It has been a warm, sunny day in Paris beneath a clear blue sky. I have spent the afternoon in St Ouen, now a northern suburb of the city, but a town in its own right.
I have visited Stade Bauer, the home of France’s second oldest football club Red Star, founded by no one less than Jules Rimet, in 1897. Sadly Red Star are not permitted to play there this season because it does not meet the standards of Ligue 2, and I am not surprised, it is quite alarmingly dilapidated and I am sure many people would consider it to be an absolute ‘dump’. But it has character, albeit the sort of character that means only one stand can be used and the long terrace at the site of the ground is a virtual ruin. Nevertheless, this club is clearly at the heart of its local community and whilst I was there children’s games and coaching sessions were taking place on the synthetic pitch and on the pitch behind the ground.
In total contrast to Stade Bauer and Red Star FC, tonight I shall be at Parc des Princes to see Paris St Germain (PSG) play Stade de Reims; Reims by the way is pronounced “Rance”, not “Reems” or “Reem” and as you say “Rance” go to put your tongue behind your top front teeth to make the “n” sound, but then don’t; you will hopefully end up with a satisfying nasally growl; one example of why French is such a beautiful language. BT Sport television commentators would do well to pay particular attention to the above.
The journey from Meudon Val Fleury , where my wife Paulene and I are staying, to Issy Val de Seine is a short one; just two stops on the RER suburban railway (1.95 euros each, each way). We sit at the back of the lower deck of the train, recreating the feel of ‘sitting up the back’ on the bus to school, although Paulene actually walked to school from her house. From Issy Val de Seine train station it is a 20 minute walk or so to the Parc des Princes, crossing the river Seine over the Pont d’Issy des Molineaux with its view of the Eiffel Tower and then through back streets. The walk to the ground is not like the one to Portman Road that I am used to. There are no tantalising glimpses of floodlights and no smell of frying onions and nasty looking processed meat products. Parc des Princes, as large as it is, is not visible from far away; it squats or perhaps nestles amongst the expensive apartment blocks, offices and hotels of Boulogne-Billancourt.
Nearing Parc de Princes security is conspicuous with ‘road blocks’ to check tickets and direct us along specific streets according to which tribune (stand) one’s seat is located. The red team bus of Stade de Reims is guarded by a cordon of police in Kevlar armour. The stadium is on our right across a park and all that is visible as we approach are the concrete ‘fins’ that cantilever the roof and make the stadium look like a huge decorated concrete pie which has slumped in the middle. Being France it is entirely possible that the design was inspired by a large pastry or fruit tartelette. Despite now being forty-five years old the stadium is still an impressive one and I am with its architect Roger Taillebert in believing that it should not be expanded in size; the integrity of the original design should be preserved.
After a visit to the club shop (boutique) in which I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks of soft toy renditions of Neymar (reduced to 16.90 euros from 24.90) and the 3D model of Parc des Princes (29.90 euros), we enter the stadium itself. Unlike on the previous two occasions when we had been to Parc des Princes, and at the French Cup Final in the Stade de France, we do not need to show our passports. I am patted down and wished ”Bon match” by a man who looks as if the job is getting him hot and bothered and as I move on, he wipes his brow. Our seats (28 euros each) are in the lower tier to the right of the goal in the corner between the Auteuil and Borelli Tribunes; it’s a pretty good view but the electronic advert boards at pitchside mean we can’t see the near goal line and the guy ropes attached to advertising banners for Nike hanging from the roof of the stand annoy me. These things are sadly symptomatic of the sort of modern football club that is forever maximising its income and consequently forgets that its raison d’etre is so that people can watch live football in its stadium; without supporters in the stadium what is the point? Worse still, PSG does not produce a programme, free or otherwise, which sets it apart from most top French clubs and even the two Paris clubs in Ligue 2, Red Star and Paris FC; shame on PSG.
