Having arrived on holiday in Languedoc on Monday, on Tuesday tickets for this match went on general sale. With no secure internet connection acquiring tickets required a forty-five minute drive to Montpellier, to the Odysseum complex just off the A9 motorway where Montpellier Hérault SC has its’ club shop. Joining the queue outside in the blazing sun at about 12:15 we emerged from the shop clutching a pair of 35 euro tickets at about 13:45. By the time we had reached the front of the queue the only tickets left had been in the upper tiers of the stands behind each goal. We chose seats in the Tribune Petite Camargue above the Montpellier Ultras at the opposite end of the Stade de la Mosson to the Paris St Germain supporters.
Two weeks and four days later we park up in the dedicated football car park near the park and ride tram station in Mosson, or La Paillade as it is colloquially known. It costs just 2 euros to park. It’s early, not much after 3 o’clock and the game won’t kick off until 5 pm. We dawdle out of the car park towards the stadium enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I am supporting Montpellier today because like a lot of football supporters I despise clubs like Chelsea, Billericay Town and Salford City that are bankrolled by people with too much money. But also I first saw Montpellier in 2011 against PSG (they lost 0-3) and followed their results for the rest of that season, in which they ended up winning the Ligue 1 title. I like their navy blue and orange kit too and added to which Montpellier is a very attractive and exciting city. The upshot is today I am wearing a Montpellier Hérault SC t-shirt, and as we cross the car park I exchange glances with a PSG fan who is stood with two women under the shade of a tree enjoying a snack and a drink. He rolls his eyes at my T-shirt and smiles and so I decide to stop and try and talk with him. Happily neither his English nor my French are so inadequate that we can’t make ourselves understood to one another. I tell him that I really support Ipswich Town and he rolls his eyes again, although he agrees that they had a good team a long time ago; he believes that Chelsea and Liverpool are okay, but then I’d expect as much from the sort of person who supports France’s most hated club. My wife tells him her team is Portsmouth, which he doesn’t understand until she pronounces it ‘Ports-moose’. He is in his fifties, a scruffy looking bloke in a denim jacket with a beard and long hair; he and his wife and daughter live in Béziers but he is a PSG ultra; he grew up in Paris and his dad took him to watch PSG at the Parc des Princes as a boy. Having both shared our deep disappointment over Brexit (every German, Belgian and Frenchman I have spoken to seems as upset as me) and probably exhausted our respective vocabularies in each other’s language we wish one another well and my wife and I carry on towards the stadium.
There is a lot of hanging about going on because the road to the stadium is closed off. But there are a number of gazebos selling food and beer to help while away the wait. A blacked out Mercedes minivan is guided through the road block behind two police motor cycles and an army of policemen look on, some in full Kevlar riot gear, one or two with sub-machine guns, including one who looks a bit like the late John Le Mesurier. Later we learn that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the game and it is likely it was him in the Mercedes.
Eventually, having enjoyed a beer in the shade of some trees we are allowed through the barriers and approach Stade de la Mosson at about twenty to four. Unusually perhaps for a stadium that was used in the 1998 World Cup, Stade Mosson is not particularly spectacular looking; in fact it is a fairly basic cantilever roofed design, which forms an angular horseshoe around three sides of the pitch. The steel stanchions from which the roof hangs are painted in the club colours of orange and blue. It does have one striking looking stand however,
a triple decker with a massive top tier but no roof, supported on streamlined, sloping concrete legs. Bizarrely however, the top tier is closed; something to do with the club’s average attendances and its licence from the French Football Federation, which is explained on the website, but I don’t quite follow.
There is a mobile club shop out in the road and a bar run by one of the ultra groups is built into the back of a stand by the roadside. After the usual pat down we enter the stadium and entering the stand pick up one of the glossy, A5 size, 28 page and free match day programmes entitled ‘L’Echo de la Mosson’, which are left in cardboard boxes at the top of the stairs. I buy another beer (4.50 euros but this price includes a club–branded reusable plastic 500ml ‘glass’). The guy who serves me at the buvette instantly detects that I am not French but sees my Montpellier T-shirt and so I explain that I dislike PSG; not as much as he does he replies.
It’s a good view from our backless plastic seats and we watch the players warm up. The PSG players are roundly booed as they come onto the field. We watch the stands fill up and are interested by the eclectic mix of spectators. Montpellierians tend to be keener on rugby than football and the average attendance at Stade de la Mosson last season was only 12,356, although the team were mostly struggling, finishing fifteenth out of twenty in Ligue 1. It is inevitable that there are a lot of people here today who probably rarely come to Mosson; many will have been drawn by the anticipated presence of Neymar, the world’s most ludicrously expensive footballer. Fortunately for the club, the tickets sold out long before PSG announced their squad would be minus Neymar. There are many families here but also a group of four young women who seem to be dressed more for a night out rather than a football match; they perhaps want to look their best for PSG and its millionaires. A happy looking man works hard up and down the aisles and staircases selling packets of cacahuètes and crisps from a tray; I buy a packet of the locally made crisps (2 euros) which are in a plain bag which carries no branding whatsoever, very good they are too.
