All posts by Jean Verdon

A Parisian trying to stay silencieux in the wrong end at Old Trafford…

As Killian Mbappé hit PSG’s second goal to seal victory over Manchester United, flares illuminated 3,500 French fans cavorting in the away section at Old Trafford, many of them topless. 

I could contain myself no longer and cheered wildly, which is a major mistake if you are a Frenchman forced to sit in the Stretford End for a big Champions League game.

Several Mancunians looked on sternly, and the guy next to me asked ‘Who do think you are?’ I casually pretended to have had a £50 bet on Mbappé scoring the second.

‘Why am I not with them?’ I thought, gazing at the massed ranks of PSG supporters raucously enjoying one of the best nights of their lives.

After all, I had paid £150 for my seat, so having to keep quiet as my team ran out 2-0 first-leg winners – over Man Utd! Away from home! – was a frustrating experience.

Still, what a night…

Blasted

Arriving at Old Trafford, smoke bombs and firecrackers were going off everywhere and an enormous cloud of red smoke rose into the air.

The calm before the clamour at Old Trafford

Determined to attend the game, I knew my expensive seat wasn’t in with the away fans, but my heart still skipped a beat when I realised it was in the midst of United’s most hardcore followers.

I was a little nervous, but the excitement levels on my first visit to the Theatre of Dreams trumped all else.

‘How you doing?’ asked the guy next to me. I smiled and tried not to sound too French, and although I pretended to be on their side, the fans sitting around me quickly saw through this flimsy deception.

As the players emerged from the tunnel and the Champions League anthem blasted through the stands, I had shivers up and down my spine.

I opened my eyes and ears wide and tried to record all the images and senses as a souvenir of the occasion.

The fans, their chants and songs, the roars, the cheers and boos — there is no better place to watch a game than Old Trafford.

Over in the away section, the Parisian commitment was huge, and the drumbeats of war could be heard. It was tribal, electrifying, a non-stop assault on the senses.

Camaraderie

A few minutes before kick-off, the knot in my stomach served as a reminder of the game’s importance, and I joined in with the Mancunian applause as the announcer hyped up the home crowd.

‘The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying’

As the match got underway and both teams dared to play, the United fans never stopped cheering their team on. Although I was with the ‘enemy’, I could not help being swept away with the camaraderie. 

After a well-balanced first half, where both side played really good football, PSG central defender Presnel Kimpembe scored to give the French giants the lead.

It was the first time I had gone to see PSG play and not be able to cheer them freely but, in a strange way, it was unexpectedly enjoyable.

The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying.

Insults 

As the optimism of the home fans – buoyed by their team’s great run under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – began to evaporate, insults greeted every period of PSG possession.

The Stretford End also had an old score to settle with former United player Angel Di Maria, and the PSG midfielder was booed to the rafters as the mood soured.

On the other side of Old Trafford, scarfs were being swung as PSG songs rang around the famous old stadium.

The excitement among the Parisian hordes was palpable, with everybody hugging each other and sweeping away the gloomy atmosphere created by the English fans.

As the final whistle sounded, a huge smile crossed my face. I clenched my fists – discretely, of course – and felt relieved. Whilst every PSG player honoured the support of their fans, I sat down and admired their excitement, feeling left out and envious.

To remedy that feeling, I joined some of my fellow PSG supporters outside Old Trafford. While the youngest yawned and rubbed their eyes, the older Parisians’ enthusiasm and elation resonated through the grey suburbs of Manchester.

A significant number of them returned to the city centre to continue their celebrations, and the remainder of the evening promised to be an exciting one…

Elephant Sport Podcast: Six Nations edition

Simon Cromie, Joseph McKay and Jean Verdon discuss all things Six Nations in this special Elephant Sport podcast, while Welsh rugby journalist Huw Richards offers his expert opinion on Warren Gatland’s side.

Our resident Irishman, Scotsman and Frenchman also cast an eye towards the Rugby World Cup which takes place in Japan later this year, and ponder whether the ongoing Six Nations can provide some telling clues as to which side might triumph in the Autumn.

Water polo adds a splash of excitement to the Paris suburbs

From the centre of Paris, take the Line A of the Regional Express Network to the western suburb of Nanterre. From the station, walk along barren roads, past bleak residential buildings to the local swimming pool, where aquatic sporting excitement awaits.

