Aux amis et aux autres lecteurs francophones, je m'excuse pour écrire en anglais.
I begin by mentioning that in this blog entry, I will refer to the world’s most popular sport as “football”. It is called this because it is played with a ball that is moved around by foot. If you happen to be from the United States and think that I should refer to this sport as “soccer”, perhaps you should know that the word “soccer” comes from a shortened form of the word “association” in the sport’s formal name, to wit, “association football”.
My wife and I were planning a long-overdue vacation to my favorite city, Paris. I have been there enough times that there are few tourist activities that I have yet to experience. We did our research, attempting to make some new memories. I knew that Paris has a football club that plays in its country’s highest league, Ligue 1. The club is Paris Saint-Germain. If you are not familiar with French football, I will use a baseball analogy… you could consider this club to be the Yankees of Ligue 1. They have won the most trophies, they spend the most money, they probably have the most fans. They were also playing a home match during our trip.
Here was our chance to have a unique experience. In the United States, football is not played at the same high level as in Ligue 1. (Not that Ligue 1 is the world’s top league, but it is a higher level of play than we have here.) This was a chance to see some stars in person who I’ve seen on television competing at the World Cup… Neymar, Cavani, Draxler, Mbappé. The process to buy tickets was simple… the match was sold out, but tickets were available on PSG’s official website. It was kind of like using StubHub, but officially sanctioned by the club.
PSG plays home matches at Parc des Princes. This stadium is in southwest Paris, the 16th arrondisement, and is easily reached via Métro. Well, let me clarify… the nearest Métro stop to the stadium is easy to reach.. .the stadium, not so much. We arrived early on the day of the match because our tickets were in a section deemed to be “free seating”. Now, all of the tickets have a row number and seat number, but this is apparently not enforced unless someone in attendance insists... so in practice, you can sit wherever you like, and your chances of sitting where you like increase if you arrive early.
The route to the stadium from the Métro stop was circuitous. We were routed through a residential neighborhood, along with thousands of other people who were headed to the match. On the way, we noticed a great deal of security folks… some of them appeared to be employed by the club, and some were the armed national police. The approaches to the stadium and the entry gates are not well marked, and we had some trouble finding the correct entrance for our section. (This was different than my experience going to baseball games in the United States, as you can generally enter the stadium anywhere you wish.) The problem was exacerbated by the club crowd control staff, from whom we received conflicting vague instructions.
We eventually made our way inside and to our section. The stadium was much smaller than I was expecting. The Internet tells me that the capacity is 47,929. That’s awfully tiny. For any readers who do not live in the United States, I say this because the university American football stadium in the capital of Ohio seats more than 100,000 people, and NFL stadiums also tend to be larger than 47,000 capacity. That said, our seats were rather comfortable, given that we were probably in the least expensive part of the venue… and it’s not like we sat in them very much anyway… at kickoff, everyone is on their feet.
The sight lines were glorious. There didn’t appear to be any obstructed seats. The design of the stadium is simple, there appear to only be two decks, and it’s a bowl shape. The ends of the stadium behind each goal are farther away from the pitch than the seats on the sides… there is a great deal of empty un-used space between the stands and the goal. The pitch was immaculate and the stadium lights made the bright green really pop.
Briefly, French football fans are insane.
Each end of the stadium - the cheaper seats - is filled with the more rowdy supporters. Thankfully for us during our first experience, the side opposite ours was definitely rowdier, as it seemed to be the home base of a few supporters clubs. Well before the match began (even as we were outside attempting to make our way in), groups of supporters were cheering, singing, chanting, banging on drums and other noise-makers, and putting up all kinds of ruckus. I was thinking that these locals were enthusiastic and amped up… and that’s when the visiting team’s supporters began to arrive.
The folks who supported Strasbourg either took a train across the country from the East, or live locally, but perhaps generally hide their support. There is one section that appears to be reserved for visiting fans, and it is rather conspicuously separated from the cheap home seats by a fence and a few dozen security staff members. (It told me a great deal about our section that PSG felt the need to fence off the visitors from our section of the stadium, but not from the section on the other side.) Every time another group of visiting fans arrived, they would be mercilessly harangued by the more rowdy people in our section… chants consisting of some words that I won’t repeat, chants made up of some words that I’m glad I didn’t know, and all sorts of obscene gestures from a variety of cultures, just to make sure the point got across. Now, I’ve been to Strasbourg, and it’s a lovely city with lovely people, and I didn’t support that kind of abuse… really, nobody deserves that kind of treatment. Good-natured ribbing about sports is one thing, and abuse with threats of violence is something completely different. However, as the visitors filled their section, they seemed to collectively gather strength and hurl shouts and gestures back toward the Parisians.
The stadium video boards (quite small by the standards to which I am accustomed) showed inspiring highlights from earlier matches in the season. The players were warmly cheered every time the camera showed them on the pitch during their warm-up session… and then came the introductions… the stadium announcer hypes up each home player, shouting the player’s first name, and allowing the crowd to shout back the player’s last name. When it was time to introduce the lineup for Strasbourg… well, I couldn’t hear any of the players’ names, as they were drowned out by the whistling and booing.
