Highway to the Stadium
by Vincent Duluc
The derby draws geographic and sentimental borders, it rolls along the road, as it does through time. When one thinks about ancient derbies, they come to us along golden roads and via long tunnels, with the 1970’s absolutely belonging to Saint Etienne, and the 2000’s to Lyon, as the road continues, always the road, the valleys and the bridges, which guide us in consensual aspiration to the brightest point in the night, on the other side.
To love the derby, is to love waiting, to spend the whole year dreaming of celebrating a neighbor’s defeat, backed up by the real or imaginary frontiers which separate the two histories. The footballers of Lyon and Saint Etienne have been feuding over the derby for almost seventy years now. They do not really play for themselves, on these two evenings they represent infinitely more than themselves; they are a tiny part of something that is much greater than them, that sees them gathering solemnly on the field for a public duel, not at dawn, but rather at the beginning of the evening. This is no way to solve quarrels between neighbors, and probably contributes to maintaining them, by hiding fundamental differences behind folklore, and vice versa.
It’s not simply the fact of having a father from Saint Etienne and children from Lyon, but we’ve never really been able to settle on the location of the border. Coming from Lyon, the road most commonly taken, the price of a media friendly centralism, the call of the South can be heard when one passes the refineries of Feyzin, at the precise moment where one escapes the metropolis and when the horizon suddenly opens out ahead of us, with the feeling of an evening match at Geoffroy-Guichard taking over as we move off the A7 motorway, turning right and slipping towards the bridge at Givors. The line of cars is often long, unmoving, and if people are honking their horns its not just because the driver in front isn’t reactive enough, but because he’s wearing a green jersey, or because there’s an OL flag hanging from the window of his car. We honk to mock, or to encourage, by claiming to belong to the same group. We honk our horns.
So where is the border? It can’t be the point where we leave the department of the Rhône to enter the Loire, that would be too simple, too ordinary, indifferent to both use and feelings. Because we do actually have the feeling of crossing a border when presented with the proof that we are in a procession, already winding its way along the motorway that twists and turns as it follows the contours of the valley. This heat of a shared passion persists on derby nights, this exhilaration of knowing that we are all going to the same place, at the same time, with the same hope, the same impatience. On derby night supporters make use of the modern landscape: from Givors to Saint-Chamond, they deploy banners on the bridges that overlook the motorway and that blow away in the wind when the time comes for supporters to go to the stadium, or they actually paint slogans that will last throughout the winter directly onto motorway pillars.
At Rive-de-Gier we are still in between, and though this might not be exactly true, it is a feeling that is both diffuse and shared; but once they get to Saint-Chamond the Lyonnais have crossed over into the territory of the other, and they have almost reached their goal, an expression that has great meaning for these supporter-voyagers. They have to climb a little further before diving towards the plain and the Geoffroy-Guichard Stadium, that can be seen from miles around, and on windy evenings, the storm raging within can be heard from far away.
When one travels the road in the other direction on derby night, it would be difficult to say that Lyon begins anywhere before Givors, not in any case before one has crossed the rare neutral terrains that both sides lay claim to. A little further along, the passage through Feyzin could maintain the ambiguity of a city that imagines itself to be both bourgeoise and silken. But the modern derbies gloss over any historical vision, this path along the Rhône, all the way to the confluence, brings us to Gerland Stadium, where one is forced to follow the ring road to the east, pursuing an impersonal deviation, away from the traces of our youth and our memories, in order to discover the new stadium in Lyon, sitting on the edge of the motorway, with its monumental architecture, a giant saucer in the mists of winter evenings, a story with nothing around it, neither past nor approved restaurant, with no other rituals than the carpark ticket, a tram ticket, or a shuttle ferrying drivers from distant carparks.
In this stadium where the routes open to supporters are blocked and directed by local authorities who have chosen to prohibit supporter movements, limiting them to a round trip between the living room and the fridge so as to miss nothing on TV, the derby is reduced to a unilateral story with a mono soundtrack: the frontier has been replaced by a wall. The derby is a way of taking to the road and also of paying visit, of going to battle while experiencing the same thing. If people didn’t take to the road for the derby, the road would no longer exist and the derby would die out. The only thing left would be motorway that takes us to work each morning, bringing us back home in the evening, and nothing other than one more match in a season of matches, before which we would summon the elders around the fire to listen to them tell their stories. The ancients and the memories will always be the same, as modern chronicles and spectacles will be powerless to cover them.
One day, some authority decided that the derby would be no more, and that there would be only one regional team, uniting Lyon and Saint-Etienne, and that they would play in the capital city of the Rhône: this was the vision and decision of the Vichy government in 1943, under the orders of Colonel Pascot, who was in a certain manner the Minister for Sports and Collaboration. They forced professional players to take to the road, but the supporters refused, staying in Saint Etienne, choosing to support a team of amateurs instead of accepting the forced marriage and the new residence. Casino, a franchise of grocery stores, delivered fake work certificates to certain players to give the impression that they weren’t really professionals to help them escape exile, while Jean Snella, future great coach of the Greens and a major figure in French football, claimed that he managed a bistro in Saint Etienne and couldn’t take the time off. A year later, with the war over, each team recovered its home and its true identity: each to their own and the derby was saved. In reality, it would reach a whole new level with the creation of Olympique Lyonnais in 1950 and finally achieve the familiar rotation: Geoffroy-Guichard for the opening match, Gerland for the return. We no longer say Gerland. We now say Groupama Stadium, in Décines. In selling its identity, or in renting it to an insurance company, the club finally accepted that both OL and Lyon would disappear from the title and location of the stadium. This sets out a trajectory, providing the idea of a different voyage, to the edges of what football was, and the city of always.
One has the right to live in one’s times while forgetting nothing: Gerland truly was something else; when coming from Saint Etienne, the Stadium could be seen from quite far away, traveling along the Rhône, turning right towards the stadium at Pasteur bridge, with the Saône which came into view at the Mulatière, falling away behind us to our left. The hill of Fourvière appears in the distance, we can see the plateau of the Croix-Rousse and, of course, the crayon of the Part-Dieu. The world was simple, binary: the derby between Lyon and Saint Etienne sometimes took place in Lyon, sometimes Saint Etienne, but not Décines. Now the Lyonnais have to defend their team on new territory that they will have to begin to take possession of; the supporters with memories of the past are a reactionary force, they will accept the change when they have new memories and at that moment they will have managed to extend the city limits. For them to feel completely at home, for each ritual to be accomplished, the Saint-Etienne supporters will have to come visit them more often, and in greater numbers. The road will have to opened anew.
Translated by Derek Byrne
Vincent Duluc is a sport journalist whose specialty is football. He writes for the French newspaper l’Équipe and appears in various football tv shows. He wrote different books on sport, among them Le cinquième Beatles on the irish football player Georges Best and Un printemps 76 on the AS Saint-Etienne international history.