Entering the venue, spectators are greeted by music, and the beautiful side of water polo suddenly comes into play. Colourful balls floating around and athletes diving everywhere to prepare themselves while others stretch on the side.

Racing Club de France are hosting Aix en Savoie, the undisputed leaders of the second division of water polo’s French national championship, in an eagerly awaited match-up.

After removing your shoes for sanitary reasons, you open your eyes and ears wide. It is quite easy to appreciate that the sport combines speed and strength, as well as teamwork and a high level of fitness.

Less easy, at least initially, is working out what is actually happening. “It’s really hard to understand what is going on,” complained one teenager, perhaps watching his first water polo match.

Even though many of us have watched water polo at the Olympics and think we know the game, the sport has many more hidden faces than one would think.

Advantage

 The match begins with a swim-off. The referee releases the ball in the middle of the pool, with each team lined up along their own goal-lines. Aix en Savoie acquired possession, which gave them a tremendous advantage.

Each team has a maximum of seven players in the water at any given time, including a goalkeeper. Substitutions can be made as many times as the teams wish, and turnovers are huge, generating constant excitement throughout the game.

Players advance on the opposing goal by throwing the ball to a team-mate or swimming while pushing it in front in them, constantly adjusting their coordination as they can only hold the ball with a single hand.

Matches are divided into four quarters of eight minutes and, as in basketball, each team has a certain amount of time to make a move or score. With very little downtime, the crowd is kept constantly engaged by the quality of play.

Commitment

Combining endurance, shooting, dribbling skills, and a lot of determination, the game requires plenty of strength and has similar values to rugby.

Using their arms and legs, players are always fighting for the ball, and this makes for a lively spectacle. Both teams dared to play, and their commitment to attack made the match a pleasure to watch.

“They never stop!” said one woman, watching with her baby in her arms.

At the end of each period, players immediately swim off to the substitutes bench to rehydrate themselves and rest for the next round.

Their willingness and determination was shown by their constant back and forth in the pool during the game. It is estimated that top water polo players swim up to four miles during a match, a truly considerable effort.

Respect

Respect, unity, partnership and enjoyment: water polo gives you a real insight of the true values of sport.

When two players began trash talking each other during a jump ball, their captains ended the debate by separating them.

Despite the tensions of competition, players were always keen to fetch the ball from the other side of the pool in order to ensure the smooth running of the match.

When the referee blew the final whistle, the comparison between rugby and water polo continued as the Aix en Savoie players, who won the match quite easily (12-6), formed a guard of honour for their opponents.

Captivated

Although Nanterre’s swimming pool only has around 350 seats, the atmosphere constituted a crucial factor on the night.

The match brought together a huge range of people. From children and teenagers to older fans, everyone possessed a positive and supportive attitude, resulting in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

At half time, most of the fans went into the club bar area, leaving their personal belongings in the stands without worrying about theft.

When the game was over, players found time to greet and salute their fans. It was a tremendous feeling for some. “I touched the hand of a player!’ exclaimed a youngster to his dad, with a big smile on his face.

Speaking to a few fans, everybody was very approachable and keen to explain their passion. In addition, members of staff were all very friendly and welcoming, which added another positive note to the night.

Although water polo only attracts significant interest and media coverage during the Olympics, why not give it a go as a spectator sport?

With few breaks in the action, there is plenty of fun and excitement – just remember to put your shoes back on before you leave…

Mathilde Arassus and the art of tandem surfing

Surfing is probably one the most individual of sporting disciplines.

Wet suit, surfboard and a decent swell – these are all a surfer needs. Once out on the water, surfing can soothe away the intricacies of life; you can shut yourself off from the rest of the world. It’s just you and the waves.

However, Mathilde Arassus is skilled in the art of sharing her surfboard with someone else – the art of riding those waves in tandem is a dazzling blend of balance, board-craft and gymnastics.

The 17-year-old tells me: “I started surfing almost when I was a baby. I come from a small city on the west coast of France where surfing is very popular.”

Mathilde has always been a sports addict. She started gymnastics when she was five and was soon competing at a high level.

“Although I consider myself as a huge fan of surfing, my main sport was always gymnastics. It’s a mix of adrenaline and excitement. You need to train really hard to reached the top level.”

