BY BOBBY MOHR
“I’ll meet you here after the match!” called out my French colleague, already on the half turn. And with a few intent-filled strides he vanished, puffy black coat and all, into the mass of supporters all marching to the stadium like blood cells being pumped back to the heart - maybe not the cultural heart of Paris, but the heart of Parisian football without doubt. A hazy glow in the rainy night sky peaked beyond a row of buildings to the northwest of us, the Parc des Princes. For the sake of sparing myself the unpleasant sensation of being lost in a country where I’m as familiar with the local language as I am with Klingon, I looked up with two friends to determine just where here was. It turned out the rendezvous point after the game would be a crowded café bar on the narrow end of a sharpening city block that wedged itself up to a roundabout, Aux Trois Obus. It would be there, in the middle of a post-match lager, where I would learn the true extent of what I was about to witness. When our colleague had realized that his ultra brothers were no longer drinking in the establishment, something he’d explained they’d been doing since three in the afternoon, he knew they’d already entered the stadium and he had some serious catching up to do.
It was alright, though. Even us Americans could understand the importance of it all. After all, that’s why we were there. All we had to do was walk in the same direction as everyone else or simply follow the waft of cigarette smoke and we’d be at the ground within minutes. I must admit that even though I’m a fairly knowledgeable source when it comes to football in Europe, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the French version. My most formal introduction to its workings was a now decade-old edition of career mode on an EA SPORTS FIFA PlayStation 2 game I owned as kid. It was through that, Ligue 1 beneath my thumbs, that I really began to explore Paris Saint German, and acted to dethrone the undisputed kings of French football at the time, Olympique Lyonnais. But the cheesy soccer ball clip art icon with a flaming tail that popped up on the fixture list to indicate a derby or rivalry in the game never did so in my twice a season (or twice an evening, rather) meeting with Lyon. That was reserved special for the matches against Olympique de Marseille, an encounter the French call Le Classique, the north vs the south, the capital vs the port, the most important match on the French footballing calendar. And now it would be the first Paris Saint Germain match, first Ligue 1 match I’d ever attended (without a controller in my hands, that is).
Inside the bowels of the stadium was chaotic. We hadn’t arrived early and the names of the Marseille players were already being announced over the loud speaker to a chorus of whistles when we finally pushed through the turnstiles. So everyone was scrambling to get to their seats. Upon climbing the stairs of the vomitorium that lead to our seating section, a young man was practically wrested down the steps by security as he tried to slip by coolly without showing his ticket clearly to the usher. When it was discovered he was gate crashing, they didn’t take kindly. The home supporters had prepared a wonderful tifo for the occasion, a thick red stripe flanked by two blue ones only separated by thin white lines – the PSG color scheme in mosaic. To add affect, every remaining seat was prepared with a red flag with the club’s crest for supporters to wave as the players emerged from the tunnel. It was a true spectacle to watch from our seats situated a spoiled eight rows from the pitch, halfway between the penalty area and the midfield line. The scene of the players walking out onto the green stretch of turf before us was intensified as we peered through the sheeting rain traced in highlight by the floodlights above. The stage was set marvelously only to let us all down.
The details of the match itself are moot. The monsoon diluted Paris Saint Germain’s quality and aided Marseille’s remarkably negative approach to the encounter. It ended scoreless and frustrating. Edinson Cavani had the goal at his mercy late on when he met a driven cross at the near post that Marseille keeper Yohann Pele misjudged, but the Uruguayan's effort clambered wide after a lunging, desperate attempt. Other than that it was forgettable 90 minutes in Paris. In the days following, when Parisians had discovered I had attended the match, knowing that the game itself was a bore, they would seek consolation in asking what I thought of the “ambiance,’ which I exclaimed was terrific. I wish I could have understood the vulgarly insulting songs the PSG support showered the Marseille players with, but I got the gist. However, I’d been shocked at how poor Marseille had been.
Back at the Aux Trois Obus following the game, the language was of no barrier to cover up the locals’ disapproval. Not to mention, the name “Zlatan” translates directly from French to English. I could just imagine them conversing, quizzing each other “well, if we still had Zlatan…” But the patrons’ annoyance grew into loathing when the match stats flashed across the television in the corner. Where PSG had attempted a shot something like 19 times, Marseille had attempted zero. That’s not no shots on target, that’s no shots at all, something the internet’s statisticians calculated hadn’t happened in a Ligue 1 game in somewhere close to 4,000 matches. It was an outrage, and that was our cue to leave. The idea that Marseille were only bad because they’d changed coaches just days before the Classique was an irrelevant mitigation now. So yes, I think I attended the least classic Le Classique maybe ever. I still found the experience fascinating, but not as fascinating as the conversation I had prior to the match on the drive there about Paris' club footballing dynamic.
I had a lot of questions on the drive across Paris in addition to learning about the districts we sped through. Another colleague from Paris was doing us the favor of giving us a lift and he, in tandem with our ultra pal who was sat on the floor in the back of the van, did their best to answer them. The first was when was Paris Saint Germain founded? I knew it had to have been more recent than most of Europe’s more well-known clubs because before the club crest was recently redesigned, the year “1970” was visible on the bottom of the circular logo. It turns out that Paris Saint Germain was formed when two clubs merged. FC Paris and Stade Saint Germain, a club formed at the beginning of the 20th century, joined forces in 1970. But within three years the club split again, leaving FC Paris with first division acclaim and players while the second half of the split, which remained PSG, had to fight their way back from the third tier. Mystery solved.
The trouble about Paris, according to our driver friend is that there is only one major club in a city that holds such footballing significance. He asked me to think about other major European cities. And so we did: Madrid, London, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Manchester, Liverpool, Prague, Turin, Glasgow… we could go on. They all have at least two major football clubs. Paris does not. Where there are lower division teams in the City of Light, there is no tangible local derby rival for Paris Saint German. Paris Saint Germain’s only rival is Marseille, a club from across the country who was in twelfth position when Le Classique kicked off. Then my colleague went onto explain that Paris, only behind Rio de Janiero, is the number two scouted metropolitan area in the world for talent, further underlining that it is erroneous that Paris should only have one club in the country's first division. Even my friend that shot off to join PSG’s loudest and most animated fans admitted that Paris could benefit from a second team for competition sake.
We played with the idea of some money-smart member or society investing in one of the lower division clubs around Paris and building it up. But that's a lot easier said than done, and with all of PSG success, do they have a monopoly on the Paris fan football base? Regardless, as it stands now, with the money pouring into PSG’s wallet from Qatar Sports Investments, Ligue 1 has become an all but a predetermined competition in seasons late. And because PSG is so single-handedly dominant in the French league compared to the minnows swimming around them, they perhaps have trouble preparing for the rest of the continent’s super clubs that they meet in the European Champions League. Most clubs dream to be ultimately superior to other clubs around them. But in Paris Saint Germain’s case, that’s become a bit of a worry for some.