EACH JULY, MARSEILLE hosts the largest and, for many, the most prestigious Pétanque tournament in the world. In 2007, 4,224 teams (12,672 players), registered for the five-day event; the record; in 2008, 12,972 players (4,324 triplets) registered – the new record. Competition is intense: the tournament proceeds on a single elimination basis – you lose once, you’re out – and the stakes are high. A player that wins the championship, just once, claims bragging rights for life, in the cradle of the sport.
The Marseillaise is one of the three “world” championships of Pétanque, along with the Mondial de Millau and the International Federation’s World Championship of Nations. Founded by Ricard-Pastis, the tournament takes its name from its other principal sponsor, the daily newspaper, La Marseillaise. In 1962, the inaugural edition of the event, 1,164 players competed. The Marseillaise has been the world’s largest boules competition, with the richest purse, ever since. In 2008, players from more than 25 countries competed. The best showing by a foreigner was recorded by Alessandro Napolitano, an Italian playing with a tandem from Nice, whose father was twice World Champion for Italy. No other foreigner has made it past the 1/16 final (the 8th or 9th game), which I did in 2007 and 2008, playing with partners from Marseille.
In 45 years of competition, there have been fewer than 100 winners of the Marseillaise. Until 2002, it was generally assumed that Albert Pisapia’s record seven victories (1964, 1966, 1971, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1990) would never be broken (Pisapia is alive, but retired from active play). The tournament is, after all, far more grueling now than it was in previous decades, and there are more teams who have a legitimate shot at winning. After taking his victory in 2002 (see below), Marco Foyot has a chance to equal Pisapia’s mark, having also won in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1983, 1984. The late Jean Kokoyan also won six championships (1968, 1972, 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984). Other notable multiple winners include the legendary Charlie de Géménos (Charles Simon 1965, 1966, 1969, 1977) and René Lucchesi (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984). In 2003, Simon could still be found actively supervising local competitions in the village of Géménos (between Cassis and Aix-en-Provence), and the octogenarian Lucchesi still plays at a world-class level (he captained a team to second place in the French national triples in 2000).
The Marseillaise begins on the first Sunday of July. An enormous logistical challenge, the tournament is nonetheless impeccably organized. Players check in at tournament headquarters, located in the Parc Borély, for their draws (by computer), at 8.00 a.m. First-day matches take place in more than twenty-five different locations throughout the city, including the Parc Borély, other city parks, cinder-covered soccer fields, and parking lots. Surfaces range from the hardest concrete pavement to a loamy beach sand. Each of the more than 2,000 courts is lined, per regulations. Free special buses continuously circle the city, taking players from one set of courts to another. The first round begins at 9.45; adversaries who do not appear by 10.45 are declared forfeit. Only one game is completed before lunch, and those who survive will play two more on Sunday. By the end of the first day, more than 12,000 players were eliminated in 2007 and 2008. A team typically must win twelve consecutive games to win the championship; all matches are played on designated courts.
On the second, third, and fourth days, games are played in the Parc Borély. The park is beautifully situated, right on the Mediterranean Sea. The Mondial is free to the public, and people come in droves to watch Pétanque, picnic, listen to live music, and lounge on the grass in the sun. The Park is partly bordered by rocky cliffs, has good shade, and contains canals and lakes (into which losing players have been known to fling their boules). By the end of day three, all games are played on courts equipped with stands for the fans, a referee, and a looming security guard. In contrast to most other major tournaments, games are played separately from one another, in different parts of the park (rather than on a single set of adjacent courts, simultaneously, before a single audience). Spectators choose which match to attend. On the third and fourth days, prestigious championships reserved for women’s and children’s mixed triples begin (hundreds of women and children play in the main event as well).
The Marseillaise is physically and mentally taxing for players. It is not easy to describe how hard competing here becomes after the third or fourth rounds. By the fifth round, virtually all games are played in the blazing sun, on hard white concrete lightly sprinkled with white rocks – the surface reflects the light and heat. There is often no shade. It is typically very hot. The crowd can be boisterous, trash talking abounds, and the atmosphere feels vaguely threatening. Shooters, in particular, can have a tough time staying concentrated and on top of their game, and on pavement they have to hit the ball au fer.
The semi-finals and the finals are contested on the Old Port, on clay courts specially constructed and mounted right in front of the Hotel de Ville. The semi-finals are staged, one after the other, during the day (usually 10.00 and 14.30), and the various finals (men’s, women’s, children’s) are scheduled to begin about 17.00. There is seating in the stands for more than 5,000 spectators. Attendance is free to all. Seats can be had easily for the semi-finals during the day, but are impossible to find by the early evening. A huge screen broadcasts the event outside the stands for those who arrive late.
The national arm of France 3 Television broadcasts daily from the tournament (I have been a guest commentator several times), and the final is broadcast live or with a slight delay.
La Marseillaise is an “open” world championship: it is open to players without respect to age or gender (those without licenses receive special one-week permits). It is not sponsored by any national federation and is, therefore, a “concours sauvage.” The entry fee is 5 Euros per player. Every registered player receives a cap, a t-shirt, a bouchon, and each team gets a backpack. Losers of the first round game win a flasque of Ricard; the prizes, money and/or the size of the bottle of pastsis, grow in value each round. The winning team earns more than 3,000 Euros and assorted prizes. Special awards are also given to various categories of teams that go the furthest in the competition, including all-female, mixed (at least one female), under-18, same-club, and oldest. In addition, prizes are given for best pointer and shooter in the final. (The FPUSA might consider introducing such awards, as they would enhance its efforts to encourage participation and excellence in American tournaments.)