It is a cloudy, autumn Saturday afternoon as my wife Paulene and I board the RER suburban, electric, double-decker train at Meudon Val Fleury for the short journey (2.05 euros each) to Pont du Garigliano from where it is a further twenty-five minute tram ride (1.90 euros each) down busy, tree-lined boulevards to Stade Charlety, the current home ground of Paris FC. Today at 3 o’clock Paris FC will play FC Metz in Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2. If you plan your journey on the website of RATP, the Parisian transport company, several options are listed according to whether you want the quickest journey, the one with fewest changes, the one with least walking or one which provides disabled access. But with every route the website tells you the amount of CO2 emissions for your journey, our journey ‘cost’ 29 grams compared to a colossal 1758 grams by car; it’s Martin & Paulene 1 Global Warming 0 and the match hasn’t even started.
It may be a grey day, but this is Paris, City of Lights and perhaps appropriately therefore the stadium floodlights are already shining as the tram draws up at the stop. On the next street, the Boulevard Jourdan is lined with the white vans of the Police Nationale and on the opposite corner the Le Gentilly bar and restaurant is surrounded by dark uniformed
police with riot shields and helmets. The Le Gentilly appears to be the chosen pre-match meeting place for the fans of today’s visiting team FC Metz who are top of Ligue 2 having won all of their seven games so far this season. In 2016 the Metz v Lyon game was abandoned after Metz supporters threw firecrackers at the Lyon goalkeeper, so they have ‘previous’. But the police presence still looks like overkill for what is a Second Division match at a club whose home crowds do not often exceed 3,000.
We hadn’t got around to buying tickets on-line so we pay a bit more and buy our tickets (15 euros each) at the guichets at the entrance to the stadium. We take a wander around, making a circuit of the stadium; spotting the respective team buses, Metz fans queuing
for tickets (only 8 Euros in the away ‘end’) and even more ‘tooled-up’ police. On a concrete support beneath the Peripherique is a poster for the Union Populaire Republicain, a sort of French UKIP who peddle the somewhat stupid sounding ‘Frexit’, not that it’s any more or less stupid than ‘Brexit’.
Stade Charlety is named after the French historian and academic Sebastien Charlety who was associated with the nearby Cite Universite de Paris. Naming a sports stadium after an intellectual is pretty much unimaginable in England; just think of West Ham United not playing at the London Stadium but at the AJP Taylor Stadium or Tottenham at the Simon Schama Stadium. Stade Charlety dates originally from 1938 but was re-built in 1994, the architects being Henri Gaudin and his son Bruno, and a damn fine job they did too. The stadium is oval in shape, a segmented concrete bowl, partly single and partly two-tiered, sitting beneath a sweeping, curving, rising and falling roof floating on steel supports, with four floodlight towers each leaning and raking forward as if to peer over the roof at the pitch. The stadium has 20,000 seats and conveys the drama, excitement and sense of occasion that a stadium should.
Keen now to experience the stadium from the inside we walk through the turnstiles and our tickets are scanned by hand held devices before we are patted down and wished “Bon match” in the habitual way of French football. In a corner at the back of a stand is a very talented and entertaining band of five brass players and a drummer providing a soundtrack to the pre-match build-up. We both pick up copies of the free eight page colour match programme (only one page is an advertisement) and are each given a free Paris FC flag. I reflect on how I have been a season ticket holder at Portman Road for 35 years and as ‘thanks’ for my loyalty and thousands of pounds all the club has ever given me is a baseball hat, a metal badge and a car sticker; I’ve been here less than five minutes and on the strength of just one 15 euros ticket Paris FC have already given me a programme and a flag. I like that the programme is called ‘Le Petit Parisian’ making a virtue of Paris FC’s ‘small club’ credentials, a poignant contrast no doubt to the behemoth that is Paris St Germain. According to Planete Foot magazine, Paris FC drew average crowds of just 3,070 last season and this season have a budget of 11 million euros compared to PSG’s budget of about 560 million euros; this against a background of PSG having evolved out of Paris FC as a ‘breakaway’ club in 1972.
