Have you ever dreamed of creating your own football club? This is the story of some football fans who went several steps further. They created an entire league. Le Ballon, the coolest amateur football league in the world.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
James: Have you ever dreamed of creating your own football club? Well, this is the story of some football fans who went several steps further. They created an entire league. And like many ambitious ideas, it all starts in a pub.
It’s 2014, in the lead up to the World Cup. For Jack Whelan and his brother their attention turned to finding a place to watch the games in Paris.
Jack: Here in Paris they don’t really have the same culture as we do for, when it comes to watching football. Like, you know, going to the pub, watching the game all together and generally just having a nice time doing that. The French don’t do it, they would rather go round to Jean Michel’s house with a six pack a watch it, sort of a little bit more quietly, little bit more reservedly. And with the World Cup coming up in 2014 my brother and I were like, right we’re not having that. We need a place to watch the football.
My brother had a bar at the time, a bar come club. So we completely changed the decor, completely turned it into a football pub and Le Ballon was born like that.
Jack: We were pretty wary of how we were gonna make it, how it was gonna be. We didn’t just wanna sort of, you know, get a big screen in, shove a football shirt on the wall and a signed photograph and say “hey, now we’re a football bar”. We really wanted to do it, you know, with an eye for the aesthetic, with an eye for the nostalgia but also, what I think English sports fans do probably better than anyone else. Which is the whole idea of doing it tongue-in-cheek, it’s never that serious for us, you know, we’re always prepared to laugh at ourselves.
We wanted to also make sure that we could have everybody in, that it wasn’t going to be exclusive, that people weren’t gonna turn up and you’d have sort of crazed football fans hurling abuse and generally making an atmosphere that was tough to be a part of unless you were one of them. We wanted it to be all inclusive. So when we did the launch party for example, we did it with Colette, the fashion store here in Paris. And we knew that if we did it with Colette, the kind of people that would go to that, sort of fashion types. We knew that would be a good place to start and they would see that watching football all together, with their friends would be a good thing to do during that summer, during the World Cup.
Added to the fact that everybody likes football, they just may not have known they wanted to go to the pub to do it. So you know, even these fashiony types that you think would never be into football, sort of artists and designers and all the rest of it, they all are and they all know the songs. And when France are playing everybody knows a few patriotic songs and all of a sudden all of these people are singing in the bar. So we ended up with the perfect atmosphere.
James: Throughout the 2014 World Cup, Le Ballon was a big success, packed with crowds every day. It also led to Jack and friends making some important connections and the founding of a sports marketing agency.
Jack: We got approached quite a few times during the World Cup by brands asking if they could do events with us, asking if we could help them with their styling, their design, their artistic direction, things like that. Because they’d seen what we’d done with the bar, they’d seen the logo we had made. They’d seen all these things we had done and they go “okay, these guys sort of get it”.
We had a meeting, probably while drunk at the pub because the best ideas are always had that way, to start an agency. And we’re like, well the Euros are just round the corner, it’s gonna be in France, everybody’s gonna be coming. You know, maybe we should do this. So we did, so the agency Nutmeg was formed.
James: And that led to their next project.
Jack: Just after the World Cup finished in 2014, you know we were thinking all English pubs have their pub team, you know, they play Sunday League football.
James: They initially pitched the idea to other bars in the area to see if they were open to playing some one off games or maybe starting a league.
Jack: And the answer was a resounding “no”.
James: So they turned to the community and connections they had built over the summer.
Jack: We got eight blokes that we thought were reliable, that we thought had a bit of influence, bit of reach and a good network, who were all slightly different in their own way. We got them together in the basement of the bar, we’d made a brief little presentation for them. And we’re like, “look, you can make your own team, your own logo, your own kit. They all said yes. It was like right, you’ve got a week to find your eleven other players, design a logo, design a kit and come back to me. Next week, in the basement of the pub everybody had a presentation of their team with logo, kit inspirations and all the rest of it, done and dusted.
James: The eight teams are made up of various artists, creatives and football lovers around Paris, and each of them with their own unique style.
Including Public House FC, taking their inspiration from pub football and terrace culture, River Dubplate, a team of DJ’s, The 300, an exclusive Facebook group of PSG supporters and Paris 75ers, a collection of artists and fashion types whose contrasting logo is the humble pigeon.
Early in the projects development, they also gained the assistance of Nike.
Jack: We had taken the idea to Nike and they had jumped on board. So Nike had agreed to kit everyone out, to a ridiculous degree, and also invest in the project. And they were very important. I mean, it’s fair to say that the league would not exist now, in the way that it does, had it not been for them.
James: Despite being an amateur league, there was a real insistence on doing things the right way, with a professional approach. Not only was presentation important but practical things too, like hiring referees and coaches and hosting regular training sessions for all teams.
Jack: We wanted to make the best amateur football league in the world. We knew that everything had to be perfect. We had to have refs, we had to have proper photographers, proper videographers that would come in and that would make everything perfect. So that the production values would match what we promised to Nike. For them it was a marketing exercise. You know, the investment that they gave, there was a give-back expected.
