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Three Fetes
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And this was definitely a chef who liked his food. If you can imagine a giant rugby forward fed on lard for a fortnight and then surgically implanted into Bermuda shorts and a T shirt, then you have some idea of the kind of figure that Remy cut that afternoon.

He was enormous. And wore a smile as colourful as his clothes.

"He's Basque." I heard someone say as though that explained everything.

"Ah, Basque," I said, "Euskadi."

It was my one word of Basque - picked up from a documentary - and it produced startling results.

I was grabbed.

A long lost son couldn't have received a warmer bear hug … or been enveloped further. I wasn't quite sure what Remy said, other than it was very fast, and even more unintelligible than the local patois - the words weren’t so much joined together by ‘r’s as molecularly bonded. But I assumed it went along the lines of - 'Was I Basque too? I thought they said you were English? Aren't you Bobby Charlton?'

As the meal progressed, so did the number of documents I had to sign. There were almost as many forms as there were courses. And this was just the start.

For one, I'd have to have a medical … and insurance … and, being France, an identity card, complete with picture and doctor's signature.

I began to wonder what level of team I'd signed up to play for? Had I unwittingly become a professional? Do village teams normally conduct medicals and employ chefs?

And why did Racing Club sound so familiar?

I had vague memories from the early days of European club football. Wasn't there a famous team called Racing Club back in the sixties?

Still, the season was two months away - plenty of time to get fit - and it's not as though they'd throw me into a big match untried.

Or so I thought.

Until someone mentioned the Cassagne fête - three days of celebration and a football match.

Football match?


A friendly. In three weeks time.

I put down my wedge of Camembert. I knew just how friendly a 'friendly' could be.

The friendliest of all being a match I'd seen at Culham, just outside Oxford, where I'd taken a short contract many years ago. Culham was home to the Joint European Torus project - a model of European integration, with scientists from all over the community gathered together to accelerate particles to their heart’s content.

And then someone came up with the brilliant idea to cement European relations further with a friendly game of football between the scientists and the manual staff.

And to make it fair, the manual staff would field a veteran team - no one under forty.

The big day arrived with blue skies and everyone looking forward to a pleasant lunchtime kickabout. A hundred spectators lined the pitch as the cleanest, most elegant footballer I had ever seen strode out into the middle. His kit looked brand new - ironed and pressed, it shone and dazzled - a perfect replica of the West German national kit. He was the head of the project and, as the match began, it was obvious he’d played before - he was comfortable on the ball, he passed with accuracy and strolled the park like an older, slightly overweight version of Franz Beckenbauer.

That is until he tried a run down the left wing. Never have I seen such a tackle come from such an unexpected source. The right back must have been pushing retirement; he was frail and spindly - a bit like Stanley Mathews after a bad bout of glandular fever. The German approached, smooth and silky, the ball twinkling between his feet. And then - wham - no German, no ball, no game.

I have seen hard tackles. I have seen people kicked up in the air. But this was something else. This was football as it used to be played - in the Middle Ages. When heads were used for footballs and fancy-footed foreigners were fair game once they crossed the halfway line.

The game ended immediately. Or, more accurately, as soon as the German came back out of orbit and discovered gravity the hard way. A full five seconds later, he staggered to his feet, grabbed the ball and started shouting and gesticulating. He wasn't playing any more. No one was playing any more. Ever! Sending off wasn't good enough, the match was abandoned.

He stormed back into the building, the ball clenched firmly under his arm.

I never heard what happened to the right back.

But I had a nasty feeling that in three weeks time the whole village would see exactly what happened to unfit forty year-olds who drank too much at village fetes.

I had three weeks to save my reputation - three weeks in which to get fit.