Bowled over by Gallic generosity and with hearts lifted by the music of the little band we head for gangway 109 off which we can sit where we choose. Seats chosen I head back into the concourse and to the buvette to buy a bag of crisps (2 euros) and plastic cups of mineral water and Orangina (5 euros for the two, including the re-usable Paris FC branded cups). Paris FC has no club shop as you might find at an English league club or at the larger French clubs, but there is a hatch between the buvettes from which two young Franco-African women are selling replica shirts, scarves and assorted merchandise. Unable to resist a souvenir I buy a pennant or petit fanion (5 euros) which, when I get back to Blighty I shall hang it in the toilet with all the others.
Back at our seats the quarter of the stadium behind the dug-outs is filling up with flag toting Parisians and a sprinkling of Metz fans, who probably live in Paris. The Metz fans who have made the 330km journey from Alsace are all corralled on the other side of the stadium in a section of the upper tier, with a battalion of stewards and police seemingly watching their every move. As three o’clock approaches the public address system begins to play a sort of minimalist electronica with hints of John Barry, which gathers pace, building as the teams walk side by side onto the pitch to shake hands before a back drop of huge banners showing the club crests and the Domino’s Pizza Ligue 2 logo. A man in a suit, Paris FC scarf and pointy shoes, who looks a bit like the late Keith Chegwin parades before us with a radio mike as he announces the teams.
The teams line up with Metz in a change kit of all white and Paris FC in all navy blue. FC Metz kick-off playing in the direction of the tram stop, and generally north towards the Pompidou Centre far beyond, whilst Paris FC play towards Orly airport. From the start Metz are neat and energetic, passing well and closing Paris FC down quickly whenever they win the ball. In front of us and to our right a group of thirty or forty Ultras (possibly the ‘Old Clan’ group) are rallied by a young bloke with a small white megaphone which looks like it is only a toy. He faces his colleagues and misses virtually the whole game. The Ultras stand and clap and sing without pause and one of them bangs a drum. “P -F -C, P-F-C” they chant, for that is how Paris FC are commonly known. One guy has a beer in his hand meaning he can’t clap, so he just slaps his head with his free hand, taking a second to tidy his hair when he’s finished.
Despite Metz looking the more accomplished team they don’t test the Paris goalkeeper and it is the home team who manage the first decent shot at goal from number twenty-six Dylan Saint-Louis, which Metz goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja dives low to his right to save. Metz continue to look confidant and strong but PFC are matching them. It’s only just gone ten past three and PFC left-back, number eighteen Romain Perraud strides forward, he rides a block tackle stumbling over a leg but taking the ball with him and looks to go for goal. He is over twenty metres from Oukidja the man between the Metz goal posts and I don’t expect to see the ball go flying in to the far top corner of the net and dropping to the grass inside the goal, but it does. It is a spectacular goal, easily the best I have seen so far this season. A goal behind, Metz have further troubles as they have to make a substitution and Senegalese Opa Nguette is replaced by Malian Adama Traore due to injury.
Conceding the goal has not dampened the Metz fans’ spirits however, as they continue to wave their own flags and banners. Behind us to our left another group of PFC Ultras (possibly the ‘Ultras Lutetia’ group) have their own somewhat bigger drum and bigger flags but no megaphone, well not as far as I can see anyway. A fine drizzle is falling now and the stadium announcer who strutted about in pointy, shiny shoes before kick-off shelters beneath an umbrella. Rain drops run down the back of the transparent covers to the dugouts and it feels every bit like a quintessential autumn afternoon at the football. It’s marvellous and not only because this is Paris.
At last, after over twenty minutes of play Metz manage a shot on target, but it’s an easy save for Vincent Demarconnay the ‘keeper for PFC. Despite Metz’s failings in front of goal they still look a good team and this is an entertaining game, well worthy of the live TV coverage it is receiving this afternoon; the large cameras at the side of each goal look oddly old-fashioned however and conjure memories for me of Grandstand and Sportsnight with Coleman. It’s just gone half past three and Metz win a corner on the far side of the pitch from which their Zambian number thirteen Stoppila Sunzu sends a powerful header down towards the goal line; for a split second it looks like it must be the equaliser but the ball meets the boot of Romain Perraud and skews off his foot for a throw. Perraud has effectively scored twice for Paris now, without him they might be a goal down, rather than a goal up.