As the teams line up the public address announcer calls out the first names of each of the PSG players and the crowd call out their surnames in response. It’s a bit like the versicles and responses in an Anglican church service, but more shouty and not so boringly pious. They do this for every player including the substitutes until the announcer reaches the name of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, when after calling out “Eric” the rejoinder from the supporters is somewhat mumbled and muted. Eric needs to get himself a snappier surname if he’s going to be a success.
The teams line up before the usual banners showing the club crests and that of Ligue 1 and its sponsor Conforama, a large, national furniture retailer. The crowd behind the goal to our left is in full voice backed by two drummers who are at the front of the stand. “P-S-G, Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez; Allez, Allez, Allez!” they sing, to the tune of Yellow Submarine. These are the Ultras, of which there are several groups; they wave huge flags, one of which has been given a ragged appearance as if to channel the spirit of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions or the Paris Commune. With its seething mass of humanity it’s a scene Eugene Delacroix might have painted, had he not died in 1863.
The game begins with PSG kicking off and playing towards me, Paulene and the Ultras and in the rough direction of the Arc de Triomphe. PSG are wearing their kit of all navy blue with a fuzzy bib of red down the front of the shirt, whilst Reims are in their traditional kit of red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts and red socks. It might be said that Stade de Reims look a bit like Arsenal, but unlike the Gunners they have played in two European Cup finals. Stade de Reims are historically one of France’s greatest clubs with a rich history of Cup and League titles, which is perhaps why the fans of nouveau riche PSG boo them so unsportingly. Tonight, Reims are kicking in the direction of Meudon and the house where we are staying, and within two minutes they score as the Argentinian Pablo Chavarria charges down the left wing and pulls the ball back to Xavier Chavalerin who in one precise movement places the ball low beyond the outstretched figure of Gianluigi Buffon and just inside the far post. It is Reims’ first goal in four games. The Ultras carry on as if nothing has happened and in my head I punch the air and whisper Allez Reims.
Predictably PSG don’t waste time in going for an equaliser. Within seconds of the re-start Thomas Draxler’s 20 metre shot is saved by Reims goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and soon afterwards Edinson Cavani turns on a loose ball and strides forward of the nearest Reims player before producing the most spectacular and magnificent chip from outside the penalty area, which sails over Mendy’s head and into the far corner of the goal. It is a thing of beauty and a worthy equaliser.
PSG now dominate producing nothing less than an exhibition of mesmerising passing and running, but Reims are keen to attack on the break clearly realising that if they don’t score, PSG will. Edinson Cavani is a fabulous sight, with his long, dark hair flowing behind him he could be a central character from the French 1960’s children’s TV series known in Britain as The Flashing Blade (Le Chevalier Tempête in France). The imperious young Adrien Rabiot in midfield cuts a similar dashing figure, and likewise a lot of it is down to his hair; it is so hard to believe he was not a first choice for the French World Cup squad.
Meanwhile, the Ultras and their drums don’t let up as they produce a variety of rhythms and songs including, slightly bizarrely, ‘Yankee Doodle’, Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ and ‘My Darling Clementine’. It is now about twenty five minutes past nine and Edinson Cavani falls dramatically in the penalty area. Thomas Meunier replaces the injured Colin Dagba in the short wait before Neymar scores from the penalty. Neymar places the ball casually to Mendy’s right whilst the goalkeeper goes left. Now that they lead, there seems no way that PSG will not win this match and they assume almost complete control, although Reims manage to hang onto the one goal deficit by defending stoutly. Despite appeals from PSG players and fans it takes until almost twenty to ten before the first Reims player is booked by referee Monsieur Olivier Thuai. Monsieur Thuai’s first victim is Alaixys Romao, predictably for a foul on the waifish Neymar who a little while beforehand had treated the crowd to one of his multiple rolls, this one at high speed. I can’t decide if Neymar dives or if he really is fouled more than other players. At times he makes the most of the challenges he receives, as most forwards do, but significantly Neymar is much quicker and much more skilful than most, if not all other forwards.
