A bit after 5 o’clock on another sunny, early autumn afternoon in Ile de France and my wife Paulene and I arrive at Meudon Val Fleury station to find that the suburban RER train service is suspended for at least two hours because someone has unfortunately been hit by a train at Champ de Mars station. The Paris St Germain versus Red Star Belgrade match in Group C of the European Champions League kicks-off at six fifty-five, which is a bit of an odd hour, and it means that a different mode of transport will be required to get to the game on time. Seasoned travellers that we are, we don’t panic, but stroll round to the front of the station and across the forecourt to the bus stop where a No 289 bus is conveniently just drawing up. In just twenty minutes this bus will take us to Porte de St Cloud, which is more or less just over the road from Parc des Princes. Our carbon footprint will be bigger courtesy of the Iveco diesel engine, but what can you do? We board the bus and validate our tickets (1.49 euros each if bought as a carnet of ten).
It’s a fun ride through the streets of western Paris and we have a driver who likes to use his horn; at one stage he leans out of his cab window to converse with the driver of a Peugeot who has pulled across in front of him. With car drivers cowering, the bus pulls onto the cobbled surface of the Porte de St Cloud bus station and, along with a handful of blokes sporting various Paris St Germain branded attire, we alight and make the short walk to Parc des Princes. Our tickets tonight (48 euros each) are in the Paris tribune, the stand which has its back to the centre of Paris. It is a dramatic approach to the stadium as we cross a bridge over the périphérique, Paris’s inner ring road, which actually passes underneath the corner of the Paris tribune. Of all those ‘you can see the stadium from here’ moments that you get on car and rail journeys, this has to be the best. We walk past the PSG supporters’ shop (most definitely not the official club shop) with its delightful “Fuck Marseille” scarves. It’s not much past six o’clock and it’s still light, and the concrete ‘fins’ that define the silhouette of the stadium look fantastic; Parc des Princes may be over forty years old but it’s a marvellous sight, a far more exciting looking building than any stadium in Britain.
Security arrangements mean some queuing to get in, with everybody patted down bypeople wearing what look like knitted gloves; it’s a matter of luck how quick or thorough your ‘patter’ is. My ‘patter’ is slow and thorough; Paulene’s patter may be no quicker, but as she only has to deal with women in a crowd of mostly men the queue to be patted down is shorter. This means that by the time I get to the turnstile itself, Paulene is already in the stadium. We have tickets that were sent by e-mail to Paulene and she then sent my ticket to my mobile phone, so ‘all’ I should have to do is pass the black and white patterned thingy in the e-mail beneath the electronic reader at the turnstile. But the reader doesn’t like what I place under it; it seems it needs to read the original rather than the one Paulene forwarded to me. It takes a steward to explain this to me of course and I send two desperate texts to Paulene: “I can’t get in”, “Come to the turnstiles” I plead. As my wife and carer, Paulene immediately understands and answers my call; the reader reads the ticket from her phone and I get inside the stadium. Technology and I are sworn enemies, but everything has worked out fine, until the next time.
Out of gratitude and because she asked me to I treat Paulene to a bottle of Coca Cola (2.50 euros), but I decide to go thirsty because I object to buying a bottle of drink from which the cap is confiscated. I am a 58 year old adult and can be trusted with a plastic bottle top, so “shove your Coca-Cola and other topless bottled drinks where the sun doesn’t shine” is my message to PSG. I later buy a coffee (2 euros) to keep me alert against other possible infringements of my human rights. The spirit of Mai ’68 lives on.
PSG has e-mailed Paulene earlier in the day to warn that trouble was a possibility at tonight’s game from followers of Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda in Serbian), who might have dodged any efforts to segregate supporters. It seems like an admission that PSG have failed to properly control ticket sales and they also advise away supporters not to wear club colours, which surely increases the possibility for trouble by making them impossible to spot. We had heard lots of Balkan voices as we approached the stadium, but there was no sign of any antagonism between French and Serbs. Inside the stadium we find ourselves sat behind a row of blokes in their thirties or early forties who are clearly Belgrade supporters but they seem a bit like the sort of ‘youngish professionals’ you might find at a rugby match in England or in the Greyhound pub in Ipswich; two of them wear Mercedes Benz lanyards which suggests they may have wangled a trip to Paris on the back of the current motor show at Porte de Versaille.
Our seats are close to the front of the stand and in a corner, close to where the Paris tribune ends and the Boulogne tribune begins. A wedge of Belgrade supporters are nearby to our left, behind a large net which hangs from the roof of the stadium, and a moat. More Serbians fill a batch of seats in the upper tier of the stadium, away to our right. The Auteuil end of the stadium where the bulk of the Paris Ultras are usually accommodated is completely empty tonight, presumably a sanction by UEFA for some previous transgression by the Ultras, probably the use of flares. The noise level is reduced as a result, but there is still a decent atmosphere inside the ground, but then there are still over 39,000 people here.