The sport taught her the necessary rigour and discipline required for surf. “At a high level, gymnastic can be very tough and challenging. You have to be strong mentally and physically if you want to succeed.”

New passion

However, when asked why she decided to quit gymnastics, Mathilde’s expression darkens.

“I had significant health problems a few years ago. It was a really hard time because gymnastic means a lot to me.”

Moving on to tandem surfing, Mathilde’s new passion, her expression changes and a smile lights up her face.

“Gymnastics carried me towards an enjoyable sport: tandem surfing. It’s a mix of surfing and gymnastics so it was the perfect combination for me.”

In 2015, Mathilde signed up for a surf course in Ocean Roots, a small surfing club in Arcachon, where she decided to test herself with a few friends.

After a few days, she met Nicolas, a 38-years-old surfing coach, and the alchemy between them resulted in an instant connection.

“Nicolas is a really good surfer and, as you can imagine, I’ve got a few gymnastic skills.

“After a pretty good session, we watched a video on YouTube and we thought ‘Why not give it a try?’ I would say that my journey into the world of tandem surfing came quite naturally.’”

By running her fingers through her hair with a discreet gesture, she tells the difference between being solo and tandem surfing.

“I discovered a truly different sport. The relationship with your partner is key. If you don’t get along with him, you will not be able to do any acrobatic figures. Team spirit is key.

‘Through Nicolas, I realised how surfing could creatively bring people together. Most individuals think that surfing is a self-taught discipline where a surfer’s ego predominates, but this is not true.

“My relation with Nicolas is genuinely strong. Tandem surfing requires a particular combination of partners in order to be successful. In addition, I think that communication is one of most important part of tandem surfing.

“Another different facet is the view. When you’re on the shoulders of your partner, you have a very different perspective on surfing. You are on top of the wave and you realise how magnificent nature is.”

Formidable

Mathilde is keen to stress that tandem surfing has “a lot of history”, going back to the beginning of the 20th century in the surf mecca of Hawaii “It is such a rich sport,” she adds.

Asking Mathilde a few questions about competitive tandem surfing, her face brightens again and you can easily tell that she is a formidable competitor.

“I love competition. I think that every sportsperson has something to do with it.

“When we started tandem surfing, our first priority was to enjoy and to have fun, nothing else. But when we first competed at a regional level, we realised that we were quite good.

“Although the sport is not massive in terms of representation, we rapidly reached a national level and I felt very honoured. We reached the fourth place for three consecutive years and our next goal would be to grab a place on the podium.

“In addition, we competed at the World Championship in 2016. We came seventh and it was such a tremendous experience.

“I had a French flag under my name and I felt so grateful. Representing your country is the best reward that you can get.”

Surfing is getting more and more attention and will become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but Mathilde is wary about this increase in its profile.

“Although major surfing competitions would automatically bring more facilities, I think that more attention can affect our sport. More coverage means more money, and I doubt it is a good thing.

“People surf because it’s a very unique sport. Surfing is a way of life and it is all about being connected with nature. Therefore, I don’t think that surfers need to be under the spotlight.”

Tackling her future objectives, Mathilde remains very modest.

She laughs: “I don’t want to think about anything apart from enjoying what I do. I’m still very young and I’ve got plenty of time to think about my future.”

Mathilde is on Instagram.

All photos used by kind permission of Florian Alzay.

My truly (half) marathon effort

‘The pride in finishing a marathon is much greater than all the pain endured during the marathon.’ 

The words of veteran American writer and runner Hal Higdon, who has taken part in 111 marathons, sum up the highs and lows of enduring those 26.2 miles of immense physical effort.

Marathon runners usually divide the world into two kinds of people: those who have already run the distance and those who haven’t.

London, Paris, New York, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Rome – marathons are staged all over the world and the biggest ones are the only competitions which gather Olympic and world champions, intermediate runners and beginners on the same day in the same race.

Young, old, male, female, some racing in wheelchairs; people from all nationalities and religions. It could also be argued that the shared experience of running a marathon overcomes any social and cultural barrier.

Obsessed

The build-up to taking part in a marathon takes over your life.

Early morning runs, watching what you eat, less drinking and going out, worrying about niggling injuries. Weeks and months go by with a single-minded focus (some would say obsession) on training.

“All those months of training are over and the challenge is suddenly in front you”

A marathon contains more than 30,000 steps, and to maintain the motivation to take each one, you need to ask yourself a simple question: why I am doing this?’

