Toulon 2016 – France, England, Hotel loyalty cards

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The Toulon tournament is a great way to see stars of the future but has a slightly Acorn Antiques approach to overall organisation, which can make it difficult to plan trips even if you aren’t heading here from abroad. In 2014, for example, they posted two different sets of match timings for the final day which meant a lot of French people turned up midway through the 3rd place match between England and Portugal (Portugal won 1-0) looking a bit puzzled, and then had to leave the final (Brazil 5-2 France) at half-time to be able to get home before public transport stopped working.

Last year, they sensibly failed to have any visible staff in the stands for France v Morocco (3-1), which even a passing familiarity with footballing rivalries would have told you could get a bit heated, with a volley of bottles hurled at the pitch after Romain Habran’s equaliser and a robust ‘welcome’ for substitute Younès Kaabouni, the Moroccan team and older fans doing more to keep the peace than anyone wearing a tabard. This year, the teams involved weren’t confirmed until very late, and the schedule was only published two weeks before the tournament started; the ticketing approach showed the impact of this, with matches at several venues free, and the official twitter feed pushing another offer where teachers could get a carton d’invitation to bring up to ten kids to the final day.

So, for this year’s trip, I was prepared. Two days in Avignon for some mild pottering around art galleries, and eating, then a move to a hotel just over the road from the stadium to avoid the 6km walk back to town that gave me blisters in 2014. France were confirmed for the final after beating the Czech Republic in the final group game, making it four wins out of four; on Friday evening, England got through to join them ditto after a 1-0 win over Japan. This was a bit special, as having seen both teams on the final day the previous two years, this would be the first time they would face each other. I was a bit nervous about that – I missed the Czech Republic game because the Women’s Champions League final ran long and priorities, but watching les Bleuets labour against a mostly 10-man Mali had not done much for the confidence, and England seemed to be flying.

First, they beat Portugal 1-0 to get a little bit of own back for the 2014 defeat. Then, OK, Guinea weren’t much cop, but 7-1 is a scoreline that suggests a team full of confidence; when England went on to put four past Paraguay, who were challenging for the group, that seemed confirmed. A 1-0 win over Japan seemed more functional but they only needed a point. This looked a very different outfit from the one that lost 2-1 last year to the USA, mostly by dithering in attack, constantly looking for a better option with nobody prepared to pull the trigger, until the organised American defence just took the ball off them. This lot looked on. So. Nervous.

After a hard morning’s pottering on Saturday, and an unexpected sighting of Steven Fletcher in the Musee Calvet (see left), I returned to Hotel 1 for a rest to see an intriguing message on the meeting-room-organisational-flipchart-thingy that hotels now have as standard in their reception areas – Salle such-and-such : Equipe Football Republic. I suspect they ran out of room before adding Tcheque. The barman confirmed it – “ouais, mais les petits“. Anyway. No sign of the team on the Saturday evening, presumably they were all being good boys and getting an early night, but the coaching staff moved into the bar to watch the Champions League final and get into some comedy misunderstandings because both sides were working in a foreign language with the barman.

On Sunday morning, I was heading to the Petit Palais for a brisk saunter around some religious art before moving hotels, when a gaggle of extremely huge individuals in matching tracksuits ambled across my path. They took in the view, and wandered up to the balcony of the cathedral for a group photo, much to the excitement of a passing group of tourists. I continued to the art gallery – seriously, the number of pictures of the Virgin in there, and I only counted one where she’s smiling. That’s my favourite. Anyway – I haven’t had call to be in close proximity to professional footballers before (unless you count being on the same flight to London as Jamel Saihi that one time) and it’s very easy to look at the little figures moving around on a TV screen and think they’re regular-sized. Noooo. Built like tanks, the lot of them. The hotel furniture looked inadequate to hold them. I wished them good luck. They said thank you.

So I moved on to Hotel 2, with better access to the stadium, where things got even weirder. Clearly the festival has some kind of accord with a particular hotel chain, and this time the team confusing the reception staff by needing 20+ rooms all on the same credit card were wearing tracksuits emblazoned FFF. To the disgust of a second editor in two days, I did not try having a word with any of them (on Saturday, responding to Kirsten Schlewitz “right, because I speak Czech and know any of their names…”) but wished those passing me – again, of a scale not seen in regular people, particularly in a cramped hotel corridor – good luck. They said merci.

