LE MONDIAL DE MILLAU takes place annually, in the mid-August heat of the Aveyron, in France. It is the single most important gathering of the world’s top Pétanque players. In the World Championships, there are no more than a dozen national teams that could consistently defeat the best 250 teams at Millau. Unlike the Marseillaise, which is exclusively triples, Millau organizes open Singles, Doubles, and Triples championships, Women’s Singles, Doubles and Triples, and a Mixed Triples competition (at least one woman per team). It is a huge, sprawling, intense, week-long Pétanque festival that attracts a legion of fans who take their vacation to see the legendary players of the game. In the competitive Pétanque world, a Millau title is considered to be one of the three most important championships any player can win, along with the Marseillaise and the World Championship. Millau launched Philippe Quintais into superstardom, and gave women their first major showcase for their talents.
The Mondial was founded in 1982 by Damien Mas, today one of the most respected and loved individuals in the sport. As the meeting exploded into prominence in the 1990s, it drew the (crucial) financial and logistical support of the largest regional newspaper, the Midi-Libre, the city of Millau, regional governments, and the French Federation of Pétanque and Jeu Provençale. Today, an army of major sponsors support the championships, including banks, Miko Ice Cream, Volkswagen, Super-U, Société Roquefort, various hotel chains, and the usual makers of boules and Pétanque paraphernalia. The event started in 1982 as a relatively low-key “National” doubles tournament which nonetheless attracted a handful of the game’s biggest names. In 1983 and 1984, the legendary shooter from Marseille, Noël Bengler (a.k.a., Carbure), paired with Joël Steiss, dominated the field. In 1985, the victory of Michel Schatz (Passo) and René Salvador made the championship an obligatory stop on the Summer tour. In addition to the Bengler-Steiss duo, three other teams have won the Doubles title twice, always in consecutive years: Christian Fazzino and Daniel Voisin (1989, 1990); Passo and Jojo Farré (1991, 1992); and Philippe Quintais and Jean-Luc Robert (1996, 1997). Passo, one of the world’s great shooters, won his fourth Doubles, with Marco Foyot, in 1999. Passo has also lost in the Doubles finals twice (1985, 1999), and Foyot has lost it three times (1987, 1991, 1992). The only other player to have taken this title more than twice is Henri Lacroix, winning in 1995, 2002, and 2004, with different partners. Foreign players have won twice: the Belgian tandem of Claudy Weibel and Michel Van Campenhout (2001 world champions) prevailed in 2000, and Weibel won again in 2002 with Lacroix. The Mondial added Triples in 1989. The team of Passo-Foyot-Farré has won four times (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002), and Passo also won a fifth title in 1992. Quintais has won five times (1990, 1995, 1996, 2005, and 2006), the last two with Henri Lacroix and Philippe Suchaud. (The Quintais-Lacroix-Suchaud, whom the French call (in English) the “dream team,” won the 2006 French Triples Championship, as well as four World Championships, in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005). Quintais has also lost two finals (1998, 1999). Weibel and Van Campenhout, playing with different third players, won in 1993, and lost the final in 2003.
The Singles Championship first took place in 1994, when it was won by the then Gendarme of St. Tropez (now Postman of Cassis), Robert Leca. Only one player has won the Singles more than once. Philippe Quintais took it in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2003. Given the extraordinary density of top-flight players competing (not to mention the sheer numbers — more than 2,000 competitors), Quintais’ record of three consecutive championships is unlikely to be broken. Christian Fazzino, seven-time French Singles Champion, claims the next best record, having won once, while losing two finals. The Mondial de Millau has done more for women’s Pétanque than any other event. The French Federation did not organize a national women’s championship until 1977, when it created a Doubles title. Incredibly, no Singles championship exists, and the FFPJP did not deign to add a triples championship until 2003! At Millau, women’s championships were added in 1992 (Doubles), 1997 (Singles) and 2005 (Triples). Two players have totally dominated: Angélique Colombet-Papon and Florence Schopp. In the 1996-2005 decade, Papon and Schopp won, as a team, eight Doubles titles (including seven in eight years) and the first Triples championship. Papon also has taken three Singles and the 1994 Doubles titles. Women also play in the open championships. Overall, Papon leads all players with 13 championships, followed by Quintais with 12. Schopp and Passo have nine each. Quintais, Robert, and Suchaud are the only players to have won all three major open titles: Singles, Doubles, and Triples. Fazzino has come close, winning both the Singles and Doubles titles, but losing the Triples final twice.
“All of the elite players are here. It’s hot. It’s the end of the Pétanque season. We play 20 out of 24 hours a day and, when it’s over, we all look like zombies.”
— Marco Foyot
Each event is single elimination; the entry fee is 5 Euros per player; one-week licenses are available for the unlicensed; the draws are random, with set courts. Plays proceeds virtually non-stop, but for an obligatory break for dinner and fireworks. In 2006, the Singles tournament attracted 2,444 players, the Doubles 1,447 teams, and the Triples more than 1,170. There were 297 Women’s Doubles teams, and 167 Women’s triples. Prize money accumulates — players are paid ever increasing amounts from 1/512 final in Singles, the 1/64 final in Doubles, and the 1/256 finals in Triples. The total payout for the open tournaments in 2006 was 12,175 Euros, with approximately 1,500 Euros going to each winning player. Women’s events have a smaller payout, due to smaller numbers of entries.
