It’s time to think about France as Mondy recalls the time him and Andy King played soccer with bulls.
And so surf fans, we turn our gaze to France. The mechanized dull perfection of the Surf Ranch now gives away to the surfing’s ultimate random generator; the Hossegor beachies. I’ve been lucky to spend many autumns in the Basque country and this time of year breeds a heady mix of anticipation and recollection. And at my age, the latter is sadly starting to dominate the former. Yet each year, there is always one story that is retold. It is the time (cue dream sequence shimmering as we cross over from the present to the past) I played soccer with bulls and, drum roll; it goes a little like this...
It had all started, as most of the more stupid chapters in my life do, with a few beers. I was in Hossegor and hanging with Andy King and his good mate Jill, who had just flown in from Dublin. We’d done the usual beers on the beach at Sunset, the highlight being not the sun melting into the Atlantic, but when Kingy stood up, walked ten metres towards the ocean in front of us and pissed directly into a 15-knot onshore. Looking back we should have taken that as an omen.
Earlier that afternoon we’d seen a rather comical poster featuring a bull in a bath advertising in French some type of bull-based entertainment that night. Ever the cultural types, we decided to go for a look as Kingy had vague memories regarding the possibility of actually running with the bulls. These potentially dangerous, heroic deeds were soon doused however by our local hosts who informed us it involved cows with plastic horns, a mere façade of the real deal. Still though, you never know to you go and after packing the beers in the backpack, the three of us set off.
After lining up, paying nine euros, we filed in and were immediately impressed by the arena. This was no kiddie ring with dwarfs riding cows. Around 2000 people sat packed on wooden grandstands around a football-sized dirt circle. There was a real sense of atmosphere and excitement. And there were bulls. Real horned fuckers who were being teased and taunted by an array of white suited matadors. The matadors would then swish the cape and more impressively, sometimes jump the beasts.
Then after about 15 minutes, the rotund compare stepped up to the mike, gibbered in French and we watched as a few local punters, all young men, started to come down from the stands, climb the metal lattice and hop in the ring. In a flash, and without a moment’s hesitation, Kingy was in there too. “Fucken great,” I thought to myself, and followed him in, kinda freaked, but not willing to fail a test of my manhood. I passed my beer and camera and phone and keys to Jill and hopped in to the ring.
Once in the ring the organisers separated the dozen of us in the ring into two teams. The organisers made a point of putting us two gringos on opposing sides. We both played to the crowd, going full Russell Crowe in Gladiator mode, drunk on beer and the attention. The locals however weren’t so animated. Instead they fidgeted nervously with an apprehensive glint in their eyes. French pussies, I thought to myself, with my usual ignorance-based confidence.
In the meantime they had bought out a soccer ball, made two goal posts at each end and placed the ball in the middle. Ah, it’s a simple game of soccer I thought, fast forwarding myself to scoring the winning goal in front of my adoring fans and getting the sweet French girl to boot.
And then they blew the whistle. I immediately set out to be first to the ball, racing the 100 metres forward to the ball with real purpose. Unfortunately this coincided with the opening of the gate through which a rather large bull entered the ring. A bull that, most probably, had spent the last half hour being jabbed in the eye and arse with a red-hot, iron poker.
Now given that in a crowd of 2000, and a group of 12 in the ring, I was the only idiot running at full pace, it is probably not so hard to predict what happens next. The taunted bull put me firmly in his sights and charged like a wounded bull, which funnily enough, is exactly what it was.
It is now a race. It is a race born of cultural ignorance fuelled by Kronenberg. Yet somehow, sometimes, fortune can favour the stupid. I reach the ball just as the bull does. I manage to arch my back, toe the ball forward and feel the beautiful sound of a 300 kilogram bull missing my internal organs by around two millimetres. One more touch, then a dribble, and I slot the ball through the posts and take in the adulation of 2000 fans, screaming, mainly I assume at the sheer dumbness of my act. Still, we are one-nil up. Kingy would later describe that moment of madness as probably one of the most excruciating of his life. He was torn between wanting to help, wanting to escape, yet stricken stationary by the sure feeling that he was about to watch, at very close quarters, a mate sacrifice himself to the gods.
Unlike me, he understood just how close I was to a horrible injury. It is not until about three minutes into the game, when my teammate, also with his eye on the ball, is mowed down by the same bull that I realise what a sickening proposition it is.
The bull was much scarier than the one above, but you get the picture.
Over the course of the game I witness four other blokes get absolutely swatted; two dragged unconscious by their ankles out of the arena. Two more bulls were put in, and you’d choose between aiming to kick the ball, or hide behind the safety of wooden ramparts that dotted the ring. Eventually, thankfully, after the scariest, maddest, most exhilarating 15 minutes of our lives the full-time bell sounded. We leave the ring, breathless, shocked, sober and charged. Jill has some footage, but none of my mad run. She says that she just froze, unable to comprehend that someone could be quite that…dumb. We retell our stories, giving our versions. We know this is a story that is going to be retold and rehung and rehashed until the day we die. We weren’t wrong.