Before the teams come on to the field there is a display of flag waving and then with much fanfare and the playing of the Ligue 1 theme music the teams take to the field led by Monsieur Clément Turpin possibly Europe’s finest current referee.
Montpellier wear an all navy blue kit with orange names and numbers on the back; oddly but fashionably the shoulders are a different colour too, a sort of burgundy. Paris St Germain wear an all yellow kit and they remind me of Leeds United of the 1970’s, not just because of the kit but because of how obvious it is that everybody in the ground except their own supporters loathes them. Like in most countries there is much antipathy between the regions and the capital in France, but Montpellier is deep in the south of the country just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and that dislike of all things Parisian is even greater down here.
The game begins, Montpellier kicking towards the Tribune Petite Camargue, and predictably PSG don’t let go of the ball; they pass it around effortlessly and endlessly but Montpellier are not going to be a pushover, they chase and they tackle and every success is cheered wildly by the fiercely partisan home crowd. A couple of bangers are let off to our right somewhere and a fire cracker burns in the PSG goalmouth down in front of us. PSG’s Brazilian defender Marquinos is booked after just twelve minutes and the home supporters cheer like a goal has been scored; to please them that bit more PSG’s Italian hard-man Thiago Motta has a free-kick awarded against him and seems to hurt himself in the process of committing the foul.
There is a lot of football being played in this game, PSG are great to watch. There is the incredible speed and quickness of thought of Kylian Mbappé, the sheer presence of the rugged Edinson Cavani and the elegance of Adrien Rabiot with his pre-Raphaelite looks. The atmosphere is intoxicating with constant noise from both sets of ultras; the PSG fans ceaselessly waving flags and banners at the far end; a short while before half-time the PSG fans together raise their scarves aloft as English fans once did. The perpetual threat of a possible goal from PSG at any time is its own form of excitement, enhanced by the tension of 20,000 of us willing it not to happen. But as PSG go on longer without scoring, Montpellier get more into the game and come forward; there is a belief that they could grab a goal themselves which only adds to the churn of emotions, hopes and fears.
Half-time brings respite and a visit to the ‘toilette’, which is a bit dark and a little grim but there’s no queue, unlike for ‘the ladies where as is often the case there just aren’t enough cubicles. The bars are busy so I return to my seat to enjoy the scene and the warmth of this beautiful bright, late September afternoon. Looking out across the pitch it is plain to see that it isn’t in a very good condition; it is almost bare in places and if they don’t win PSG can always use that as an excuse.
As the second half begins the Tribune Minervois behind the far goal now casts a shadow over the penalty area at that end. The same pattern of play resumes with PSG dominating possession of the ball. The Montpellier defence is playing brilliantly however, and their captain, 40 year old Brazilian, Vittorino Hilton, a veteran of the 2012 title winning side is outstanding. At different times both Mbappé and Cavani look sure to score but don’t, but now Montpellier also get the opportunity to spurn chances. As much as most of us in the ground would love Montpellier to score, it is enough that PSG do not. For the impartial, if that is possible in this atmosphere, or for journalists, this game is probably not the best and indeed the following week’s France Football magazine will only give it 8 marks out of 20 in its summary of matches, although no match will get a mark higher than 14. But football matches are not just about the football. On 74 minutes the whole crowd breaks out into applause for Louis Nicollin the wealthy industrialist and former chairman of Montpellier Hérault SC who died on his 74th birthday during the summer. Nicollin was a legend in Montpellier and across France having led the club from the regional amateur leagues in the early 1970’s to Ligue 1 in the space of just eight years. Nicollin was affectionately known as ‘Loulou’ and this name adorns the team shirts this season and that plastic cup that I drank my beer from before the game. Despite the divisions between the ultras of Montpellier and PSG, Loulou succeeds in uniting them.
By now the shadow of the Tribune Minervois has lengthened to shroud the whole pitch and the four minutes of added on time are a final test, creating a terminal tension which explodes with joy and relief and pride with Monsieur Turpin’s final whistle. This has been a fantastic afternoon, a classic example of the underdog winning through, one of the very best things in football. As much as people love to hate clubs like PSG the pantomime villain has his place and if he didn’t exist he would need to be invented…as indeed he has been.