Quidditch flew off the pages of the Harry Potter novels in 2005 and its brooms landed in France in 2010. While the sport hasn’t grown as much as in the UK or Germany, France won the European Games in 2019 and hope to hang on to the title at the championships this weekend in Ireland.
“Brooms up!” the referee shouts at a Team France practice session in the Bois de Boulogne, west of Paris, mid-June.
The slogan is one of the few reminders of the sport's links to its fictional origins in JK Rowling's blockbuster Harry Potter saga.
Some 30 million copies of the books have been sold in France and there's serious fandom around the films, but the sport now has a life of its own.
“We like to say you usually come for Harry Potter and you stay for the sport,” says 25-year old Emeline Bosc, an environmental engineer who got into Quidditch aged 13 in her home town of Toulouse and is now assistant coach with Team France.
Quidditch was developed into a real-life sport in 2005 by students at Vermont University in the US, and some 600 teams play in around 40 countries.
Here in France, the first team emerged in 2011 in Nantes and there are now 15 teams country-wide – Paris Frog, the Titans (Paris), Burning Hippogriffs (Caen), Bacchus (Bordeaux), Golden Owls (Dijon)...
They take part in national, European and international competitions.
Listen to Team France players sharing their love of quidditch in the Spotlight on France podcast
Mixed-gender, full contact
Quidditch is a full-contact mixed-gender sport. The International Quidditch Association says it prides itself on being "an inclusive and welcoming sport... regardless of your gender, age, ethnicity, or ability".
There can be no more than four people of the same gender in each seven-person team on the pitch at any one time.
Eight of Team France's 21 players are female; the average age is 25.
“What I really like is the fact no matter what gender you are, you can come and play, that gives it a great atmosphere between players,” says Bosc, adding that she now finds female-only sports a bit frustrating.
Raised in Toulouse, the home of French rugby, she relishes the physical contact.
“It’s very competitive, rough, but players of quidditch like it rough.”
Quidditch is a mixture of handball, rugby and dodgeball.
“The most interesting thing is that there are two games in one,” says Team France captain Paul Bonnet, an engineer with Airbus in Toulouse.
“When you see it first it looks like a mess because there are a lot of things happening in the field at the same time."
Coach and selector Cedric Chillan moved into quidditch after years as a semi-professional handball player.
"Five years ago or so the fun side was dominant, but now it's the sports side and because it's such a new sport there are lots of strategies to invent, and question."
Bunch of mates
Not everyone took the Harry Potter route.
“I didn't make the connection between quidditch and Potter,” says 31-year-old Sara Belferroum, whose sister, a PE teacher, introduced her to the sport eight years ago.
“I tried it out and loved it, it’s very physical, very collective. I've been playing with the Paris Frog team ever since.”
Belferroum also likes the diversity.
“I'm an accountant, we’ve got nurses, sports teachers, a gymnast, Theo’s a video gamer, Audrey’s in IT.. There’s a bit of everything, not just sporty types," she says.
"We come together as a bunch of mates who enjoy the competition side and being together.”
France's first quidditch team was launched in the sports faculty in Nantes, giving it an athletic bent from the get-go.
Following an international meeting with teams from Australia, UK, US and Canada, more teams sprouted up between 2012 and 2014 said Tess Harmand, president of the French Quidditch Federation.
But while there's palpable enthusiasm for the sport, France is struggling to get beyond 300 or so regular players and lags far behind the US, Australia, UK and Germany.
Among the explanations, Chillan highlights the fact quidditch in France is linked more to amateur clubs than university campuses so tends to be focused in big cities like Paris, Lille, Lyon and Toulouse.
And then there's the broom, in reality a one-metre long plastic stick which players have to keep between their legs.
"Contrary to the UK or US which are very avant garde in terms of welcoming new sports, France is slower to accept change," he says.
“The broom is a barrier to recruitment, it makes some people feel ill at ease, especially men.”
And yet the broom is part of quidditch’s identity.
“What I often say is that the broom is just a handicap, in handball the handicap is to take three steps, in rugby it's to throw the ball behind you, in quidditch it's the broom."
A bit more pedagogy with the younger generation is needed, he says.
“I’m 100 percent sure it’s a barrier,” says Bonnet, who is now 100 percent at ease with his own stick.
“It looks a bit ridiculous at first but then you realise how impacting it is for the game."
Developing the sport
Lack of funding is also hampering the sport's progression.
Players have to pay all their own travel expenses for matches, including coming to Paris for practice sessions.
Sponsorship would help but it's severely limited because Warner Bros, which produces the Potter films, owns the copyright for the quidditch name.
Two of the sport’s major governing bodies – US Quidditch and Major League Quidditch – said that due to the loss of sponsorship and broadcast opportunities they've decided to change the name to quadball in reference to both the number of balls and the number of positions in the real-life sport.
This week, the International Quidditch Association (IQA) said it would also change its name to quadball. It cited author JK Rowling’s “anti-trans positions” although she has always contested the transphobia accusation.
Bonnet says the name change will mean they loose some notoriety.
"But I think it’s for the better, since we want to be recognised as a real sport and people need to understand this is a real, challenging and physical sport. Having a different name would help".
In the meantime, Team France is focusing on the immediate challenge of hanging onto their title as holders of the European Games cup.
They won gold in 2019 – the last time there was a tournament.
The two-year Covid-imposed break has left its mark.
“We’re not as strong as two years ago,” admits Bonnet, “but we're improving and I think we can snatch the gold.”
Team France faces the additional, unexpected, challenge of having Australia in the competition.
“In my opinion they’re the second best team in the world after the US,” says Chillan, "so it'll be a real challenge."
One thing they can count on is team spirit.
The strongest thing about quidditch, he says, is the sense of community.
"It’s very intense during the match and outside of competition it’s really a community, with a health mentality that promotes living together and respect for one another."
Quidditch or quadball, the Harry Potter spirit lives on.