The View from Montpellier

From start to finish, from the stands, the Canada-Cameroon game had an “anything can happen” feeling to it. Cameroon were interesting to watch. A controlled chaos; tornadoes tearing up the game to, in essence, free the ball from any sense of team intention. This was, of course, the problem as once the ball was theirs, they got smothered.

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Both Cameroon and Canada played heavy, physical defense. Canada seemed to struggle with the ball — some strange touches, passes too heavy and too light. I couldn’t tell if that was nerves, the pressure the Lionesses were providing, or the slick surface. But they got the job done. Overall, for me, the match was a lot of fun to watch.

Mosson isn’t huge; so even though the crowd was a meh-10,000, the atmosphere was great. Everyone was in good spirits, even though it rained, got very cold and windy. Many of us left our seats to watch from covered bits; but we all stayed till the bitter end because, again, it felt from start to finish like Cameroon might punch through Canada’s back line. But they didn’t.

The last time I was at Stade de la Mosson, it was to see Zidane play for France, against Côte d’Ivoire, just after he’d announced his return to the international game. SO, that was a while ago. It’s an Aunty of a stadium.  To my eye, the stadium’s design invokes a late 1970s/1980s sense of the future. Metal, cement. The color orange. The sort of vision of the future that has always felt dated.

The stadium is much in the local news; if I understand things correctly, MHSC (Montpellier Hérault Sport Club) is pushing, with city leaders, for a new stadium. La Mosson was constructed in the 70s and essentially rebuilt for ’98; it has gotten some renovations since but not a proper, complete overhaul. A couple years ago, plans for a comprehensive revision of the stadium were abandoned in favor of building a new sports complex on the other side of the city.

The stadium is very much attached to the life of the neighborhood; this is the source of local ambivalence about moving MHSC from Mosson. The stadium is often at the center of conversations about the city’s efforts to “rehabilitate” this grossly underserved neighborhood — La Paillade.  La Paillade, historically, has been a home for recent immigrants, refugees, and the working-poor. According to a recent article describing police efforts to “take back” the neighborhood, La Paillade “is home to 21,600 people, 46% of whom are under the age of 25, 75% do not have a high school diploma, and 57% live below the poverty line.”

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The neighborhood is basically “the projects” of Montpellier, featuring regularly in local crime reports and in national discourse about dangerous neighborhood. It is characterized by tall residential tower blocks (some of which are right next to the stadium). These are being emptied, destroyed and rebuilt. The  beginning of the neighborhood’s rehabilitation/development was signaled by the installation of good tram service and its renaming in official lingo as “Mosson” — the latter makes clear the material and symbolic entanglement of the stadium to the project of improving the quality of life for people living near it. At various points, it looked like la Mosson was slated for destruction but now it seems it’s to stay — to what purpose is unclear, beyond a sense that it would continue to “provide employment for local people who need it“.

Over the past two decades Montpellier itself has seen an enormous amount of building, and gentrification. No part of the city is untouched. The story of this stadium is clearly bound up with the speculative energies that swirl all that.

This month, the city’s mayor was supposed to lay a symbolic first stone on the site of the new stadium. That event was cancelled: they’ve had to relocate the whole project because that site did not pass feasability/community impact tests. The original intention, it seems, was to locate the stadium near the new TGV station on the city’s periphery. Sounds…ok? Until you learn that this station is itself a big scandal: only 8 kilometers from the city center, this new station has no direct train/metro service to the city center! So, not only can you not get to/from the center of Montpellier easily, you also can’t connect with regional trains. An October news article describes the station as deserted.  In any case, the original site chosen to replace La Mosson was near this station and really much harder to get to on public transport. One would describe that part of the city’s periphery as a switchpoint for people who are coming from one place and going to another, but not going to Montpellier. It’s the sort of place where you put, oh, an Ikea. It’s next to the airport.

supporters-1Speaking of IKEA: the powers will now try to locate the stadium at L’Odysseum. A few miles from the original proposed sites, this place is as close to an American-style big box shopping and large venue complex as you’ve find in France. It is where you’ll find the area’s IKEA. It is, at least, well-serviced by the tram. It’s better than the dead train station idea.

In any case, the debate here rages on. The region’s center-left Green party launched a petition to keep MHSC’s stadium its original neighborhood. Local papers feature discussions on the subject. Conversations about La Mosson, furthermore, are often shaped by ideas about La Paillade.  The head of MHSC says, that one way or another, the club won’t stay in the old stadium. 

SO, one should see the petition to save La Mosson as more than a neighorhood’s nostalgic attachment to its team. It is a defense of a sense of value and quality of life centered on cultivating connections between people living and working at the margins of the 21st economy. It strikes me as a rightfully critical take on the public-private, nontransparent financing deals that are pushing these big development projects forward with nary a concern for the people who will be most impacted by them. 

I’m still trying to figure this story out. The general gist: Welcome to France!

 

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