PARIS — This is a love story disguised as a soccer game. And like all good love stories, it’s filled with hope, disappointment, and a few huge explosions.
Paris-St. Germain defeated longtime arch-enemy Olympique de Marseille Sunday night, 3-1, in the latest installment of the rivalry known as “Le Classique.” This in itself is not news. PSG is one of the wealthiest teams on the planet, its Qatari-funded roster an Avengers-style collection of World Cup heroes and international legends. Marseille … is not.
But this wasn’t really a game played between PSG and Marseille; no, that outcome wasn’t ever truly in doubt. No, this was a game between PSG and its own fans, the culmination of a long-running tale of hope, disappointment, and, at last, reunion. How do you go on loving when the one you love more than life itself breaks your heart?
Think that’s too much? Hell no. It’s Paris. Even the damn soccer is romantic over here.
You look around Paris, and love is everywhere. Couples hold hands walking through the narrow, ancient streets. Here, a bride and groom pose for a wedding photo in the shadow of Cathédrale Notre-Dame. There, late-night revelers try to both kiss and remain upright in a swaying Metro car, and barely manage both. And in Parc des Princes, home stadium of Paris-St. Germain, players and fans, locked in a love affair they can neither explain nor escape, eye each other warily in the minutes before Le Classique.
One game, many stories
A kiss is never just a kiss, and a soccer match is never just a soccer match. Both are the sum total of all that preceded them. This match in particular is the nexus of three major storylines that have dogged PSG for the past half-decade.
First, there are the hardcore fans — the “ultras,” the chanting, drumming, flare-setting, cherry-bomb-slinging zealots who once made Parc des Princes one of the most fearsome stadiums in Europe. Piled into the Virage Auteuil — the northern end of the stadium — they were merciless in their devotion to PSG and their utter hatred of any other colors.
“In the past,” journalist Quentin Polin told ESPN in 2016, “opponents were often more scared of the intimidating atmosphere created by the ultras than the team itself.”
In that way, the PSG ultras weren’t all that different from the faithful that line up behind every club. But in 2010, after another Classique, a fight among ultras ended with the hospitalization and, eventually, clinical death of Yann Lorence, a PSG supporter. Then-team president Robin Leproux took drastic action: he voided every season ticket, opened up the Virage Auteuil for other fans, and booted every ultra group from the stadium.
Shortly afterward came one of the landmark moments in recent European soccer history: Qatar Sports Investments bought the team with the express purpose of shoveling enough money into PSG to win the coveted Champions League. QSI possessed the limitless funds necessary to buy their way into competitiveness, and the latest DeLoitte Football Money League rankings put PSG’s revenue at sixth in the world, a rank largely driven by their nine-figure acquisition of superstars Neymar Jr. and French World Cup icon Kylian Mbappé.
“The potential commercial impact of player on club is becoming a more prominent factor in player acquisitions,” DeLoitte noted earlier this year, “particularly in the modern environment where individuals hold influential roles across social media platforms. The scale of following global star players can, in some cases, be even greater than that of the club, and their impact can be more than just on-pitch performances.”
Which is good news for PSG, considering how they’ve performed on the world stage. PSG is the equivalent of the star-laden Golden State Warriors, with one notable exception: They haven’t done much of anything in the Champions League. They have no trouble playing their way into the mega-competitive field, they just flail once they arrive.
Back in France, though, QSI’s investment delivered immediate and indisputable results. PSG captured five of the past six Ligue 1 championships, and they’re just weeks away from winning a sixth in seven.
Soccer aficionados have rolled their eyes at PSG’s run of Ligue 1 destruction. A farmer’s league, they call Ligue 1, a ramshackle collection of low-rent teams made up of players not good enough to reach or stay in elite leagues like the Premier League. PSG is the only French team to make DeLoitte’s money list, while six Premier League teams sit in the top 10. It’s not an entirely fair description, but the fact that PSG hasn’t been able to succeed in the Champions League does little to calm the “farmer” talk.
Still, even without the Champions League success, PSG has achieved at least one of its goals: making the leap from national soccer club to worldwide brand. PSG has aligned with Nike and other mega-corporations, and the PSG crest is starting to show up stateside. The brand synergy works the other direction, too: the Air Jordan logo, a bit incongruous for a soccer team, nonetheless appears everywhere PSG merch is sold. Jordan-brand PSG soccer balls and t-shirts will set you back 60 to 85 Euros apiece, about $68 to $96.
Brands hate chaos, and it’s no coincidence that the ultras weren’t a part of the PSG brand’s rise. But in 2016, after long negotiations between the club and the Paris Ultras Collective, the ultras once again won the right to gather in Virage Auteuil … and now they had a larger goal in mind, an enemy beyond the borders of France.
