It won't be April in Paris, but June in Gif Sur Yvette will be challenge enough for a group of 10-year-old soccer players from McLean.
Fifteen players on an all-star boys team from the McLean Youth Soccer league will travel to the Paris suburb of Gif Sur Yvette to play against a similar team during an annual town fair there.
Sending a team to France is the brainchild of the McLean boys' French-born soccer coach Maurice Pairel, who, with his wife Elsa, is the proprietor of Georgetown's Chez Odette restaurant. While other soccer clubs in Northern Virginia occasionally sponsor high school-age teams to go to Europe, none could recall sending such a young group.
Pairel said that in France, people closely watch 10- and 11-year-old soccer players for signs that will distinguish a standout player. At age 14, the best players can be put into a special league that may lead to a professional soccer career.
"We are very proud of our young people," Pairel said.
Pairel, whose 25 years in the States have not erased the accent of his native land, decided that this was the year to take a group overseas "because I have a good team."
His mother and sister live in Gif Sur Yvette, a town of no more than 10,000 residents, making it a logical choice as a host town, he said.
Like most French towns, Gif Sur Yvette has an annual spring or autumn celebration called Kermesse.
In the past, the celebrations were charity fund-raisers in honor of the town's patron saint, but nowadays the fairs are civic events, although, as before, money is still sometimes raised to help out the town's schools or its elderly, Pairel said.
"They have a carnival around the stadium. In the morning they'll have a parade, and at night they generally have a big dinner for the whole town," Pairel said.
It's against the backdrop of the Kermesse that the McLean soccer team will play in a public stadium that seats about 5,000 spectators. "It's a small stadium, but very nice. The green is beautiful," said Pairel.
Gif Sur Yvette's mayor and other town dignitaries also will receive the McLean team and attend the soccer game.
During their two-week stay in France, they also will play against teams in another Paris suburb, Chevrey, and in the town of Versailles near Louis XIV's famed palace.
The boys will go sightseeing in Paris and the vicinity. The Louvre, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower will be among the stops. There will also be a boat trip down the river Seine -- but no shenanigans will be tolerated among would-be bohemians on the Left Bank.
"The coach said we can't fool around," said Tony Al-Any.
For some of the fifth graders, it will be their first trip in a plane. For others, the sons of parents working in international organizations, the journey will be a prelude to another summer spent in Malaysia or Italy. Other members of the all-star team, or their parents at least, hail from Australia, Holland, Iraq, Malawi in Africa, and Saudi Arabia.
But in France, they will all be "les Americains."
Usually Gif Sur Yvette invites soccer teams from other European countries during Kermesse. "It's the first time they've had an American team, and they're very excited," Pairel said.
Like his teammates, Matt Taylor of Potomac School in McLean is already sizing up the French competition.
"I heard they're really aggressive. We'll have to wear shin pads. If they're really charging hard they might throw in a kick or two," said Taylor, who admits that he should wear shin pads now but usually doesn't.
The team's number one goalie and cocaptain, Ali Al-Eyd of Chesterbrook Elementary in McLean, is nursing an index finger he broke in a skateboard accident. But Ali will be ready to play by the time the team leaves for France May 31.
"We have to train hard because our coach said the French are tough," Ali said.
The boys, who will be staying with families in Gif Sur Yvette, are also practicing French.
"I like to meet people. My sister takes French, and she teaches me a little. I know how to say thank you and stuff," Ali said.
Coach Pairel, with the help of a professionnal soccer player and a college player, ran the boys through a series of passing, shooting and dribbling drills and some scrimmages before selecting the best. The boys attend various schools in the area, including Chesterbrook, Lemon Road, Cooper and Franklin Sherman.
Parents of the boys will probably pay much of the cost, estimated to be $690 per player, including airfare. Pairel plans to ask area businesses for sponsorship. Pairel, whose son Eric is captain of the team, will make up the difference between what is raised and what is needed for those players who cannot afford the cost of the trip.
Aside from the cultural and athletic benefits, the boys will receive another bonanza: a week off from school.
Pairel has already cleared this with the various school principals.
"I heard that we'll have to write a report or journal," said Pierre Valentini.
Pierre heard correctly. In exchange for an early reprieve from school, when the group enters sixth grade this fall, among the first assignments awaiting them will be to write a report on how they spent their time in France.