The jumping and shouting and general craziness increased until kickoff… at which point it continued through most of the match. The folks at the opposite end zone from ours were the loudest, starting cheers and chants that would then be picked up around the stadium… waving flags of all kinds. For all the enthusiasm of the home folks, supporters of the most successful football club in France, they were outdone by the visitors. The visitors, outnumbered and confined to one small wedge in the stadium, never sat at any point during the match. Not only did they never sit, they never stopped chanting, singing, cheering, jumping, clapping… even when the match was not going their way. (More on this later.) For most of the night, they were led by a portly gentleman who thought it prudent to not wear his shirt even though the temperature was probably 11 degrees (Celsius) and falling. This gentleman stood down front of the visitors section with a megaphone in hand, and was, quite literally, a cheerleader. I don’t think he saw much of the match, as most of the time he was facing his fellow Strasbourg supporters, or occasionally gesturing toward our section. I have never seen anything like this level of crazy at a sporting event… I mean, I stood the entire match as well, but I didn’t pogo and scream for two hours. I don’t know where these people find the energy.
All of us - even those of us in the group who do not speak French - learned the main cheer. It helps that the words are written on the inner stadium façade. “Ici C’est PARIS!” In order for this to sound authentic, one should first shout “Ici C’est!” and then wait for another party to shout back “PARIS!”... if you happen to be from Ohio, well, it’s just like the “OH!”, “IO!” cheer.
By the way, “La Marseillaise” is not played before Ligue 1 matches, which is another difference from sporting events in the United States.
PSG is the stronger club. My dear friend Priscille, who accompanied us, told me before the match “Strasbourg n’est pas trop fort”. Some of the PSG stars were missing. Neymar was injured with some kind of foot issue. Cavani and Di Maria weren’t around, and I still don’t know where they were. Mbappé was there in warmups, but he started the match on the bench, as did Draxler. Hey, I get it… PSG were about to wrap up another league title, and figured that they could probably accomplish that while getting their stars some rest. Strasbourg had other ideas.
PSG players looked faster and more capable on and off the ball than the visitors. Strasbourg apparently only had one striker on the pitch, and he looked very tall for a footballer, but incredibly slow. (Note that I am not a football expert by any means, so take any of my observational analysis with lots of salt.) However, he seemed to get plenty of opportunities on the ball, because PSG didn’t appear to be that interested in playing defense. They were awfully sloppy.
After relentless attacks, PSG put one in the net down at the opposite end of the pitch. 1-0, home team. The sloppiness would come back to bite them rather quickly though. Strasbourg kept looking to counter-attack when PSG would make errors in the midfield… and on one of those occasions, if memory serves, they had a 2 on 1 against the keeper on our side of the pitch and put the ball in the net to equalize the match. The player that scored immediately ran toward the wedge of visiting fans to celebrate, and the group of white-clad visitors went even more berserk. As the kids say, “it was lit”.
The home team managed to mess up a sure goal at the other end… one player had beaten the goalie, and the ball was going to go in the net, but a second player apparently wanted to tally the goal in the book and tried to touch it in… and he missed, and managed to allow the visitors to clear. Strasbourg kept the pressure on with some more counter-attacks, and scored a second goal off a corner where the ball bounced around a bit. This player also ran toward those folks in the corner of the stadium, and they were going out of their minds. As for the home crowd, their energy completely dissipated. The ultra supporters on the opposite end were still waving their flags and chanting, but the rest of the stadium seemed stunned. Strasbourg led 2-1 at the half.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, PSG apparently decided to stop messing around, and sent Mbappé and Draxler into the match. These guys no longer had a day off. PSG’s attack improved immediately. Let me talk a bit about Mbappé… I was aware of him before the World Cup from playing FIFA Mobile on my tablet… he’s fast… and then at the World Cup, he showed casual football viewers around the globe how talented he truly is. You could almost see defenders quiver in fear if he had a chance to run at them in the open. I enjoyed watching his contributions to France’s World Cup victory last year, and he was so impressive to watch on television, but that is nothing like seeing him in person. Saying that Mbappé is fast is like saying the sun is hot… you’re understating it. I was amazed to see this young fella easily run right past other people, all of whom are also professional athletes. There was no question that he was the best player on the pitch. Every time he touched the ball, it felt like PSG were in danger of equalizing the match.
PSG attacked in our direction for the second half… and once the substitutions were made, they spent the vast majority of the time in possession and applying pressure on Strasbourg. The match was almost tied by a bicycle kick (this looks incredibly athletic and near impossible in person), but the ball hit the bar. Our entire section thought it was going in. A few minutes later, PSG managed to level the match on a header… the header was a result of a corner won by Mbappé, taken by Draxler, and finished by Kehrer, who was the 3rd substitute. I don’t know PSG, maybe all of these guys should have started the match?
PSG missed a couple of very close opportunities as the match drew to a close. It ended in a 2-2 draw. At no point did the visiting fans stop jumping and making noise… and when the match ended, they kept right on cheering. For them, a draw was a great and unexpected result. For the hosts, they would have to wait for another match to claim the league title.
This was a fantastic life experience. The crowd was energetic, the match was entertaining, and I have memories that will last a lifetime, as well as a plastic souvenir cup. If you ever have the chance to catch a professional football match in Paris, I strongly suggest you go.