December 18, 2014
Buenos Aires’ French community supports Les Bleus from afar
For the Herald
Ever since the city was first dubbed the ‘Paris of South America,’ Buenos Aires has had a special affinity with France. The links go back to the very first days of the Republic; founding father José de San Martín may have been born in Argentina, but he spent his final days living in Boulogne sur-Mer, in the heart of the European nation.
It is no surprise, then, that French nationals continue to be drawn to the enchantments of Argentina’s capital city. But when Les Bleus, the national football team, are playing in the World Cup, old world loyalties win over those Gallic residents.
La Merval, a bar lodged in the heart of the city’s downtown area, played host on Wednesday to what seemed to be the vast majority of Buenos Aires’ French population as they closed out their Group E campaign against Ecuador. Many of those present had witnessed Argentina’s 3-2 victory over Nigeria just a few hours before, but there seemed to be no contradiction in support. There were plenty of supporters mixing the French flag with the unmistakeable Albiceleste colours, and French and Spanish were interchanged with ease by the throngs of people gathered to watch.
The French-owned Merval owes its name to a special feature which sets it apart from most bars. All the drinks on sale are linked to a type of stock index, with prices fluctuating over the course of the day. A strong run on Quilmes, for example, could see the value of Fernet plummet. But with the place packed to the rafters the owners decided to make things a little more simple; a 500ml beer and a range of sandwiches with brie, paté and other distinctive ingredients to give the afternoon a national flavour.
“I have come here for all the games so far, it is great to be alongside other French guys to support the team when you are away from home,” Sebastian, a 27-year-old marketing consultant from Paris who has lived in Buenos Aires for almost five years tells me, as the game nears kick-off. There is little opportunity to continue the conversation, however, as the distinctive chords of the French anthem, Le Marseillaise, appear over the loudspeakers and the crowds respond with a rousing rendition to heighten the atmosphere.
The game itself is hectic and messy, high on big hits and excitement while low on quality. Having won their first two games, France coach Didier Deschamps has taken the opportunity to rest several of his key players for bigger tests ahead. The mood as a result is relaxed and jokey amongst the spectators, who chant and sing throughout.
Ecuador, meanwhile, need a win to make the next round, and the physical South American side create a tough spectacle full of action. Gasps and sighs are shared from both ends of the pitch: when one of France’s 20-plus shots goes astray or is saved by energetic goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez; when the Tricolor themselves break through and threaten Hugo Lloris in the ‘home’ net; or most likely, when another blood-curdling tackle flies in from two teams determined not to cede an inch o the field.
It is almost unbelievable that, 90 enjoyable minutes later, the match has ended in a 0-0 tie. The result is synonymous with tedium, but there was no sign of that in Buenos Aires as the French crowd lived through every kick, every shot and every header as if it was the very final of the World Cup. “We are already in the last-16, we are already in the last-16”, states the chant that engulfs the bar as we near the final whistle – although Sebastian assures me that the song is favoured more because it rhymes easily rather than through any great sense of pride at clearing the first World Cup hurdle.
“If we play like this, you can forget about the World Cup, we have got no chance.” Romain, a Belgrano resident, is not pleased by what he has just seen from his compatriots. It is understandable. In the quarter-finals, a clash with Germany looms large on the horizon, and that is something that no team still in the competition relishes. France will have to be on their best form to take down their European neighbours, and they were some way from reaching that on the evidence of Wednesday afternoon.
But all that is still to come. France and its loyal support in Buenos Aires completed their first round unbeaten, with a clash against Nigeria their reward for topping Group E. It is only just beginning; and you can be sure that whenever Les Bleus are in action, they will enjoy fervent support from their faithful encamped just a few hundred miles south of the Brazilian border.