It’s Sunday evening at Meudon Val Fleury suburban railway station and due to engineering works I didn’t think the RER trains were running, they weren’t when I tried to get home from central Paris last night just after midnight, but life is full of surprises and some of them are nice ones. So my wife Paulene and I eschew the almost door to door service of the 289 bus and opt for fewer carbon emissions with a short train ride and a twenty-minute walk to get to Parc des Princes.
It’s an uneventful journey apart from the sight of a coach, with curtains drawn across the windows and led by two police motorbikes, driving across the Pont d’Issy les Moulineaux. Was it the Olympique Lyon (OL) team, just OL supporters or may be a gendarmes’ night out? Nobody knows; well we don’t.
Tonight’s match is the highlight of the weekend in Ligue 1, one of the ‘classique’ games that sees PSG play either OL or Olympique Marseille; the capital against France’s biggest other cities and North versus South. PSG have been dominating French football for the last six or seven years, but OL won Ligue 1 for a record seven consecutive seasons from 2002 to 2008, and with a new stadium hosting crowds in excess of 50,000 they should, in theory, be capable of challenging PSG. So far PSG have won all of their eight league matches this season (a record in itself), but this will be their first game against a club that might be expected to compete with them. OL beat Manchester City in the Champions League a week ago but are already as many as ten points behind PSG in the league.
Kick-off is at nine o’clock and it is almost dark by the time we approach Parc des Princes. There is a roar of traffic along the Périphérique where the red and white lights of the scooters, cars and trucks make a surreal, atomised tricolour with the deep blue night sky before they disappear beneath a corner of the stadium; in the streets there is a hum of crowds and footfall along the wide boulevards. There are police in abundance; tonight they’ve brought not only their usual vans and bikes but a full size single-deck bus. Then there is a hiatus in the street, armed police are strung across the Route de la Reine and our path to the stadium is blocked. There is no clue why, and then just as mysteriously we are free to go on our way again. The grocery shops are busy as people buy pre-match snacks and a couple of bars are busy, but not to the extent that a pub as close to an English ground would be. Our route to the ground is now carefully directed between metal barriers feeding us toward the correct stand; we are in Borelli, entrance N. Tonight a ticket is not enough to get you in the ground, the French show their ID cards whilst we show our passports.
The nine o’clock kick-off has given ample time to eat dinner with a drink or two so there is no need to buy pre-match refreshment this evening. But the French like to linger over dinner and the seats around us do not fill up until just before kick-off, some after that. This is a big match. The Ultras are back in force in the Auteuil Tribune after being absent for the Red Star Belgrade game, but there is a good following from Lyon also, all waving blue and red flags, chanting and holding their arms aloft as if undergoing a religious expereince. As The PSG team runs out to carry out its on-pitch warm up, the tannoy announces “L’equipe de Paris” (The Paris team) and some raucous grunge is played as pictures of the players striking poses appear on the two giant screens. As Gianluigi Buffon stops shots in a practice goal near the side of the pitch a stray ball flies into the crowd just in front of me. The ball firmly smites a man on the side of his head, but he feigns insouciance and enquires after the well-being of the person next to him as if the ball hit them rather than him. Odd behaviour I think, perhaps he’s concussed.
With the approach of kick off the Ligue 1 anthem, a brassy, punchy little number greets
our ears, the teams and officials walk-on side by side and a brief display of fireworks explodes into life. It’s all very dramatic and slightly pompous. The pomp is put into mundane context soon afterwards as the banners displaying the club crests and Ligue 1 logo are dismantled without ceremony on the space behind the goal and folded up, they no longer look so grand, but more like a colourful two-man tent.
The game begins and early play is tight with both teams’ forwards being crowded out, but Lyon soon suffer a severe blow as Nabil Fekir, their captain and member of the
World Cup winning squad twists an ankle. At first he receives treatment and carries on, but not for long and is substituted by Maxwell Cornet in just the seventh minute. That’s disappointing for Lyon and for me; I had wanted to see Fekir play. Two minutes later Lyon’s Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes compounds Lyon’s misery as he foolishly tries to race Kylian Mbappe to the ball, which appears to be going out for a goal kick. Lopes doesn’t reach ball, but he does reach Mbappe and referee Monsieur Antony Gautier rightly points to the penalty spot. Neymar scores; rolling the ball gently to the right as the goalkeeper dives left, exactly as he did against Stade de Reims ten days before.
