Marseille Boules: The World Cup France always wins

Boules in Marseille The modern boules game dates back to 1907

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The sun beats down on Marseille and the air is full of the aniseed aroma of the snot-green aperitif they favour in these parts and the clickety-clack of boule against boule. The Boules World Cup is under way.

In every park and garden, on every little square of dirt along every tree-lined boulevard, people are throwing metal balls at a wooden jack they call a piglet, whipping out tape-measures to see who is closest and rubbing their chins as they decide whether to pointer (throw for position) or tirer (try to blast their opponent's boule to oblivion).

France went no further than the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil and this has allowed the nation to turn its attention to its true national game. A game so physically undemanding you can play while smoking. For which a large belly - providing bodily steadiness - is a positive advantage.

For Yves Treard, Le Figaro newspaper leader-writer and keen bouliste, petanque, as the French call it, is the truly democratic game.

"You can be big, slim, a man or a woman, a child or a grandfather," Treard says, stubbing out a cigarette.

"Everybody can play. You can be a grandfather and you can win. That is the spirit of petanque."

The game is inclusive, he says. Indeed its very invention was about allowing a person with a disability to compete on equal terms.

Colonial export

The writer Martine Pilate has published 15 novels. Now she has written the first history of petanque. A task for which she is well qualified as her grandfather ran the cafe and boules club in La Ciotat (along the coast from Marseille) where the game was invented.

Boules in Marseille Yves Treard in action in Marseille

It was in 1907, Pilate recounts. Back then people played le longue - a form of boules that requires a three-step run-up. But former ace bouliste Jules Lenoir's rheumatism had become so bad that all he could do was sit in a chair and watch, ruefully rolling the occasional boule "like children play with marbles", she says.

That was until Pilate's grandfather had his eureka moment, suggesting they forget about the run-up and play seated. But Lenoir was a proud man. Heaving himself out of his chair he exclaimed: "Boules is a game you play standing up."

The modern game was born.

They called it pieds tanques (planted feet) which later became petanque.

The new game swept through the south of France but also abroad, carried in the ships that sailed out of La Ciotat and Marseille to France's colonies in Africa and the Orient.

Today, says Martine Pilate, 102 countries have petanquefederations.

Boules in Marseille

Boules are big in Madagascar and Tunisia. In Thailand, the soldiers play an hour each day to keep their minds sharp. They call it the Queen Mother's game because of the Thai royal's enthusiasm for petanque.

In West Africa, people often make their own boules. Children, meanwhile, play with lemons.

"Do you know why this game is so popular?" asks newspaper director Michel Montana, who founded this competition in 1962 and is still organising it today.

"Because it's easy," he grins. "You can play it anywhere. Once you've got a pair of boules you can keep them for 30 years. They never wear out. And it's a convivial game; where everyone talks to one another while they're playing. Whereas in tennis, you're lucky if the players say hello."

Not that it is always so lovey-dovey.

Death threat

It has been reported that, during the current World Cup, a three-person team from Marseille threatened to "rip the heads off" the members of a team from the north of France if the latter reported their win.

Boules in Marseille

The northerners took the warning in the spirit in which it was intended, reported their "defeat" and took the next train home.

Justice prevailed, though, as the Marseille boys lost in the next round.

"This sort of thing happens quite a lot," the organisers were reported as saying.

There is, for those who crave a more formal setting, an annual petanque world championship competition - with qualifiers and one team per country similar to the football World Cup.

But anyone can enter the Marseille competition, so 12,000 people took part in the first round this month, nearly all of them French.

Which might go some way to explaining why this is not just a World Cup the French have a good chance of winning.

Since it began in 1962, the French have won it every year without exception. With or without death threats.

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