Having now adopted the Czech Republic as my team for the 3rd place match, things didn’t start well. In a near-empty stadium, the Portuguese defence was looking very solid, and their attack like it was getting its eye in. If that clicked, given the shakiness of the Czech defence early doors, it looked like it could get awkward. However, the Czech attack was putting some nice moves together, particularly Matej Pulkrab who got their goal, and strangely, the defences then swapped faces, the Czechs becoming more comfortable while the Portuguese managed some of the best (or worst, per POV) ricks I’ve seen in a while.

Goalkeeper of the tournament Joel Pereira damn near threw the ball into his own net at one point, and was forced into a (successful) Cruyff turn in his own area at another, and there were also some potentially award-winning calamity backpasses from both sides. Having been told several times by the referee to calm down, at 1-1 Czech coach Pavel Hoftych made a tactical substitution and brought on an actual giant, 6’6″ Tomas Chory, at centre forward. It didn’t come off, and in the penalty shoot-out the substitute Czech keeper Ludek Vejmola (on for the second half for Vojtech Vorel who’d taken a knock in the first half) did his job with a fine save but his team-mates were less assured, missing two. The Czech staffer sitting next to me was having complete kittens throughout, and you couldn’t blame him; his team did pretty much everything right apart from score from the spot. Eventually it was goalkeeper Pereira who plonked the ball down to score the winning penalty, and Portugal had another 3rd place medal.

And onto the final. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was sitting in the stands with family, cheerfully having pictures taken with minifans. The tournament mascot had a bit of a costume-visibility-knack moment and nearly tripped over the trophy. The Czech team, bizarrely, were now wandering around the main stand, holding sandwiches and looking confused.

It didn’t start well for France – Lewis Baker scored inside ten minutes with a chip over a stranded Escales, and they’d already had a couple of chances. Escales was lobbed again at the end of the first half by Loftus-Cheek, and even in the second half didn’t know whether to stick or twist even on the most innocuous throughball. But the French defence wasn’t doing itself any favours, and the only players visibly fighting for anything were Olivier Kemen and Jonathan Bamba – and Bamba was being very effectively shut down. He was taken off early in the second half for Lys Mousset, who livened things up immediately, as Bamba had against Mali, and Maxime D’Arpino (on for Angelo Fulgini at the restart) was also making things happen more than before, but it wasn’t enough. Abdou Diallo got one back with ten minutes to go but it was too little too late – and you get the feeling that if England thought France were any danger, they’d have pushed on more in the second half.

In another of Toulon’s little administrative quirks, France stick stubbornly to the tradition that this is an U20 tournament, and all of their squad were born in 1996. However, the rules allow for a larger age range, presumably to encourage participation from countries using it as preparation for U23 competitions like the Olympics. Only four of England’s squad were that young, and only one of them made an appearance in the final – although he (Ruben Loftus-Cheek) did win the best player award, so this isn’t a fixed guideline by any means. The average age of the England players appearing in the final was 21 years 5 months; France, just 20. Patrick Gonfalone said after the Mali game that France couldn’t stand up to the physicality of their opponents; a poor choice of words, perhaps – Mali looked faster and more committed, and covered their man disadvantage with credit, rather than just knocking people over a la Portugal. But the difference is not necessarily size, as previously noted – although John Swift versus Alois Confais was a mismatch for the ages – but experience. Of the England squad, eleven had played this tournament before, seven last year and four the year before.

Nathan Redmond was arguably England’s best player in the 3rd place match in 2014, and here he was again; conversely none of the French team had appeared in previous editions. France were outdone on multiple fronts by a team that was calm and composed, and clearly well-briefed on who to keep an eye on. England played it nicely on the deck and were quick to close down any threat; they deserved to win. But the French team should take heart that they topped the group unbeaten and managed to keep the scoreline tight – and even a glimmer of hope at the end. Sehrou Guirassy (three goals) got the second-best player award, Kemen was impressive, and there were some other good performances in the group stage.

Next year, Toulon will take place before the U21 European Championship in late June, for which qualifying will be automatic for the group-winners, rather than the previous everyone into the play-offs system that has done for les Espoirs on several recent occasions. If France get through this time, it will be interesting to see if they use Toulon as a warm-up, or keep the qualifying players (1994 or after) for the Euros, and so send another relatively inexperienced team to this tournament. Either way, it’s a great chance to see stars of the future from multiple confederations.

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