Monday 19 April 2021

Week 16: Red Star win the Coupe de France in an American stadium

100 years ago this week: Week 16

A century ago, Red Star, the football club I follow in France, won its first French Cup. I couldn't ignore that fact in this series! Beyond this simple statistic though, what struck me about the event was the stadium in which the game was played - a facility in Paris built by American soldiers after WW1.

Kick off the centenary celebrations here.

Excelsior, April 25, 1921

First of all, the match facts. On April 24, Red Star, one of the oldest French clubs still in existence today, beat local rivals L'Olympique. Both clubs boasted several French internationals and the game was hotly disputed, with Red Star coming out on top 2.1. The vital piece of action came in the last minute, when Red Star's captain, Lucien Gamblin, standing on the goal line - stopped a L'Olympique shot with his hand. The Red Star goalkeeper, Pierre Chayriguès, saved the resulting penalty, winning his team the cup.  

Interestingly, L'Olympique would merge with Red Star just five years later, bringing with them the famous green shirts still worn by Red Star today.

A few action shots from the game can be seen in this wonderful vintage video:

The business of football

Beyond the match itself, the press were interested in another aspect - the beginnings of football as a business in France. Football remained an amateur game in France until the 1930s, and less popular than rugby and cycling, but this final attracted the largest crowd ever for such a game and the sport was beginning to generate revenue. The fact that 18,000 people attended the match, paying a total of 60,000 francs in match receipts, is mentioned as the second most important point after the score in the Excelsior report above.

The reporter present at the game goes even further. The sport may be amateur, but it deserved a better stadium for such a prestigious match, particularly for journalists!

Stade Pershing is not a football stadium
When the Americans built the stade Pershing, they only had their Inter-Allied Games in mind  with its running and athletics events. They built a perfect track but not remotely a football ground, and it is an aberration to force the public to travel this far, to watch such an important football match. so uncomfortably. Placed in stands 50 metres from the closest players, it is impossible for the spectators to follow the game with pleasure, especially with huge pillars also completely blocking their view of some of the action.
What's more, the governing body of the FFFA (French football authority) - despite its promise - provided a magnificent official grandstand with velvet and gold decoration, but nothing at all for the press. This is why colleagues from the provinces had to run a cross-country race to find a telephone line! When run by the Americans, there were five lines installed at the stadium. 
The young football federation, which owes much of its revenue to press coverage, must do the same in time for the France v England game, which, it appears, they plan to play at this same venue. Let's hope yesterday's test event will help them better organise what promises to be the match of the year.

Stade Pershing
The Stade Pershing still exists today, tucked away in the bois de Vincennes, near the horseracing track. I know it as a large area of poorly maintained football pitches, where, in my playing days, I occasionally grazed my knees on the many stones sticking out of the turf. I was not aware that the finals of the French Coupe de France were held there for several years in the 1920s.

In 1921 it was a shiny new facility, located in a zone that had been given to American troops during World War One. When the war was over, in association with the YMCA, they decided to build a stadium and organise a sporting event bringing together allied military forces. The Inter-Allied Games took place in the summer of 1919 before crowds of up to 30,000 people. The opening ceremony can be seen in the photo below, followed by approximately the same scene today.

After the Games, the US troops gifted the facility to the city of Paris, ensuring it kept the name of the General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front. 

The Americans - and in particular the YMCA - had built the stadium to promote sport and physical activity after WW1, but Parisians have long had a difficult relationship with such non-intellectual pursuits. They never really knew what to do with the stadium, and never invested in its upkeep. The seats and grandstands remained until the 1960s, but they had been out of use for many years before that.
That said, access has always been a problem. I visited this time by bike, but - without a car - it means taking the Metro then a bus, or a 20 minute walk from the nearest train station. How 18,000 people got there 100 years ago is never explained.

What remains today?
It is very difficult to imagine now that Stade Pershing was ever a stadium of importance, but two elements seem to date from its origins. A concrete hut in the fake wood style that is often seen in Paris parks is still in place behind what would have been one of the stands. Could it have been a buvette refreshment kiosk?

Perhaps more significantly, a stone plinth stands at the entrance, displaying an unreadable message. Is this where the bronze plaque, mentioned on this source, was situated? The only word I can make out on the stone today is France, which could correspond to the original message - in English - left by the American forces:

"That the cherished bonds of friendships between France and America forged anew on the common field of battle may be tempered and made enduring on the friendly field of sport".

There is one element today that prolongs the friendly links between the two nations on the field of sport. Stade Pershing is home to one of the only baseball diamonds to be found in France! The facility is run by the Paris Université Club, but I imagine teams have often been Franco-American over the years!

1 comment:

C-Marie said...

Very interesting!! While watching the video, the realization came to me that all of those people in the video, are in Eternity now!!
God bless, C-Marie

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