Pre-match entertainment includes the players’ warm-ups to a soundtrack of tunes from the ‘legendary’ Charles Aznavour, who sadly died earlier this week and some serious watering of the pitch, which reminds me of the spectacular fountains at the gardens of the palace of Versaille. I am a little surprised that PSG haven’t considered choreographing the sprinklers to a musical accompaniment. At last the overblown Champions League anthem, that rip-off of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’, strikes up and the teams line up on the pitch whilst some young people stand in a circle and shake a big circular thing; it looks to me like they are shaking the crumbs off a massive table cloth, possibly one used by UEFA officials in some lavish pre-match banquet; the comparisons with Versaille continue. Tonight PSG are wearing an all-black strip, whilst Red Star Belgrade wear red and white, looking like Stoke City from the front and Fleetwood Town from the back.
The game begins with PSG having first go with the ball and aiming in the direction of the banks of empty seats at the Auteuil end of the ground; Belgrade shoot towards the Boulogne-Billancourt end. Predictably, the first free-kick of the game, and the second, is awarded for a foul on Neymar. Backed by chants of “Red Star, Red Star” the Serbians have the first shot on goal however, as a poor header from Presnel Kimpembe is half-volleyed into the beautiful blue evening sky by Goran Causic. Belgrade look keen but translate this into committing lots of fouls. The likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria are a bit too quick for them. The Belgrade number thirty-one El Fardou Ben from the Comoro Islands is very chunky, a sort of scaled down Ade Akinbayi. To begin with he looks like he might be a handful for the PSG defence, but he’s not and in the pantheon of chunky players is probably no better than former Ipswich Town superstar Martyn Waghorn.
Having weathered the early Red Star enthusiasm, Paris St Germain settle down into totally dominating possession, as is their habit. With twenty-minutes gone a free-kick is granted to PSG in a position from which it is almost inevitable Neymar will score, and he does. Two minutes later he performs a brilliant high-speed one-two with Kylian Mbappe and scores again. Mbappe is set up by Neymar but the Belgrade goal keeper Milan Borjan saves at his near post and then saves a header from Edinson Cavani. Marco Verratti is magnificent in midfield, winning the ball back almost instantly every time a move breaks down. Edinson Cavani scores the third goal just after half-past seven before a Thomas Meunier cross, or possibly even a pass, is delicately flicked in by Angel Di Maria four minutes before half-time. Paris St Germain are magnificent and I’ve seldom if ever seen the like of it before.
At half-time we feel we need a rest, not just because our collective breaths have been taken away by the sumptuous football, but also because the Serbian blokes in front of us have been stood up throughout the first-half and we need a bit of a sit-down. Whilst they go off to pay 7 euros for non-alcoholic beer in PSG branded plastic cups we can rest in relative comfort and gaze upon the green of the pitch without having to look over their neatly cut heads of hair.
The second half is soon underway however, and the Serbians return looking suspiciously at their beers. Paulene now stands by a free seat further back across the gangway because the Serbs have played musical chairs and a tall one and a shorter one have swapped places so her view is obstructed. The second-half proves even more exciting as Mbappe attacks down the left and we get to witness his remarkable speed at close quarters from which he looks even faster. But the PSG forwards and attacking midfield are so free, interchangeable and flowing that anyone can pop-up anywhere. Mbappe pops up regularly but misses every time and by the time he does score Belgrade have even had a couple of shots on target of their own. In the far corner of the ground some Paris Ultras have begun to wave banners, one says Paris, whilst a second is clearly aimed at winding up the Serbs and reads ‘Kosovo’, a part of the country that has declared independence from Serbia; although Serbia recognises the government it sees Kosovo as its own province.
Belgrade’s Filip Stojkovic is the first player to be booked by Portuguese referee Artur Dias Soares, when he tugs at Neymar’s shirt; Stojkovic just couldn’t wait until the end of the match to claim his souvenir. Mbappe’s eventual goal is scored two minutes later with 70 minutes played, it’s a relative tap-in from a bamboozling passing move instigated by Neymar that should have resulted in a goal sooner, but previous shots were blocked. The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for the fifth goal to be scored, but any sense of shock is eclipsed four minutes later as Milan Miran scores with a fine shot for Belgrade. The Serbian fans are ecstatic and make the most of their only opportunity to celebrate this evening, which is a lesson to all football supporters of losing teams, Ipswich Town fans please take note. But not to be outdone the Paris Ultras also light four or five flares on the opposite side of the ground where the flags were, for which the club will no doubt be punished in some way by UEFA.
A man in a dark suit appears from the back of the stand to ask everyone to sit down as people behind can’t see. He has some success but it’s a bit late for this now and within ten minutes everyone is stood up again anyway. But we see the last ten minutes with an unobstructed view because the Serbs in front can’t take any more and leave. All that remains is for Neymar to complete his hat-trick with a second perfect free-kick over the defensive wall into the top left hand corner of Milan Borjan’s goal.
This has been the fourth time I have seen PSG at Parc des Princes and I can’t but help feeling a little disconnected from these matches, because PSG are the French version of Manchester United or Bayern Munich, and are the club who everyone except their own supporters loathes. I can’t help disliking them too because their un-earned wealth distorts and compromises the French league and Cup competitions. But I have to admit that tonight PSG have played brilliantly and produced possibly the best football I have ever seen, better even than Ipswich Town’s during the 1980-81 season. English commentators will no doubt debunk the win by saying that Red Star Belgrade are a weak side, but the brilliance of Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Rabiot, Di Maria, Meunier and Verratti just cannot be denied. This has been a fantastic evening’s football.