MARSEILLE, Oct 5: Some 48 nations on Friday began the fight to become world petanque champions, with Asian and African teams out to take the title in the most French of sports in its spiritual home.
The competition began on Friday at the Palais des Sports in the southern port city of Marseille, with players of all shapes, sizes and ages taking aim with hollow steel boules or balls in a frenzied succession of matches.
The world championships, first held in 1959, last until Sunday, with the sport now a far cry from its roots in the sleepy Provencal town of La Ciotat in southeast France 105 years ago, with a broad, global appeal.
Today the sport is even played in the foothills of the Himalayas, thousands of kilometres (miles) from the bustling Old Port in Marseille, with Nepal the most recent member of the International Petanque and Provencal Games Federation (FIPJP).
"French supremacy only holds good for the men. In the women´s game, they´ve been soundly beaten by Asian nations over the last decade," FIPJP president Claude Azema told AFP.
Petanque, often seen as a recreational game for the older generation, with matches a feature of rural French life at weekends, involves throwing from a circle on a flat dirt or gravel track and trying to land as close as possible to the wooden jack.
Among the most dangerous opponents for France, whose men´s triples team have won the title a staggering 26 times, are Thailand and Madagascar.
"In France, we play a lot more competitions than other teams, so we can perhaps handle the pressure better," said the head of the France team, Henri Lacroix.
Yet on the pitch, the Thai players, in pink polo shirts and beige trousers, seemed relaxed.
"In Thailand, petanque is seen as a real sport, while in France efforts are still being made to develop its image but we´ve still got work to do," added Lacroix.
Petanque was introduced to Thailand thanks to one resident who discovered it at a French high school in Vietnam but also due to the queen mother, who was taken with the game during a trip to the Swiss city of Lausanne.
"It´s been a very popular sport for more than 30 years and is played in the army for training but also in schools and universities," said Asian Petanque Confederation official Suphonnarth Lamlert.
"There are competitions every Sunday, even in Buddhist temples," she added.
"Madagascar is a very poor country. Madagascans are to petanque what Brazil is to football," added Marco Foyot, sporting director of the national team and a former top level French player.
"Over there, kids play with rewelded or non-matching balls. A set of balls costs the equivalent of three months´ salary."
On Sunday, the world will know if France has successfully defended its triples and precision throwing titles or has been dethroned by the new pretenders in the steel ball game.