On the 21st of February 1897 in a cafe in Paris, a football club was born. It was founded on inclusive values, which it still upholds today. This is the story of Red Star, the last romantic football club in France.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.
James: On the 21st of February 1897, in a cafe in Paris, a football club called Red Star was born. It was founded on inclusive values, not discriminating on the basis of social status or class.
David: The club have always been like this, a bit visionary, because it was based on the social mix where you could see upper class being mixed with the middle class and then also the working class sometime that were struggling and that was the beauty of the football club.
James: This David Bellion.
David: Hello, my name is David Bellion, former football player. And now I’m the Creative Director of the football club, of Red Star.
James: Red Star was established by a man named Jules Rimet - the same Jules Rimet who would go on to become President of both the French Football Federation and FIFA, and have the original World Cup trophy named in his honour.
But before all that, Rimet, along with his brother Modeste and friend Ernest Weber, founded the second oldest football club in France.
David: Jules Rimet, the creator founded the club on this kind of value. He made the club very curious, very cultivated and very open.
Wilfrid: It was founded in the 16th District, actually next to the Eiffel Tower.
James: This is Wilfrid, a life-long Red Star fan.
Wilfrid: So I mean, it was already a social club basically and they accepted working class when they were not, so it was quite strange already. And also, a club which was not called Paris.
David: When you speak about any football club or any sports club, you have the name and the city. But everybody know Red Star just as Red Star, we never really speak about a city around Red Star. We know it’s in Paris but you have that kind of mystery that is around Red Star.
James: The name is not a translation. The club was named after the Red Star Line, a famous ocean liner. And having an English name has contributed to its status as an alternative football club.
David: It’s viewed as a club that has always been respected. It’s really fascinating for the people to see that story where the club have an English name. It’s really also easy to identify, but the club have a history that is unique, even in the world.
James: During the club’s early years, Red Star faced some challenges, including a merger, moving stadiums and the impact of the first and second World Wars. But these were also some of its healthiest years.
In 1907, the club moved to Stade Bauer in Saint-Ouen.
Red Star begun playing in the early French football championship, until the establishment of the French Football Federation in 1919. The French Cup or Coupe de France was also created around this time, and Red Star enjoyed the most successful period of their existence. They became professional in 1930 and were founding members of the French Division 1, Ligue 1. Here’s Wilfrid.
Wilfrid: Even in the 30s, Red Star was very popular. Also, I mean we were one of the top club because we won five French Cup, national cup. So basically at that time, we attracted like thirty, forty thousand people.
James: World War II, specifically, is an important bookmark in Red Star’s history, with many of the clubs players involved in the French Resistance. One of them was Rino Della Negra, who’s powerful story still resonates.
Wilfrid: Rino Della Negra was a player of Red Star - never played in the first team, he just signed and I think he stayed for six months - then decided he need to go in the Resistance against the Nazi. And he was caught and executed and before he was executed he had the right to write a letter so he wrote a letter to his brother, actually. And saying that he was gonna die, obviously. But he wanted to say hello and goodbye to all the Red Star players.
James: The Second World War was also a major turning point. Red Star’s last French Cup came in 1942, but from then on they failed to achieve the same heights on the pitch, and so began years of moving up and down the football pyramid. The club’s last year in the First Division was the 1974/75 season.
Wilfrid: That all disappeared after the war and then it went downhill from there. And after, we’ve always been a club going up and down. I mean, every year basically went down from First Division to Second, back in First, back again in Second then back in Third, back in Second. I mean we are like a yo-yo, basically.
James: Red Star’s lowest point was when they slumped all the way down to the sixth division - a regional league - from 2003 to 2005. Impressively though, they managed to fight their way back up, most recently to Division 2 in 2017. Over the years they’ve changed owners countless times, had several name variations, another merger and even been on the brink of bankruptcy and liquidation. But somehow they survived and today the spirit of Red Star lives on.
James: There are many football clubs that once existed at the highest level but have since dropped to lower leagues and may never reach the same heights in today’s modern game. But what makes Red Star different is the way they embrace the past. David says experiencing a match at Bauer Stadium is like travelling back in time.
David: It is different because it always kept its authenticity, originality, kind of also romanticism, what we say, there’s kind of like beautiful nostalgia when you come to the stadium. You can see that the club is old but in a beautiful way.
The mentality of the football club, the way the staff, the players do things, we kind of do it really naturally. It’s really true, you know, it’s very raw, it’s really underground, it’s very alternative, it’s easy. And I think people that support Red Star, they have a different kind of attitude when they come to the stadium. You have like, all your sense are awake when you come to the stadium because like, you come back in time. It’s like you, you can smell history when you come to the stadium and I think that’s what make it different.
James: A big reason why the football club has endured is because of the supporters, who very much represent the heartbeat of Red Star.
