I wouldn’t say I was addicted to my electronic devices or the internet- my wife might disagree- but my lack of connectivity since returning to Europe from South Korea has at times caused frustration. Finally, in our Paris hotel room, a break. Wi-fi, Twitter, and good news from the official account of Paris Saint Germain.
That evening I was due to attend the Ligue Un match between PSG and St. Etienne. I’d registered my interest with the travel site viagogo a while back and finally confirmed my tickets a month before the game. There were many reasons for wishing to get to see PSG live, but one reason stood above all others.
Although I’ve always enjoyed watching him play, I would not have considered myself a full convert to the cult of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Recently, however, I’ve been reading I Am Zlatan, his well-publicised autobiography, and after page after page of being told just how awesome he is, I too had been brainwashed. Unfortunately, Zlatan had been injured and it seemed I was going to be denied seeming his awesomeness in the flesh. Until, of course, that single tweet confirmed he was returning to the squad for the St. Etienne game.
That rare, hotel-room access to the internet meant it was hard to not to just sit around getting giddy-eyed while watching YouTube clips of Zlatan’s most awesome goal. I was in Paris, though, so instead my wife and I went out and wandered the city’s Saint Germain des Prés district, which was once where intellectuals and artists drank their coffees and wines and put the world to rights.
With achy and, in my wife’s case, blistered feet, we headed back to our base in Montparnesse. There, we ate some good pizza, and I did the gentlemanly thing of walking her back to the hotel, before abandoning her and setting off into the late summer evening and towards the Parc des Princes.
The giant concrete bowl, built around 50 concrete columns, was opened in 1972. In its 44-year history, it has played host to many of the game’s biggest matches, as well as being the regular home to the French national football and rugby teams until the opening of the Stade de France. Bayern Munich won a second straight European Cup there in 1975 and Liverpool toppled Real Marrid in the 1981 final of the same competition. Nayim’s famous ‘from the halfway line’ goal against David Seaman was there and in 1998 Lazio claimed the first single-leg Uefa Cup trophy in Paris. Of greatest importance was probably Michel Platini’s France defeating Spain 2-0 in 1984 to be crowned European champions on home soil. For the last 40 years, it has been the home of Paris Saint Germain.
The journey to the stadium was shorter than anticipated, and I exited the Porte Auteuil metro station a little more than two hours before kick-off. There were bars and cafés near the station, but already many people were moving towards the stadium. The 10-minute walk revealed the commercial success the modern PSG project has already enjoyed; almost everyone carried a club scarf and a great many were wearing replica shirts (I’d guess around 7 or 8 of every ten had chosen #10 Ibrahimovic for the back) or other club merchandise.
The growing throng passed the edges of the Roland Garros tennis venue and onto the Stade Jean Bouin, home of rugby club Stade Francais. There, with my ropey, but passable French and some assistance from ground staff who defied the stereotype of grumpy Parisian service staff, I collected my tickets for the game.
Already thousands of dark blue-clad home fans were eating, drinking, and smoking around the ground. I’d seen the ground previously as several family holidays had inadvertently ended up on la Peripherique, Paris’ busy ring road and plenty of fans were snapping photos of the traffic passing beneath the stadium.
I had a brief walk around, but it seemed the bars and cafés did not stretch this far from the station. Queues were already forming at some entrances, so I decided I’d get a beer inside. PSG, however, had other ideas. Among the many rules inside the Parc was the- not invalid- suggestion that you don’t need alcohol to have a good time, and no beer at all is served in the stadium. So, I took my dusty, rounded seat and spent almost an hour watching players warm up and a series of slick PSG promotional videos shown on the two big screens. One, for recently-deceased former player Jean-Francois Beltramini, came with well-respected applause from all around the stands.
Just before 9pm, the teams came out with Zlatan leading the home side. I try to remain neutral in such games and had sort of intended to do so here. In fact, staying true to the spirit of this blog, I should really have supported St. Etienne as they had briefly been managed by Welshman John Toshack (and featured ex-Cardiff defender, Kevin Theophile-Catherine at the back). However, with Zlatan starting, tonight I was abandoning neutrality. I had paid a not inconsiderable number of Euros to see one of the most expensively-assembled and talented squads in world football. I wanted them to live up that. I wanted domination. I wanted goals. And I got my wish.
Despite some eye-catching moments from Lucas Moura and Marco Verratti, PSG were largely contained for 25 minutes. Then the St. Etienne keeper Stephane Ruffier, did an Enckelman (or Robinson or insert-other goalkeeping howler). He miscontrolled a simple back pass and though he tried to recover, the ball trickled over the line. The PSG fans loved it, and there were long chants of ‘Ruffier Ruffier’ and ‘Merci, Ruffier,’ and, naturally, ironic cheers were to greet his every touch for the rest of the game. He was to endure a long night. His opposite number, Sirigu, reacted quickly to prevent an equaliser, before Zlatan headed Maxwell’s cross in for 2-0. It was a simple, beautiful goal; great cross, great movement, great goal, and the great man milked his goalscoring return.
Half-time came soon after, and with my belly still full of pizza and no beer to be had, I remained in my seat and enjoyed the interval entertainment.
When play resumed, PSG seemed eager to kill off the game quickly and launched attack after attack. Just as it seemed St. Etienne had weathered this early storm, a back pass was played too short to Ruffier. He reacted slowly. Zlatan did not. The Swede rounded the keeper and the score was now 3-0.
Soon, it was 4-0. Edinson Cavani had been busy but ineffective for an hour, but now he caught Ruffier unaware with a curling 20-yard effort. The PSG crowd have obviously become accustomed to winning. The atmosphere had been good all night, but now it was buzzing. More and more scarves were being waved. The chants going back and forth from the Auteuil Stand to the more famous Kop de Boulogne grew louder and louder. The ‘Ole!‘s were broken out as PSG made St. Etienne chase the ball. Only attempts at a ‘Poznan’ were half-hearted.
Zlatan rounded Ruffier again and was felled; Penalty, red card. Surely? No, the referee was merciful and gave a corner, but Ruffier may have preferred a premature end to his night. Soon after, Zlatan got his third and his team’s fifth, beating the offside and side-footing home. It was his final touch. He departed to shouts of ‘Ibra! Ibra!’ He’s clearly loved at PSG, but it is his deeds and not his words that have brainwashed this audience.
With their hero gone and the game well won, the crowd’s enthusiasm slowly died off. They finished with chants of ‘Merci, Paris.’ A nice touch, but no less than the players deserved for an evening of great entertainment. Maxwell was excellent in defence and attack. Lucas attacked with great pace and skill. Marco Verratti was fearless and creative. Hat-trick scorer Zlatan was, well, awesome. The rest of my time watching football on the continent will have a lot to live up to.
The good: Zlatan, nice ground (even if the seats were dusty), Zlatan, good atmosphere, the skills and excitement of Verratti and Lucas, comedy own-goal, Cavani’s goal, ZLATAN!
The not so good: no alcohol at all in the ground, the inconsistencies of Cavani and Javier Pastore