San Siro’ named when Serie A was Europe’s strongest league and would broadcast us images of smoke-filled terraces, from both fireworks and cigarettes. The court in Argenteuil is an oddly shaped caged court with no corners. Slide tackling on the concrete is not recommended but is permitted.
Five or so rows of brick, with the names of lost friends decorated across them, support the high wired fence that wraps around the playing area. Residents of the overlooking flats pour on to the balconies to watch the ants play below.
It shows the juxtaposition of joy the game gives versus the limits of life this group of people live, and manage to smile in. Ferhat Cicek, a coach in the area, and a product of the street game after failing his education, explains 86% of kids that enter the soccer system from lower-income backgrounds are put on the scrap heap without an education. It’s a tough-love approach he has to deploy simply for his players’ protection, to manage their expectations and so they can learn from his mistakes.
One such kid who makes it is Adrien Gasmi, now one of France’s best futsal players. The film blends the candid truth of its subjects social and economical hardships with Gasmi’s story, a symbol of rags to civic and local pride, rather than riches. The execution is well done; through Gasmi’s friends who speak collectively of his humility. This and the group interview of Team Danube bring humour to the production and offers a palette cleanser against a human struggle most of the cast don’t seem aware they are in and many of us have never experienced.
The documentary does a great job of vertically exploring the facets of the suburban small game in France; the social connections between these people, the sense of freedom and expression they are afforded with football as the vehicle and a platform for hope. Additionally, it explores how the role of football transcends horizontally, overlapping with rap music. “A rapper needs a pen and paper, a footballer needs a ball,” says one of the boys.
Once footballers dressed like rappers, now it is the other way around.
The program is one I’ve been meaning to watch for a while and got round to as we all adapt to leading more distanced lives, possibly for the next few months, and what struck home is how hard this will be for enclaves like Sarcelles and Sevran to get through this.
As children we played any number of formats to keep us entertained, banging a ball between two sets of garage doors or against the gates of the nearby high school playground. We were blessed with semi-detached housing and a bedroom each, not overcrowded flats. Football in this environment is all of the things mentioned above but as Abdel Nour states during the film: “football is freedom”.
It’s a simple statement one can’t argue with. As children, it gave us exercise and enjoyment, but it gave us a space to create, to problem solve, and also to learn to communicate and develop teamwork (without us even being aware). It made us feel part of a tribe, a community. We belonged to something, be it our neighbourhoods, teams, or clubs we then latched onto to support.
We’ve created a digital, global world around us, but many people don’t experience this in the same way. They work a shift and then football is the glue that holds them together, gathering sometimes in their hundreds in the centre of an estate to watch six or ten of their friends play.
In the coming months, even if for the short term only, this may be gone. Thankfully, there’s content to keep us stimulated and sane but in areas like this where social isolation might mean sharing a flat or apartment with half a dozen people, this will be tough.
The documentary, though filmed in 2016, serves to remind us how beautiful football is, how lucky we are to have it and when it is back how important it is we support it, for ourselves, but also for those whose life is the game at the Project pitch.