Everybody will have a different answer: the culmination of striving to get fit; the sheer challenge of it; a wager; friendship; for charity in memory of a lost loved one; a lifelong ambition fulfilled…

As soon as you announce to your family and friends that you are taking the plunge, you have made a commitment and you can’t step back.

You need them to help you stay positive and focused, but you must also turn to others who can help with your preparations.

Marathon running requires a lot of technique, and seeking advice from seasoned competitors is key.

Unique

The first few training runs that you do will determine how far you still have to go to be ready to run the daunting marathon distance.

Every run is unique, depending on the conditions, your route, the time of day and how you feel, but pounding the streets over and over again can get monotonous.

That’s why it’s important to alternate between long-distance runs, shorter, more intense cardio-fitness sessions and recovery. In order to run 30,000 steps, take things step by step…

If you train reasonably hard, you will reach 10 kilometres relatively easily. Those with a decent level of fitness can aim to do 10k in less than an hour.

Once this achieved, you can think about testing your stamina and abilities by entering a half marathon, which is what I opted to do.

Race day

At the start. Photo by Mike McCullough via Flickr Creative Commons

The alarm clock is ringing. The night was short and the sun is slowly rising outside your window. It’s Sunday morning, and once you get into the shower, you don’t want to get out because you know what’s coming.

After having had a few orange slices, a hot coffee and an enormous bowl of porridge, the stress kicks in, but you tackle it by preparing  yourself as thoroughly as possible because every single detail counts.

Socks on feet, trainer laces carefully tied; all those months of training are over and the challenge is suddenly in front you.

Arriving at the event, the nerves return, but everyone taking part is united by a common goal – reaching the finish line in a couple of hours time.

Tightly packed against each other at the start, everyone is ready to share the best and the worse of long-distance running, guided by their own brand of courage and perseverance.

Early miles

When the starter’s pistol is fired, your heart-rate suddenly speeds up. You are very excited and ready to rumble.

The best advice from those who have run a marathon is to manage your pace and not set off too fast.

The first few miles are quite straightforward, and by keeping to a realistic average pace, you may begin to feel a little smug. Hey, this isn’t so bad after all…

However, as the race wears on and the miles get harder, you start to understand that road running is both an individual discipline as well as one of the most collective.

Only you can run it for yourself, but you share the effort of doing so with everyone around you.

Spectators applaud and shout their encouragement, urging you on; their support really does lift your spirits.

Music will be your constant companion during the event, either through headphones or maybe there will be brass bands along the route. Music gives you energy and strength.

The end is in sight

As time passes, things get progressively worse. Your body aches, your breathing becomes laboured, your pace falters and slows.

The mile markers seem to take longer and longer to reach, but you dig deep and try to remember all sacrifices you have made over the past few months in order to take part.

“You will reflect on running 13.1 miles and may well decide: ‘I want to do to it again’.”

You will pass other runners hobbling along, barely able to walk, or people being attended to paramedics, and think ‘I don’t want that to be me.’

You cannot feel your knees anymore, you are exhausted but – strangely – you feel very strong.

As you near the finish, the crowds grow bigger and their applause and encouragement gives your morale a timely boost. You are going to make it.

Achievement

Once you have crossed the line, you are engulfed by a huge feeling of satisfaction.

As you queue to pick up your finishers’ t-shirt and medal, your achievement sinks in and you feel a real sense of pride.

Suddenly, you start speaking again as runners exchange experiences and compare times. Everyone is very friendly and keen to share their result.

On the way home, fellow travellers salute your performance. Some of them will just smile, while other congratulate you. Running a half marathon is all about connecting with others.

Although your legs hurt, and will do for a few days, you will reflect on running 13.1 miles and may well decide: ‘I want to do to it again.’

Perhaps you will even begin to entertain thoughts of stepping up to the full distance… I have now signed up for next year’s Paris Marathon.

Jean Verdon took part in a half marathon in the French town of St Hillaire de Riez.

Feature image by tfxc via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. 

‘Music brought me to London, but I’ve always loved javelin’

Badar Echakhch is a French javelin thrower who now calls East London his home.

The 38-year-old first realised he has a good arm as a child when he and his friends were throwing stones in a local lake.

He went on to compete at national level in France and is still throwing to a high standard at Masters level events for older athletes.

