Mathieu Bastareaud: Irresistible rise of France's boy from the banlieues

If France win the Grand Slam, they will owe much to their controversial star. Paul Newman speaks to Mathieu Bastareaud about his still unforgiven past, and visits the Parisian suburbs where his story began

The Stade de France this is not. Huge electricity pylons dominate the skyline around the rugby pitches and the noise from the traffic that thunders along the three dual carriageways that enclose the Parc Urbain Georges Brassens, not to mention the planes flying in and out of nearby Orly Airport, is incessant. "Sometimes you think you can't even hear your own voice," Olivier Gazon says as he leads his group of under-15s out for a training session in the warm spring sunshine.

Nothing, however, can dampen the enthusiasm of Gazon's squad. After all, if Mathieu Bastareaud, the most famous player to emerge from the training pitches of the Rugby Club Massy Essonne, can make it, why can't they? Bastareaud, a 17st human battering ram whose ferocious tackling and barnstorming runs have made him a YouTube favourite, will be aiming to break down the door to France's first Grand Slam for six years when they take on England in the national stadium on the other side of Paris tonight.

Massy calls itself a town, but in reality it is one of the myriad banlieues that stretch out for mile after mile, a face of the French capital that most visitors glimpse only from a railway carriage or a car speeding down the motorway. Massy is 10 miles south of the Eiffel Tower, but it might just as well be on another planet. There are plenty of tall buildings here, too, but nearly all are nondescript residential tower blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see.

The Parisian suburbs have been at the centre of widespread social unrest in recent years as disaffected youths, many of whose parents emigrated from Africa or the French West Indies, have vented their anger and frustration. A policeman was killed this week in Dammarie-lès-Lys, a south-eastern suburb, while the lead story in the Massy edition of Le Républicain was about a fire that swept through what it describes as the local bidonville (shanty town).

While Massy is less impoverished than plenty of other banlieues, it follows the custom of many by naming its buildings and institutions after famous Frenchmen – the Gymnase Albert Camus, Collège Blaise Pascal, Lycée Gustave Eiffel and Institut Hospitalier Jacques Cartier are all just a short walk from the rugby club – in an apparent attempt to rally this melting pot of peoples and cultures under the French tricolore.

Until now the national football team has been the most public advertisement for multi-culturalism as a succession of young men from the banlieues, including Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Lilian Thuram, have represented the country. William Gallas is another, while Bastareaud, the Arsenal defender's cousin, is being acclaimed as the first international rugby hero from the suburbs.

Serge Betsen, who played 63 times for France, grew up in Clichy, north of the river, but moved to Biarritz as a teenager. Bastareaud, 21, is a boy from the suburbs who stayed. Born to parents from Guadeloupe, he played his early rugby for nearby Créteil before moving to Massy and eventually signing for Stade Français, the 13-time national champions.

Jean-Max Calice, who brought Bastareaud to Massy, remembers the first time he saw him. "He was playing at Viry-Châtillon in a junior tournament. He was a phenomenon even at 13. In fact he was very much the player he is now. He was strong, but what struck me most was his incredible will to win. I've never trained a greater competitor.

"Mathieu has become a symbol for the banlieues. He's such a good example. He is very humble and respectful. He's gentle and has a nice sense of humour. Family and friends are very important for him. That's such a good image for rugby."

Nicolas Gestas, the general director of Massy, agrees. "He's a good lad," he says, "which is why what happened in New Zealand last year was so astonishing."

•••



French rugby folk now refer to the events of last summer simply as "l'affaire Bastareaud". The centre caused a diplomatic incident on France's tour to New Zealand when he claimed that he had suffered severe facial injuries when he was attacked in the street in Wellington.

New Zealand's prime minister apologised on the country's behalf, only for Bastareaud to admit subsequently that he had made the story up to hide his embarrassment after hurting himself in a drunken fall in his hotel room, an explanation that he has maintained, despite speculation about involvement of other players. France's prime minister in turn apologised to his New Zealand counterpart.

