Football: Entrenched in Agincourt for battle

At Large In France
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The Independent Online
I NEEDED to forget. My first thought was of joining the French Foreign Legion. But I only wanted to forget for a day or two, not the next 20 years. So I went for a spin in the country north of Paris instead, with my friends Denis and Virginie.

And the thing about the tranquil and fertile plains of Picardie and the Pas-de-Calais, where cows graze and the corn ripens in the sun, is that they are, or have been, bloody killing fields, replete with carnage and heaps of bodies 6ft high. In a way, the so-called "Hundred Years War" is a bit of an understatement. Thousand Years War would be closer to it. Ever since the days of Asterix, the French and the English have been battling one another, in fact before they knew they were French and English. The Channel has been a convenient centre-line across which innumerable armies have travelled in either direction, sometimes even without a ticket for the match.

Our first stop was at Crecy, where Edward III and his rough band of archers and pikemen annihilated the creme de la creme of the French aristocracy back in 1346. The ancestors of Virginie's husband (or "future ex" as she calls him) apparently fought here - her full name is Virginie de Rocquigny du Fayel - but, as I pointed out to her, they must have been some of the few cowards who actually ran off instead of heroically fronting up to English steel and yew. "That would be just like him," she said. "And that is how they became aristocrats - because there was no one else left at the time."

We rolled on to Agincourt (known as Azincourt to the locals), fast forwarding to 1415, where a very similar scene was replayed, as Henry V and his "happy few, we band of brothers", accounted for approximately 10,000 men of the army of Charles VI (who stayed behind in Paris). The moral for the England team as they head towards Lens, to confront the Colombians, is that we have never lost in the north of France. For long periods, indeed, this wouldn't even have counted as an away game - this is our back yard.

Denis (a psychologist who works in Paris) suggested, as we drove from the site of one massacre to another, that "football is simply war conducted by other means". George Orwell saw things along these lines too, and thought it was therefore a terrible game that we should stop playing. Denis, in contrast, dismisses all that as mere political correctness. He fears that we may have been behaving too timidly on the field and that that single yellow card should be a "sea of red.

"You see what Ince means when he says that `the crunching tackle is better than sex' - with sexual liberation, none of these players is frustrated. Football is all to do with Thanatos [death] not Eros. The instinct for aggression - the desire for domination - is still repressed. Football is a natural outlet for it."

The gory lesson of history for Hoddle, in this part of France, would seem to be as follows: dig in, draw in the over-excitable Latin cavaliers dreaming of glorious individual exploits, soften them up with longbows - or long balls over their heads - then send in the pikemen (which our Guide Bleu describes as "insensible brutes") to finish them off. The English also made good use of the Welsh (Owen), and the Gascons (Gascoigne), who didn't like the French either. We used to train up beforehand by fighting the Scots, but it's too late for that.

We were thinking of heading on over the border to Waterloo, to round off our tour of the battlefields, but we agreed that although we won that one, the fact that the Prussians had to intervene to save Wellington from otherwise certain defeat by Napoleon, was not such a good omen. And then Germany intervened anyway.

When we stopped off at the Charles VI Bar in Agincourt to refuel, Denis and I were taken for Germans by one of the locals, who, like the French before Agincourt, had probably drunk too much. Henri was reliving the Second World War at the time and accused Virginie of being a salope for collaborating with the "Bosch", who killed his father.

We explained several times that we were not in fact Germans and the message finally sank in. "You're English! That's worse then: you kill our men - and you take our women too." He finally staggered off, trying to get Virginie to go with him, on the grounds that he was a true Frenchman. "I will never forget," he said, which was ironic, considering he couldn't remember his way home.

There may not be a lesson for Glenn Hoddle there, but I began to understand why it was that Madame Claude Delcusse's plan to put up a statue to Shakespeare in the square in front of the museum was running into a lot of entrenched local opposition.