Half-time is less than ten minutes away and although they are the underdogs Paris FC are playing well and deserve their lead, then what seems like disaster strikes, compounded by it being a gross injustice. In an incident similar to the sending off of Ipswich Town’s Toto N’Siala at Sheffield Wednesday earlier this season, PFC’s Julian Lopez slides along the wet turf to get the ball, which he does, a moment later however
and Metz’s Thomas Delaine arrives and falls over Lopez‘s leg, twisting as he falls. The referee Monsieur Pierre Gaillouste, who has an annoying and unnecessary habit of running quickly up to players whenever a foul occurs, does so again and shows Lopez the red card. We are all outraged. It was not a foul, if anything Delaine fouled Lopez. As a neutral this should be pure theatre to me, but the injustice is intolerable and I decide that Paris FC must win.
The sending off has distorted the match and I cannot really see that Paris can hold on, but in injury time they win a corner which Metz forget to defend and the wonderfully named Cameroonian defender Frederic Bong heads the ball into the middle of the Metz goal to double PFC’s lead. I leap from my seat and stick it to Monsieur Gaillouste and his inept refereeing. Half-time soon arrives and I can enjoy it. I return to the buvette with the thought of a celebratory beer but the queue is too long.
The game begins again and within a minute Habib Diallo scores for Metz with a header from a cross by Thomas Delaine. I fear the worst for PFC now but Metz fail to capitalise and PFC defend brilliantly. Metz show growing frustration, Traore looks to the heavens as he sends a low, bobbling shot bouncing weakly past a post and Marvin Gakpa is booked after following through with a challenge on the PFC goalkeeper. The Metz coach Frederic Antonetti, a balding, solid man who wears what I would describe as a Marks & Spencer jumper patrols the area in front of his team’s dugout, shaking his head and looking displeased. I think I can smell a cannabis cigarette, but it’s not from Monsieur Antonetti. On the other side of the ground the incidence of flag waving has definitely reduced. Now Renaud Cohade, who I thought was the main force in the Metz midfield is replaced by the Algerian Farid Boulaya and as the electronic substitution board is held aloft Paulene casually asks how many double A batteries I think it takes.
Paris FC are restricted to defending in depth but they are succeeding and cannot expect to do too much else with only ten players against probably the best team in the league. There are still twenty minutes left as PFC’s Ivorian Edmond Akichi, billed in the programme in his own words as a midfield battler goes down and a stretcher is needed to carry him off. Number six Romenique Koumane replaces Akichi but suddenly Akichi is up on his feet again appearing to say he wants to play on, only for him to even more suddenly double-up in pain up clutching his knee before being helped away.
There are less than ten minutes to go and PFC are holding out well and even almost score a third goal as Souleymane Karamoko breaks down the right and into the penalty area; the ball goes out and he goes down. “Penalty!” I cry, because anything has been shown to be possible with this referee, but it’s a corner which number twenty-seven Jonathan Pitroipa, who is from Burkina Faso, heads very wide. There are four minutes of added time to endure, but PFC survive them whilst all Metz do is to collect another booking, this time for Emmanuel Riviere as he flicks a passing foot at the PFC goalkeeper, or at least that’s what the referee thought.
The final whistle brings unbridled joy, something I don’t often experience at football matches any more. This has been an excellent match, one the best of the ten or so I have seen in Ligue 2. I hadn’t expected a lot from a crowd of just a few thousand (the attendance will later be reported as 5,097) in a 20,000 capacity stadium with a running track around the pitch, but I was wrong. Despite swathes of empty seats there has been a really good atmosphere in the small part of the stadium that is open and with minimal stewarding it has felt a bit like an English non-league game. I have loved seeing so many African players, it’s been like a mini African Cup of Nations and Paris FC have played superbly well to beat a good, but on the day ineffective Metz team, who nevertheless remain one of the favourites for promotion. I have nothing in particular against Metz, but it was great to witness their first defeat after seven straight victories. If only my team Ipswich Town could now get their first win.