The first half is close to ending as Neymar wins another free-kick and drops the ball to the far corner of Mendy’s six-yard box. Mendy fumbles as he climbs to catch the ball and Cavani reacts instantly to lob the ball into the unguarded goal from an acute angle; it’s not a particularly beautiful goal but it’s a very skilful one nonetheless. Three minutes are added on to the original forty-five for stoppages, which gives Xavier Chavalerin time to send a shot over the PSG cross-bar, but he was really only trying his luck.
Half-time brings a visit to a small but recently refurbished and well-appointed toilet and a brief time spent queueing for two 600ml bottles of water (3 euros each), a coffee (2 euros), and a recyclable branded PSG cup for one of the bottles of water (2 euros); I juggle these items back to my seat . It is noticeable that many of the people here are tourists, like me and Paulene if I’m honest, although for us it’s really just another football match and Paulene is enrolled as a member, primarily to get tickets perhaps, but she is also enamoured of Cavani, Rabiot, Verrati, Di Maria and Buffon. The bloke behind us sounds Scandinavian, whilst in front a couple from the Far East make themselves conspicuous with their photography. For myself I am slightly mesmerised by the electronic advertising hoardings in front of the stands and between the tiers. The boards operate in such a way that the same advert appears all around the ground and the changes in colours and brightness with each change of advert is quite distracting as a different light is cast onto the pitch.
In due course the game begins again and the noise from the Ultras is so loud it vibrates the sides of the plastic water bottle I hold in my hand. This atmosphere is how I remember football back at home in the 1970’s, but better. If PSG dominated the first half then in this half their two goal advantage gives them the confidence to simply entertain. The Brazilian central defenders Marquinhos and Thiago Silva pass the ball between themselves across the penalty area, but In particular Neymar starts to show off his ability. Less than ten minutes into the half he runs at the Reims defence, passing two or three players with swift acceleration. A few minutes later Neymar does much the same again before passing cross field to Moussa Diaby whose low cross by-passes Mendy in the Reims goal to give Thomas Meunier a straightforward tap-in.
For the rest of the match I wonder what the French for “PSG go nap” is, but miraculously the fifth goal doesn’t come. Instead, Neymar provides a masterclass in flicks and turns and two-footed dribbling; with him to watch goals aren’t really needed. Anyone who doesn’t rate Neymar is an idiot, he is a marvel. I saw George Best play in a goalless draw against Ipswich in 1973 and he was hopeless, but that proves nothing. Neymar like Best is an entertainer and in essence we go to football to be entertained, although of course we must enjoy the misery too if we support a club like Ipswich Town has now become. I would go so far as to say that Neymar is nearly as good to watch as Frans Thijssen was and he is definitely quicker.
The second half passes in a blur of exhibitionism the like of which I can honestly say I have never seen before, and all for the price of a ticket pretty much equal to the cheapest available at Portman Road to watch Town struggle to a goalless draw with Bolton Wanderers. The match ends with Neymar putting Cavani through on goal only for the Uruguayan to clip his chipped shot against the cross bar and with Neymar having a free-kick well saved by the diving figure of Mendy. I’m not sure I like PSG, in fact I know I don’t, they are just a French Manchester City or Chelsea, the sort of club that has ruined football for the majority of football supporters and destroyed real competition; this match marks the first occasion on which PSG have won all of their opening seven league fixtures. But despite the way in which the ‘big’ clubs like PSG have commodified football and tried to appropriate it and its best players all for themselves, the rough and untamed Ultras still exist and there is a bond between them and the players as evidenced at the end of the match as all the PSG players run to each end of the ground to commune with the fans and have a bit of a general love-in.
I cannot deny I have enjoyed seeing Neymar, Rabiot, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani et al tonight, but those players would all still be as good if they all played for different clubs and the league would be more interesting for it. But heck , what am I going to do but write about it?