Each evening during the competition a series of “consolation” tournaments, called Mondialitos, are also organized. The Mondialitos are high-quality and well-financed tournaments involving 128 teams; during any given evening, there may be as many as four Mondialitos underway at the same time, for those who just can’t get enough. Virtually all of the competitors have lost in the first two rounds of the major open championships. Many female teams prepare for their upcoming competitions through playing in these tournaments.
Here is the basic schedule, which has changed only slightly in recent years (to reduce the number of Singles players, the Singles begins in the morning):
Opening ceremonies, the “Masters of Pétanque,” exhibition games, invitational shooting competition, and fireworks.
|11.00am||Singles: play continues until field reduces to 16 teams.|
|4.00pm||Mondialitos — Doubles.|
|8.30-10.05pm||Dinner Break and Fireworks.|
|8.30am||Open Singles Begin: 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 de finales.|
|3.00pm||Open Triples Begin: play continues until field reduces to 16 teams.|
|4.00pm||Women’s Doubles Begin: play continues until field reduces to 16 teams.|
|6.00pm||Mondialitos — Triples.|
|8.30-10.05pm||Dinner Break and Fireworks.|
|8.30am||Triples and Women’s Doubles: 1/8 and 1/4 de finales.|
|2.00pm||Triples Semi-finals; Women’s Doubles Final.|
|3.00pm||Open Doubles Begin: play continues until field reduces to 16 teams.|
|4.00pm||Women’s Triples Begin: play continues until field reduces to 16 teams.|
|6.00pm||Mondialitos — Doubles.|
|8.30-10.05pm||Dinner Break and Fireworks.|
|9.00am||Doubles and Women’s Triples: 1/8 and 1/4 de finales.|
|10.00pm||Kid’s Championship Begins.|
|11.00pm||Open Mixed Triples Begin.|
|Evening||Kid’s and Mixed Triples Finals.|
Many players compete in all three of the major events. Those who win more than a few games will hardly get any sleep. As the schedule shows, for each major competition, games proceed until only 16 teams remain. The round of 32 (1/16 finals) — which is the critical climax of the first stage — is typically completed around 4 or 5am This year, the Quintais-Lacroix-Suchaud championship team won its last triples match of the night (morning) just after 4.30am Their 1/8 final then started less than four hours later. I made it to the 1/32 finals this year (round of 64) in Doubles, which we completed after midnight. Jean Luc Robert and Quintais have been the most sleep-deprived. In 1996, they won titles as a team in both doubles and triples (Passo and Farré did the same in 1992). Quintais won two of the three majors finals in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Amazingly, in 1999, Robert played in all three major finals: he won the Singles, but lost in the last game of the Doubles and Triples, playing with Quintais. From Saturday morning until Tuesday night, Robert got less than ten hours sleep. Needless to say, fatigue can help to determine who wins and loses in Millau.
It is usually hot in Millau in August (if cloudy and cold this year), but as the reader will now understand, many of the games occur after sundown. The Park is beautifully lit at night, like a giant bazaar or Christmas fair. After one has been eliminated, nothing can be more wonderous for the avid fan than strolling the Park, at 2am, under the lights. For 100 meters along the central corridor to the Carré, one moves from court to court, as the world’s greatest players battle on. And, unlike the NBA, it’s all free.
Millau is a small city or big town, situated a couple of hours north of Montpellier, and a couple of hours south of Clermont-Ferrand, on the recently completed A11 Autoroute, in the Department of the Aveyron. It is famous for its production of luxury leather goods — gloves, purses jackets — and for being in the heart of the Roquefort cheese empire. It sits in a kind of natural bowl surrounded by cliffs and mountains, is a favorite of balloonists and hang gliders.
The Mondial now attracts more than 15,000 boulistes and spectators, completely overwhelming the hospitality infrastructure. Every hotel room, bed and breakfast, and camping spot for miles around is usually booked months in advance. This year, all hotel rooms in the town were booked by January (I was able to find an established bed and breakfast — called chambre d’hôtes in French — just a few kilometers outside town). During the Mondial, the restaurants work at a frantic pace at meal times. There are no restaurants of any note in the area, so eating is more functional than aesthetic.
The tournament is played in the Parc de la Victoire, a pleasant oasis in the very heart of town. An army of volunteers prepares the grounds (cleaning them at 6 a.m. each morning). Stands for spectators are erected around sixteen courts, and this arena is called the Carré d’Honneur. By the third or fourth game of any competition, the Carré is reserved for great matches and for the more famous players. Beginning with the round of 16 — the 1/8 de finales — all games are played in the Carré, which can hold several thousand fans.
The volunteers also line another 400 courts in the Park. For the first couple games of the open Singles, Doubles, and Triples, this number is quite insufficient, so play spills over to lined courts in the parking lot of a nearby bowling and shopping complex. Players face at least four different kinds of surfaces, a situation that heavily favors technically skilled pointers. In the Carré, and courts immediately surround the Carré, surfaces are little more than uneven cement topped by a thin layer of small pebbles. At the entrance to the Park, the courts are a mixture of rock, cement, and hard-packed sand — a “good” point may well be one resting a full meter from the bouchon! To the east, surfaces are hard-packed clay and rocks, with lots of hills and valleys. In the center and to the west, they tend to be soft sand and rocks, giving no chance to rollers. Most of the Park slopes north to south, even in the Carré. The slope means that one points entirely differently from one frame to the next. Rollers, and players who are not able to hit a specific spot with precision and the right spin on the ball have no chance of winning more than a game or two. In any case, by the third game at the latest, only players who play competitive Pétanque regularly are likely to remain.