Bastareaud's mental scars are still evident. There were reports of a suicide attempt and he is still consulting a psychologist. A three-month ban for the player, who missed the autumn internationals but was recalled for this year's Six Nations Championship, was subsequently changed to community service. He is in the middle of 18 visits to schools, clubs and rugby academies.

For most of the last six weeks Bastareaud has been living with his international colleagues at the French federation's rugby centre at Marcoussis, a leafy suburb seven miles south of Massy. He loves the team environment – "I'm a big sentimentalist and I'll feel nostalgic about leaving my team-mates at the end of the tournament, because it's a big thing when you go through an adventure like this together," he says – though the week has not been without its challenges. Not the least of them has been answering inevitable media questions about how he has coped with being in the spotlight for such unsavoury reasons.

"Things could never be as bad as they were six months ago," Bastareaud says, his soft voice at odds with his fearsome on-field persona. "Of course there are people who stop me in the street. Given my appearance – my physique, my hair, my tattoos – I'm easily recognised. There will always be people who criticise, who'll play tricks on me because they think it's funny, but it's not. I just look at them and walk away. It hurts me less than it used to."

He adds: "The past hasn't been erased from my memory. It remains, but I'm putting it behind me."

Bastareaud has been determined not to treat his community work as a punishment. "I've been going into rugby academies, during this tournament even, talking about my life, my vision of rugby," he said. "I went into it with as much enthusiasm as possible and with the intention of giving everything, if nothing else just to show respect for the people I would be meeting. I owed it to myself to be correct with them.

"It's also been a chance to do something for myself, to share, to open myself up after a time of my life which had been difficult for me. It seemed to me that the young people I met weren't there to pass judgement on me. The experience has done me good, but it's also brought me pleasure."

The critics, however, will never be satisfied. Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, this week attacked anonymous letter-writers who questioned Bastareaud's right to play for France because he is black and does not join in the national anthem before matches. "Mathieu is proud to play for France," Lièvremont insisted.



•••



Back at Massy, Gestas affirms that sport – and rugby in particular – is playing a big part in bringing French people together. The banlieues have their problems, but the sporting facilities provided by the municipalities put their British counterparts to shame.

Out of a population of 40,000, Massy has 12,000 registered sportsmen and women across 51 different sports. The rugby club has 550 players, with juniors paying just €70 (£63) a year, in return for which they are coached, play matches and are given their playing kit. If the €70 is hard to find, help is available from the club or the town hall.

Rugby has become a big sport in the banlieues. "Football and basketball tend to be the sports of the ghetto, but we're proud that we draw players from all social classes," Gestas says. "You'll find that a lot of the football clubs are based on nationalities and races: you'll have Algerian teams, Portuguese teams, even Muslim teams. You never get that in rugby. It's not part of our culture. In our senior team last year the two props were Muslims and the hooker was a Jew.

"At the same time we draw players from many backgrounds. We did a survey of our 15 to 17-year-olds. Out of 200 players, their parents came from 27 different nationalities."

The next challenge for Massy is to keep their players into adulthood. "A lot of them give up rugby when they're 18 or 19," Gestas says. "It's not part of the everyday way of life for the whole community here in the way that rugby is in the south-west of France, but I think it's changing."

Is Bastareaud the sort of sporting idol who can help that change? "We don't have idols here," Gestas smiles. "That's not what rugby's about. But he is an example for the young people here. It's people like him who will inspire youngsters in the banlieues to play rugby."

Family affairs: My cousin Gallas

Mathieu Bastareaud remembers one particular piece of advice offered by his 32-year-old cousin, the Arsenal footballer William Gallas. "He said you should always be yourself," Bastareaud said. "When everything's going well for you and you're young, sometimes you think you're king of the world and forget who you really are. He said: 'Stay true to yourself. Remember your family and your roots'.

"When I started out especially there were things William helped me with, even if rugby and football are very different. There were things he could tell me about handling pressure and dealing with the media."

The cousins grew up in different parts of Paris and are separated by 11 years. Gallas watched Bastareaud play at Twickenham last year but they rarely meet. "We speak on the phone every now and then but it's difficult because we both lead busy lives," Bastareaud said.

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