Betsen goes back to his roots to repay lifelong debt of gratitude
Academy in native Cameroon just one part of French legend's mission to use sport to heal world's pain
Published 13/02/2016 | 02:30
"And then came the bad weather." - Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Wide-eyed and wondering, a frail nine-year-old boy tugs tightly at his mother's sleeve, seeking warmth from her closeness as the wintry Parisian air sweeps through Gare du Nord.
Serge Betsen, along with his brothers and sisters, has left home to forge a new one amongst so many of the Cameroonian compatriots in suburban Clichy. He will soon feel the warmth but, for now, all he feels is icy uncertainty.
"The atmosphere was completely different to what I had experienced in Kumba," Betsen recalls 32 years later.
"The first winter was really tough. Inside, I felt really freezing and in school, I had to go to the side of the room to warm myself by the radiator. But I felt really grateful for my mother.
"She made a huge decision for me, my life and my future. She changed her life completely in order to give the best that she could for her kids. So that was amazing."
A mother's devotion would leave a searing impact on Betsen for the rest of his life. For, without her determination to seek a better one, who knows what may have become of him?
For sure, he would not have emerged as one of the finest French professionals of the new millennium, one of that holy trinity of back-rows alongside Imanol Harinordoquy and Olivier Magne, who gobbled Grand Slams for fun in a golden age for French rugby, twice being named International Player of the Year.
Or established himself as a model club professional, firstly as a three-time French champion with erstwhile giants Biarritz, latterly with Wasps.
Paris, whose wintry welcome chilled the exiled Hemingway more than half a century earlier, was at once a final destination and a stepping stone to a wonderful life.
"I didn't know the rules of rugby, I had never seen a rugby ball before," he says, recalling the day as a 12-year-old at Le Club de Clichy la Garenne when introduced to the sport that would define him.
"The coaches didn't know me and as a kid that can be frightening. My mother was working and my father wasn't there. So to have that sense of being part of a family, it created so much self-belief.
"I didn't get to question people. Why are you so gentle? It just happened. It was unconditional. And it stayed with me forever. It's true. I always try to be open-minded now. I don't ask a lot of questions. I enjoy the moment."
Betsen would repay the country the enormous debt owed by becoming a fearless warrior on the field; if you wanted somebody to get a job done and fulfil it to the last letter, Serge Betsen Tchoua was the person you asked.
And so, when he returned to his homeland more than a decade ago, the shock of discovering children actually playing rugby was almost as overwhelming as the poverty-stricken surroundings in which they were trying, dutifully, to keep the ball off the impromptu, mud-splattered excuse for a pitch.
The Serge Betsen Academy was born and with it the seeds of incalculable acts of charity that have changed the lives of so many impoverished children who, unlike Betsen, may have never had the opportunity to leave.
Never mind the opportunity to live.
"For me, I'm trying to replicate that first experience I had in Clichy," says Betsen, who is now 41 and lives in London with his wife and two children.
"We try to support access to even the most basic childcare and education. And then we have the values of rugby to add to that. It can definitely change your life. It's not about being an athlete but about being a human being.
"We meet around a rugby ball. It is about being the best for the team, and being the best you can be at playing the game. And that will help you to be the best you can be as a person.
"We didn't care about anything else when I was small. Rugby, sport, was a way of getting past judgement. Where are you from? What is your country like? Who cares? Just play. Enjoy the moment. As a kid, you are there to just have fun."
Betsen watched the horror of the Paris terror attacks from his west London home with a piercing pang in his heart. "My mother still lives near the Stade de France," says Betsen.
"It was terrible. Being here in London, so far away from what happened, it was traumatic, I had so many difficult moments. My mother doesn't live far from there so I was really concerned for her.
"It's tough but we can't pretend that nothing happened. We need to be vigilant. And as sportsmen we need to keep promoting peace, fight back by showing we love each other and show humanity. It's distressing to see so much anger but people have reacted well and that is the only defence we have.
"It is a source of sadness that sport was a target. The beauty of sport is that it is so crucial that we respect each other regardless of the fact we want the best for our own country. This is what sport is about.
"Athletes need to be the focal point, carry the defiant message out loud and share the peace. I believe that my sport needs to remain part of that and show that we continue to be friendly and give off that energy.
"When people know you and know where you are from, and then are open-minded and gentle, you have the opportunity to know people. And then you can grow as a friend. And I believe we can still build on that and rugby shows that.
"People who didn't know me or my background gave me that time. That was so important for me. I really, really try to give back from that experience: I don't mind if I don't know you but I will take the time to be with you and explain to you what I can about rugby and life.
"That's what motivates me. I really believe French people have that sense of welcoming others despite everything that has happened."
It may take a generation, or more, for that sense of solidarity to seep through, if at all. Sport can heal some of the world's pain but to ask it to even begin trying to solve the world's problems is perhaps too much.
Betsen returned to Paris last Saturday. A new beginning for the national team and, he hopes, the nation.
"The atmosphere was really good, the crowd were singing La Marseillaise and supporting the team. And the team responded on the pitch by trying to play and it was a quite amazing feeling.
"There was more security than usual and that was expected. But rugby shows a lot of respect around supporters from other countries so there was a lot of calm and quiet. It was fine.
"It was encouraging, very positive. I was really happy to see Guy Noves take the French job. He has always had a vision.
"The coaching philosophy never changed for him, he wants his players to play to the best of their ability and to play rugby. We saw that against Italy. True, sometimes they played too much but the DNA is important.
"But they need to learn quickly and solve some areas, mostly around ruck and defence. That's the beauty of test rugby, you need to find solutions immediately.
"The structure is a real issue for French rugby. I wrote a book about it. My concern is that we have the potential and talent but there needs to be unity between the Federation and Top 14.
"Sport needs to give the player the best opportunity to play and that is not happening at the moment. We have the world's best players in the world's best league but the national team needs to produce the best players in the world."
Betsen will be back in Paris today and, for once, tie down Ronan O'Gara who will be on television duty. France dominated Ireland during Betsen's time but his hunger for coursing out-halves was never sated with the Munster man.
"Even that 2006 Heineken Cup final with Biarritz, my big disappointment. . . I would chase him all over but I could never catch him. But the 2003 World Cup quarter-final was good, it was probably my best ever game for France."
He and O'Gara may even talk hurling with Betsen recently stumbling across a match involving local side St Gabriel's and was mightily impressed.
"Hurling is magnificent, so fast," he enthuses. He laughs when you tell him there's a hurling club in Buenos Aires. "Sport always brings you home to yourself." He knows more than most.
"When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest."
Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.