David: The proper base fan, the proper ultra, the one that have always been there, keep the real culture of Red Star on the ground. You know, I think they really are, what we will call the DNA of Red Star. This generation have been keeping the story of the club in their heart and we know that they are very important for us, because that’s also what attract a lot of people to come to the club and that’s what make the history of the club. And now I’m talking about the hardcore supporters that we call the Kop, the ultra.
Wilfrid: I’ve been a fan of Red Star since 1974, so I’ve seen them in First Division.
James: Here’s Wilfrid again…
Wilfrid: My first experience of Bauer was quite incredible, basically. Cause when you’re a kid and could actually go on the ground and see the player, I fell in love straight away with the club.
When you get in you sense the history and you sense the atmosphere and the feeling that’s been there for one hundred years.
James: For Red Star fans, Bauer Stadium is central to their relationship with the club. Built in 1909, it’s seen better days. The East stand, where only a crumbling concrete terrace remains, grass and weeds grow uncontrollably.
The North end is a large, single tier stand with a roof, no different to something you’d find in England’s lower leagues, but certainly looking run down.
As for the South end, where a terrace once stood, an odd-shaped apartment building now resides, with little more than grass and shrubs between it and the field.
The main Western stand is the only one that’s usually open to the public. But while still in disrepair, it welcomes around 2000 supporters on match days. It’s the presence of the fans that breathes life back into the stadium.
Wilfrid: I think we are the only fan - I mean I’m talking as a fan now - who support more the stadium than the team, which is totally different from other club. I mean, it’s a place where you really have to come and experience it.
David: The stadium is like, really one of the hero of the whole story of Red Star. People love to go to the Bauer Stadium. And then really watch a game like you were in the 80s, you know. The vibe of the club, the aesthetic of the stadium, I think people really love that.
James: So much so, that when Red Star was relegated from Division 2 in 2017, Wilfrid says the fans were actually happy. As Bauer Stadium doesn’t meet the standards required for the league, they had to play their home games elsewhere. But relegation meant they were reunited with their true home.
Wilfrid: It was like a celebration when we went down because it meant we could get back to our stadium. Again, that makes it different from other club because the stadium is actually more important than the players, or their result anyway.
James: Red Star certainly has an old school way of going about things, and while that helps to differentiate itself, none of it feels forced. Everything they do links back to the values that Jules Rimet instilled in the club from the very beginning.
Red Star is a natural extension of its local diverse, working class community. The new politically engaged supporters bring a passionate, left wing culture, while the club itself collaborates with local creatives, from art, design and fashion.
And they place a big emphasis on connecting with young people and providing assistance for those less fortunate. Here’s David.
David: The club does a lot of work for the local communities. For example the Chairman, ten years ago founded something called the Red Star Lab. It’s a kind of program where there’s a lot of workshop for the kids. So when the kids are on holidays and they don’t really know sometimes what to do or they don’t have the money maybe, to access museum or access drawing class or music class, we have a program inside the club. That’s very, very important work and I think is one of the priorities for the club, and also something we’re happy to do.
We’re trying to help sometimes, refugees or migrants, where a lot of migrants are in difficult situation. We invite them to the club. That’s got nothing to do with publicity, communication, that’s just human speaking to other human and when we see the struggle. That for us, it doesn’t cost us anything to help them, I mean it’s just normal to do it. And at the same time we wish we could do a lot more but it bring us back to have a lot of humility because all we do is just kicking after a ball. It’s really from our heart.
James: Prior to their 2017 relegation, Red Star spent two years in Division 2, and in the 2015/16 season they missed out on promotion to the top flight by one point.
For such a historical club, it would be something truly special to see Red Star back at the highest level, and ultimately they want to be. But there’s real tension between competing at the top and being forced to abandon their roots at Bauer Stadium.
The fans rejected tentative plans to build a brand new ground and a proposal to redevelop Bauer was dismissed by the local government.
Many football clubs have arguably lost a piece of their identity by moving to modern stadiums. This is the very rational fear of Red Star fans.
For its supporters, Red Star is a way of life, embodying everything a football club should be, and Stade Bauer is at the heart of it all.
David: We have to adapt. So we know - we’re not there trying to say that we are the rebel of football. But there’s a kind of resistance spirit but in a beautiful way. Supporters would love to see Red Star back on top, but it doesn't mean that we’re going to change the DNA and change the way we build the club. This club have a very, very strong history and we’re here to keep it and respect it.
Wilfrid: You know it’s all football business now, it’s all about money. You go to a stadium now, there’s no atmosphere because people are just there to see a show. Not a football game, not the atmosphere, you just are looking at the best player in the world.
Which is fair enough you know, I mean I’ve got nothing against that, I don’t mind going to see a big game sometime. But that’s not really what you live for - well that’s not what I live for anyway. You go there for a moment of life which you can see nowhere else, you know? It’s probably the last romantic club in France.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to David Bellion and to Wilfrid. Thanks also to Sarah Elzas for production help on this episode, and a very special thank you to Jack Whelan for making this story happen.
Music featured in this episode comes from Lee Rosevear and Podington Bear under Creative Commons.
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