Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Stade Velodrome

Friday night in Marseille is a bit of a blur. After the long trek back to the hotel from the railway station we headed straight out and drank too much. Five full days of paying €8 for a pint of lager does strange things to you, so I started on the cocktails. I have since had it suggested to me that cocktails are girls drinks, which is the kind of 1970's thinking that stops many women from going into a pub or a betting shop on their own. The bottom line is that cocktails get you drunk faster than lager will, and at €8 a pint they are not that much more expensive. I'm all for spending money recklessly, especially on holiday, but if you are going to avoid running out of money before you get home then some nights you are going to have to look for the value.

Saturday morning we had tickets to visit the Stade Velodrome, home of Olympique Marseille FC and one of the venues for Euro 2016. It was here that Woy's hapless England side drew 1-1 with Russia, sparking all kinds of frayed tempers among the Russian support and proving the catalyst for two or three days of violent scenes in the city. Quite glad I wasn't here for that one if I'm honest.

The stadium is in another part of the city, well away from the port with its picturesque scenery and expensive bars and restaurants. That means another bus ride and, you're ahead of me, the lift on the bus does not or will not operate properly. As such I am again lugged on to the bus by the nearest person eager to help. If, like me, you can bounce down steps then getting off buses isn't a problem so at least I only suffered this indignity one way. However, any disabled person who for whatever reason cannot manage steps in either direction is frankly risking their well-being twice as many times as I did. The willingness of people to help is all very well and good, but they know nothing of the safest way of providing that help. You can find yourself clinging on a bit, especially if like many wheelchair users you have the kind of balance that would embarrass Luis Suarez.

The bus drops off a short distance from the Stade Velodrome. Turn right at the top of the road and you will see it dominate the landscape. It's recognisable because of its curved roof in homage to the cycling events which were held at the stadium after it was built in the 1930s. This is different from the English football stadia I have visited which are all visible from the moon thanks to their lavish branding on the stands. Giant club crests adorn the stands at Liverpool, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday etc...but to look at Stade Velodrome from the top of the road where it sits you would not necessarily be able to identify which club plays there except for the fact that you are in Marseille and Marseille only has one professional club. Interestingly (to me anyway) Stade Velodrome was shared between Olympique Marseille FC and the city's rugby league team in the 1970s. Where did it all go wrong for RL in France?

The reception area has very minimalist d├ęcor. It's a big empty room except for the receptionist who sits behind a desk not paying very much attention to us. We tell her we have tickets for a tour of the stadium at 11.00 and she tells us in very broken English that we will need to wait for assistance. Stairs again which are circumnavigated by a series of lifts and it all starts to feel a little bit like the French railway service again. We wait outside and it has rained this morning for the one and only time during our stay in France. Only for a short time but quite heavily, and the drainage system mustn't be the best as the roads and pavements are gathering water in puddles in the way they would at home if it had rained solidly for two days.

Eventually we are led up to the Presidential Suite. A man is holding court with a group of visitors, talking enthusiastically about his experiences during Euro 2016. Apparently they had 'all the players....all the stars'. Chief among these of course is Cristiano Ronaldo. Between stifling a yawn and trying to figure out if this tour has actually started I catch half of an anecdote about how much attention the preening, footballing behemoth attracted when he deigned to rock up at Stade Velodrome with Portugal when they played Poland in the quarter-finals. But Ronaldo Attracts Attention is Man Has One Head kind of territory in terms of headlines and I quickly tire of his monologue. What I want to know is where was he when it all kicked off between the Russians and the English? Whose fault was it exactly and did, as I suspect, the media make it sound like the Spanish Civil War because football hooliganism is A Good Story?

Turns out the tour hadn't started yet. Our tour guide is going to be the lady from reception, the one who gave us that can't-really-be-arsed welcome earlier. The guy talking to the group in the Presidential Suite (from where you get an absolutely belting view of the pitch by the way) is going to be the one charged with helping me and another guest with some mobility problems get around to see everything. He's on crutches and he is from Norway, but that is as much as I find out about him. Nobody can get a word in as our chaperone likes a chat. He's from Algeria, he tells us, and when he finds out that I support Liverpool he reminisces about the atmosphere in an Algerian bar when Liverpool played AC Milan in that memorable Champions League Final in Istanbul. According to him half the people in the bar where shouting for Liverpool and half for AC Milan. Who shouts for Algerian teams in Algeria, then?

Having to be separated from the group to take different routes down secret passages and hidden lifts is not the biggest problem with the tour of Stade Velodrome. The biggest problem is that Aida, our tour guide, conducts proceedings entirely in French. Our Algerian friend (I never find out his name, regrettably) advises us that all tours are conducted in French but that if we ask her she might be able to at least summarise what she has been saying in something that resembles English. So Emma asks and Aida refuses. Point blank says that no, she can't do the tour in English nor explain anything about it in English. I'm feeling a little left out again. Like my friends are in the tent with the girls and I'm walking to the shop again. Even the Algerian man does not offer to explain any of it for us, which is pretty unfathomable considering that he is fluent in both English and French but does not consider either to be his first language. The staff here should wear badges that read 'Unhappy To Help'.

Another of their flaws is that they conveniently gloss over significant parts of the club's history. One of the main exhibits focuses on their 1993 Champions League triumph (helpfully there is some English text alongside the photographs to give you some context). What it doesn't tell you, is that due to financial irregularities that Champions League winning side was relegated from the French First Division the next season and blocked from defending its European title. Emma asks about this and the Algerian flatly denies it. The only part of what he says which is true is that they did not have that 1993 Champions League stripped and so it remains on their list of honours. However, it is plainly very far from the whole story.

The best part of the tour was the photo opportunities, some of which I will leave you with below. However, at €13 a ticket you might want to brush up on your French skills or else take a translator with you before you part with your hard earned for this one....

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