James: After a short turnaround, Le Ballon Football League was born.
Jack: So we had the meeting with Nike at the start of November 2014. By the middle of December we’d finalised the teams and we played the first game in the middle of January 2015. So we turned the whole thing around in a month and a half, including Christmas. Which I don’t really know how we did.
James: But perfect timing and a little luck saw everything fall into place, including a venue for their first round of matches. Through some contacts, they were invited to play at the home of French football, Clairefontaine.
James: LBFL is 7 aside football. Season 1 consisted of 7 matchdays. For Seasons 2 and 3, it was increased to 14 matchdays, making up traditional home and away fixtures. Playoffs will also be introduced for the 3rd season.
In addition to bragging rights, like any good football league, the teams are also playing for a silverware.
Jack: We found a trophy manufacturers near the [ ] here in Paris which is like an old recreation space really, old exhibition space and it’s got like a few boutique shops around it. And we found this guy, JP Le Count and went and spoke to him and you know, his shop was fascinating. There was just sort of bits of trophy all over the place. There wasn’t anything that made this guy look like he knew how to run a business, whatsoever. There was just paper everywhere, taking notes on scrap paper and then losing it. There was a dog. Just absolute chaos.
But speaking to the guy, you know, and he was saying that he makes the trophies for Roland Garros, he makes the trophies for the Giro D'italia, for the F1 season, for the Moto GP season. And then you start looking around and you see that in amongst this sort of, Aladdin’s cave of just mayhem, it’s sort of like, “oh yeah there’s a picture of me with Valentino Rossi”. And you’re just sort of like, okay this guy is actually the real deal.
And so we gave him our logo, which then, it was - the logo for the league was just the star, made up of all the stripes that we use. And we’re like, you know can you get this onto a trophy? And he was like, well, you’d have to do it by hand. There’s no machine that could do this, it’s too intricate, it’s bonkers, it would confuse it. I was like okay, so can you do it? And he said, yeah looks fine, I’ll give it a go. And we get the thing back and it’s just awesome as an object. So yeah, we’ve got a big trophy to give out at the end of the year.
James: Since its establishment, Le Ballon has continued to connect with the football community in Paris and inspired fans around the world.
Jack: Everybody in the league has invested their time, effort and energy and they all really enjoy what its become. You know, they’ve all become very good mates. Everybody from the eight teams, they all know one another very well now, which was kinda the objective.
One of the very important things is, our league, we know that it looks good. And that’s one of the reasons why we continue to use it and it continue to push it and it continues to make ground and be important for people and all over the world there are people that talk about it and enjoy it.
It’s all a bit bizarre, really. It doesn’t really feel like real life. I mean, this isn’t the only thing I do but it’s quite a lot of what I do. This shouldn’t really be a job. Yeah, I feel like I’ve lucked out, really, from a personal standpoint. I like the fact that people care about us, you know, all over the world. That people write to us from Australia, from Japan, from South America, from North America from wherever it may be. That people see what we’re doing and they’re like, “yeah, this is cool, these guys have the right idea”. So I mean, that’s a nice validation of the project to have. The people that are in the league, we know that they love it because we put on a nice experience for them once a week and they get to hang out with their mates and kick a ball around.
James: Le Ballon truly is a football league unlike any other, where the beautiful game merges with fashion, music and design.
Jack: The idea of Le Ballon was basically to show people that football is cool. And it’s not that it’s cool now. Football’s always been cool, it’s always been great, it’s always been the best thing. The designs have always been good, the fashion has always been good, the songs have always been good. It’s always influenced everything, so many things take their inspiration from football, it’s unbelievable. From fashion, to music, to art to whatever it may be.
But the thing is, is that people don’t know that. People, you know, when they think football you know, me with my English background, when people think football they think of a white van driver hurling abuse out of his window wearing an England shirt or with a Three Lions tattoo on his calf or something like that. And you know, it’s got this stigma of being chavish and aggressive and violent and all the rest of it, and uncultured an unsophisticated. And it’s just simply not true. And so what we wanted to do was prove to people that the opposite is in actual fact the case. That there is great art and music and culture that surrounds the game of football, that it is a real trend leader rather than trend follower.
James: For more information about Le Ballon Football League and to see some beautiful photography and stunning videos, check them out at leballonfc.com.
By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson and many thanks to Jack Whelan.
Support for the show comes from listeners just like you - and because of that support, By Association was voted Best Sports Podcast at the 2017 Australian Podcast Awards. To be recognised for something that I put so much time and effort into, means everything to me and gives me more motivation to keep improving.
If the show is valuable to you then please consider becoming a Patron for as little as $1 a month. You’ll get some nice rewards in return and you’ll be joining a great community of like-minded football fans. Full details on the website, byassociation.audio/support.
Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear and Broke for Free under creative commons - and By Association is presented by our parent site, 3nilfc.com, where we always love the game.