Elephant Sport caught up with Echakhch at Mile End Stadium to gain an insight into his personality and a career which has also included being a DJ and rapper.

He also gives an insight into the sport of javelin throwing, its many nuances and intricacies, to give a better understand of his love for this unique discipline.

Interviewing and production: Jean Verdon

Cameras and production: Simon Cromie and Aina Villares-Vila

England show why women’s football deserves more attention

Slowly but surely, the old stereotypes about women’s football being dull, slow and lacking in the skills department are being demolished by its growing sense of professionalism.

Attending the recent international friendly between England and Australia at Fulham’s Craven Cottage underlined this profound shift in how the women’s game is perceived.

Just over 6,000 fans gathered for the Lionesses’ first game in London for four years, and while the FA might have wished for more, the atmosphere inside the ground was fantastic.

Flags waved, drums sounded, a brass band played. The entire ambiance was different to men’s football, where mainly male crowds still indulge in the kind of tribalism that too easily results in aggressive behaviour, bad language and even violence. 

People were much more approachable and willing to speak, especially when the subject of women and football came into play. Everyone had something to say. 

As Vicky, an Australian supporter, told me: “Apart from the physical strength, the gap between men’s and women’s football is closing.”

Michael, a 45-year-old England fan, said: “I’m here to support my country but also because women football has something very special.”

Dominated

The pre-match scene at Craven Cottage

An excitable female announcer hyped up the fans ahead of kick-off, but the values of respect and fair play were observed throughout the evening.

“No matter which team I support, I just want to see a decent football game tonight,” said Elisabeth, 26, another Australia fan.

As the match got underway and England dominated, children screamed while mothers shouted even louder. Even the Australian fans applauded as the Lionesses created chance after chance, taking the lead through Fran Kirby on 21 minutes.

There were some whistles and boos from England fans as several questionable refereeing calls went against their team, but the howling rage and obscenities that often tarnish men’s matches was non-existent. 

On the pitch, another aspect that makes women’s football stand out from the elite men’s game is the respect shown by players towards each other and the match officials.

You will rarely see a bad tackle, diving and simulation are virtually non-existent, as is haranguing the referee, no matter how poor their decision.

Without all these negatives holding things up, women’s football also features more actual action and less stoppages.

Accessible

Another big difference lies in the cost of showing your support. Adult tickets to see England take on the Matildas started at £10, while under-18 and student tickets were tremendous value at just £1.

In comparison, tickets for the England men’s friendly against the USA on November 15th at Wembley start at £10 and go up to £100.

‘With plenty of media attention both before and after the game – and live coverage on BT Sport – the women’s international game is clearly on the up’

Vicky said: ‘Women’s football is pretty accessible and the FA has recently done such a great job. They develop the game by selling cheap tickets and I think it’s a really good idea.’

In terms of style of play, teams dare to play decent football. Players were always ready to make a difference and it was a pleasure to see considerable strength from both sides. The crowd was quickly won over by England’s display.

“Obviously, women are not as fast as men, but in terms of strategy and tactics, it’s very similar.” added Vicky.

Harry, a Fulham ticket season ticket holder, added: “Even though people think that women’s football is dull, I think there’s a lot of technique on show.” 

Lucy Staniforth, playing at No. 10, certainly showed plenty, with several decent deliveries into the six-yard box as the Lionesses mauled the Matildas but failed make their dominance count.

England should have been 3-0 up in the first half, but some gritty Australian defending kept things interesting. The hosts were also denied two clear penalties, but the atmosphere remained friendly and peaceful.

Momentum

Phil Neville’s side were eventually left to rue all those missed chances as Aussie defender Clare Polkinghorne rose to power home a close-range header with six minutes remaining.

England pushed for a late winner but had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Sweden are next up for them in a friendly at Rotherham as the build-up to next summer’s Women’s World Cup in France continues.

As the crowd drifted away, players from both teams stayed on the pitch to chat to fans and pose for selfies – something else you don’t see in the men’s game.

With plenty of media attention both before and after the game – and live coverage on BT Sport – the women’s international game is clearly on the up, aided by the ongoing success of an England team currently 3rd in Fifa’s world rankings.

The Women’s Super League is also gaining momentum but still suffers from negative perceptions about female football.

After witnessing England’s latest performance, more people should park those perceptions and give it chance.