It’s been a messy start to the game and it doesn’t improve. Lucas Toussart is the first player booked after he commits a high tackle on Marco Verratti, but PSG’s Presnel
Kimpembe then out does him by eliciting a red card from the top pocket of Monsieur Gautier for an assault on Tanguy NDombele. Weirdly, the dismissal is not instant as at first Monsieur Gautier goes to show a yellow card, but then looks again at the foul using the ‘VAR’. It is almost as having been caught Kimpembe is then tried before the verdict is reached. It would have been a nice touch if having reached his verdict the referee placed a black cap placed on his head before showing the red card. Only a few minutes after Kimpembe’s dismissal Neymar is booked for poleaxing Jeremy Morel, and after Lyon make another enforced substitution due to injury, Marco Verratti is also shown a yellow card after fouling Maxwell Cornet. Edinson Cavani is then substituted so that PSG can prop up their depleted defence, although the football press will later desperately try to make more of it, as ever failing to grasp that football is a team game. Other decent fouls go unpunished in terms of cards, but there are plenty of free-kicks to keep fans of set-pieces happy. The net result is no more goals and four minutes of unwanted additional time, but this is put to good use as Toussart trips Mbappe and receives a second yellow card from Monsieur Gautier and to end the half both teams have just ten players. If you like your football fast and violent, with every kick of the ball being matched by a kick of a player, it’s been a terrific half.
Half-time is an opportunity to rest and recuperate and I watch the electronic advertisement hoardings changing their messages. Although we are in Paris it is interesting how many of the advertisements are in English, another symptom of how clubs like PSG see themselves less as belonging to Paris and more as global brand. One advert for the Qatari National Bank mystifies me with its weird slogans “When you set your life goals, We can make the time right”. It all sounds very positive and inspiring, but what the hell does it mean? Equally hollow are the signs that read “Indonesia Stay Strong”; superficially all very laudable and who doesn’t wish the people of Indonesia well after the recent natural disasters? But slogans in a football grounds thousands of miles away don’t help them; perhaps a slice of PSG’s £500 million budget might though, if they really want to help.
The second half arrives and for a while Lyon look a threat. There is still only one goal in this game, a mere penalty at that, not a proper goal and Lyon are not being outplayed. I start to think PSG might not necessarily win this game. Neymar is setting up Mbappe however, and twice he puts him through on goal with just Lopes to beat, but he misses the first and his second shot is saved. Again Neymar puts Mbappé through and again he misses and then it happens yet again. I genuinely don’t think Mbappé has yet played as well for PSG as he did for Monaco and am on the verge losing patience with him. I begin to wonder if is he too young, if there too much pressure on him having been transferred for such a massive fee. Then with just about an hour of the match gone Neymar sets him up or a fifth time and this time he scores hitting both posts in the process and PSG lead 2-0. Five minutes later Mbappé scores again after interplay between Marquinhos and Verratti. Three minutes later Mbappé has a hat-trick as PSG hit Lyon on the counter attack. Finally, after a further five minutes Mbappé scores his fourth goal and PSG ‘go nap’ as an attempt to set up Neymar sees the ball return to him with the invitation to score, which he accepts.
Mbappé and Neymar are incredible. Their speed and skill is wonderful to see. This is not like normal football and when PSG build up a lead like this they transform into a footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters; this is pure footballing circus. When two minutes from time Neymar attempts an audacious and spectacular overhead kick, the crowd roars in appreciation. But this is all in sharp contrast to the first half, it is as if having two less players on the field, albeit one of them one of their own players has created that extra bit of space that Neymar and Mbappé use to run amok.
This was an unexpected result, even by the high standards of free-scoring PSG, but it has been a very strange game not least because two players were sent off before half time; then Mbappé contrived to miss four good chances all of which he is more than capable of scoring from, only to then go on and score four times in thirteen minutes. At the end of the match the PSG team line up as one to salute the Ultras at the Auteuil end and an extended love-in ensues with much jumping about and singing shared by players and supporters. The team are clearly very excited by the win and this has been a very special night, the like of which I am not sure I have ever seen. The closest I can come to it was when Ipswich beat Norwich City 5-0 but despite the joy of that night I don’t honestly think it matched the passion shown here tonight.