Somewhere at the Stade Bauer, they have a painting by Jules Rimet.
No one is really sure where they are right now. Home to third division club Red Star in northern Paris, the stadium is undergoing a near-complete rebuild and the grandstand where the box used to be was recently torn down. The storage of items during the process is a bit chaotic.
It feels appropriate to visit Red Star, the ‘other’ club in Paris, on the way to the latest issue of Rimet’s other great invention.
Rimet was one of the founders of the Red Star back in 1897, some 73 years before Paris Saint-Germain, the club that currently sucks all the football oxygen from the French capital. He and some like-minded contemporaries met in a cafe to found a club that would “work the body and feed the mind”.
He would later become president of the French Football Federation before becoming president of the relatively new fifa in 1921.
It was there that the second of his great ideas arose, a world soccer tournament designed to pit the best international teams against each other; a worldwide jamboree that would theoretically represent the best of the game and conform, on a larger scale, to similar ideals to Red Star.
More than a century later, it’s both fascinating and jarring to see how divergent their two visions are.
In Qatar, the 22nd edition of the World Cup it’s an inflated version of what I initially intended. Stained by corruption, built by laborers held in a state of what some consider slaverymoney driven.
In Saint-Ouen, a suburb north of downtown Paris, Red Star, officially Red Star FC and not, crucially, Red Star Paris, has stayed a little closer to Rimet’s ideals. They are a genuine community club, one that has not achieved great amounts of success by traditional measures of trophies and medals. However, it could be argued that they have achieved a different kind of success.
“Our ambition is to never change”, David Bellion, former manchester united gamer and now creative director of Red Star, said earlier this year. “We want to be where nobody waits for us.”
They know that they will never compete with psg, so instead they see themselves as the anti-PSG. It is an example of football counterprogramming. As one club employee said: “PSG is the blockbuster. Red Star is the arthouse film”.
Rimet’s wish, some 125 years ago, was to have a football club that would welcome everyone, from every imaginable background, rich or poor. He was one of the first examples of someone who recognized the power of the game and how it could be more than just 22 people kicking a ball around. He wanted to create a connection between football and culture, which he considered vectors of integration.
It was theoretically apolitical, but by definition it was based on socialist values. Though it’s worth noting that the name ‘Red Star’ wasn’t necessarily chosen for leftist reasons. No one really knows, but the most common theory is that the name comes from Red Star Line, the company that operated the ships used by Miss Jenny, the Rimet family’s English governess.
The latest way the club has tried to stick to Rimet’s ideals is the Red Star Lab, a project designed to expose the young players in its youth system to as many cultural experiences as possible. It’s adding education to their athletic training, an attempt to create more well-rounded human beings, rather than just a football factory. From the club they say that the idea is to “promote access to culture, which is central to allowing equal opportunities.” Since its launch in 2008, more than 800 children have benefited from the project.
They have made documentaries, taken photography courses, worked with architects, filmed street dances, and made their own T-shirts.
We hear a lot about the banlieues of Paris, the working-class suburbs that over the past two decades have produced an extraordinary number of top-tier players, but obviously, not everyone who tries to play the game will be kylian mbappe. Most won’t make it, but Red Star aims to prepare those who don’t to the best of their ability for a life outside of football.
In one of the rooms of his new training center/office building, there are about a dozen photographs of young Red Stars at various cultural venues in Paris, including the Theater des Varietes and the Opera Bastille. The series of photos took almost a year to put together, but they represent exactly what Red Star is trying to do. They’re also extremely wholesome, a selection of images that make you feel warm and fuzzy, like someone is doing some good in a basically bad world.
Red Star’s current jersey sponsors also fit in with all of this. Emblazoned on their green T-shirts is the ‘Linked out’ logo, a response to LinkedIn’s relentless careerism and pseudo-motivational slogans. The theory behind LinkedOut is to help people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, to connect those “deprived of any professional contact, often stigmatized and excluded from society at large” with employment opportunities. Candidates are matched with volunteers who help them find jobs. Again: healthy.
This year they took a group of young people to London to commemorate their first game at the Stade Bauer, which was against Westminster FC in 1909. They were all given cameras, the results of which will form another art project. They also went to a crystal Palace match, where Patrick Vieira welcomed them and gave them the Palace shirts.
It’s worth clarifying that Red Star is not the purest, purest, most incontrovertible example of the soccer ideal. It’s part of a larger global soccer group, for starters: they’re now owned by 777, an investment group that also owns Standard Liege, Vasco de Gama, Genoa and Melbourne Victory.
His fans, to say the least, were not happy about that: a game against FC Sete last season was called off after half an hour due to protests from the stands, which resulted in smoke bombs being thrown onto the pitch. . A sign was displayed reading “777: not welcome”.
In recent years, a section of his ultras boycotted the club after they temporarily moved from the Stade Bauer. Those fans have also opposed a partnership with Vice, the lifestyle magazine and website.
That association, combined with a strong sense of his own aesthetic, plus a constant stream of brand and business employees roaming the athletic as we are shown around the stadium, it could easily lead to the conclusion that the club is trying to promote itself as some kind of pseudo-lifestyle brand with a football team attached.
It’s hard to say, since the man died in 1956, but we suspect he wasn’t part of Rimet’s vision either.
But what remains of that initial idea is a sense of community. At one end of the Stade Bauer is an apartment block that looks out directly onto the pitch and at the moment, thanks to refurbishment work, there isn’t much between these apartments and where the players do their thing. An old woman looks out of a window. That’s Sylvie: she watches every game from her position and offers caustic “feedback” on Red Star’s performances.
It feels like another metaphor for how Red Star has retained something the World Cup lost a long time ago: a sense of immediate responsibility. If you or I oppose anything FIFA does with the Rimet tournament, good luck getting Gianni Infantino to listen. When Sylvie yells at the Red Star players, they can hear every word.
Ultimately, it might be a bit futile to compare a world soccer competition to a third-tier French club. Of course, they are going to be wildly different, things develop over the years at different rates.
But it is worth remembering, as we watch the excesses of events in Doha, that perhaps things did not have to be this way. Jules Rimet’s two big ideas were once rooted in the same thing, but now they inhabit different universes.
(Top photo: Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images)