The Champions League flameout
Which brings us to the second part of our story: the Champions League and Manchester United. PSG struck an important blow for the cause of French soccer — and their own brand growth — last month when they punched Manchester United in the mouth on its home turf. One of soccer’s most venerable and decorated clubs, Manchester United is the soccer equivalent of the New York Yankees, and when PSG beat the Red Devils 2-0 at Old Trafford, the world took notice. Could this be the year PSG finally came through on its perpetual promise? Could this be the year PSG finally delivered the Champions League title its billionaire owners crave?
The answer: a spectacular Nope. In the second half of the home-and-home battle with Man U, PSG didn’t just lose, it swan-dived into a face-plant, giving up three goals on its own turf and, in the process, pinwheeling out of the Champions League in utter disgrace. The world laughed as the ultras raged.
And here’s where Marseille, the third branch of our story, re-enters the picture. On the pitch, Marseille hasn’t put up any kind of fight in years. Over the last 19 matches, PSG holds a 16-0-3 record. But Marseille has set up mansions in PSG’s head. Paris police forbade Marseille fans from even attending Sunday’s match, noting "les supporters Marseillais qui ne manqueraient pas de se moquer d’eux." (“Marseille fans would not fail to make fun of [PSG fans].”) “Make fun” is obviously a genial translation; Marseille fans who taunted the ultras could have ended up in a coma.
(As an Atlanta Falcons fan who will take “28-3” jabs for the rest of my natural life, I have very little sympathy for the ultras on this point. Get over it, lads. It wasn’t even a quarterfinal.)
Even without their fans in the house, Marseille had plans to dig in under PSG’s skin. Mario Balotelli reportedly wore a shirt featuring an image of Marcus Rashford — the Manchester United player who had scored the devastating, hope-shattering goal against PSG just weeks before — and would have displayed it had he scored. It’s probably best for all concerned that he didn’t get the chance.
The fans boycott
So that’s what we had coming into this year’s Classique, the first game to be played at Parc des Princes since that shattering Man U loss. That’s an awful lot of weight to put on a single soccer match, and there were signs ahead of the game that the strain was showing.
The ultras tore out their own broken hearts and showed them to PSG, writing a wrenching open letter to the team. “We are again the laughing stock of Europe. We have been repaid with shame and contempt, but we remain faithful to the PGS, but made up of mercenaries who are more interested in their salary than in defending our symbol,” the letter read. “We will no longer accept our colors to be soiled in this way.”
PSG held its traditional pre-match open practice at Parc des Princes instead of their usual training grounds, citing security concerns. The club let in about a hundred ultras, who proceeded to boo, whistle and insult the team as PSG ran through its practice routines. Players and coaches met with the ultras, and PSG did a bit of public relations damage control.
“It’s always a good encounter, a fantastic moment to share with the fans,” former PSG star Vincent Guérin said of the Classique. “Let’s be strong, players and fans, all together.”
“We need our supporters,” manager Thomas Tuchel said Saturday. “It’s important to have that atmosphere [Sunday] at the Parc.”
The fact that the Champions League flameout came with time still left in a largely meaningless Ligue 1 season added another complicating factor. There’s no exact American equivalent for this, but imagine if, say, the Patriots lost in the playoffs but still had to go beat up on the Jets, Dolphins and Bills to close out the schedule and win the AFC East. How excited would Pats fans be about those walkovers? Exactly.
Ticket prices dropped instantly after the Man U loss, from a low of €100 to less than €50. And while the stadium filled up, the premium season ticket-holder sections — the places with padded, personally labeled seats — were notably patchy. The high rollers aren’t interested in these provincial matchups.
Early on, neither was anyone else. Sure, the bars around the stadium’s security perimeter were six deep as fans pregamed, and pop-up shops sold reams of ANTI MARSEILLES scarves, along with a selection of t-shirts and flags with French sayings that I’m going to assume were obscene as all hell.
But as fans proceeded through the security cordon — there were five separate security checks, plus a full pat-down, plus a ticketing system that identified each patron by name — there wasn’t that buzz that you feel before the biggest games. No one shouted, no one chanted. Everyone just sort of … shuffled to their seats.
Everyone, that is, but the ultras. Over in the Virage Auteuil, they left their entire section empty, the Eiffel Tower icon created by the colors of the seats now a raised middle finger to the team. Signs reading “On N’Oublie Pas” (“We do not forget”) and “Des Biftons à la Place du Cœur” (“Banknotes instead of hearts,” implying PSG plays more for money than passion) hung from railings. The ultras planned to boycott the game for the first 30 minutes, remaining silent, remaining still.
Without the ultras, the opening minutes of the match had all the energy of a preseason American football game. The usual range of stadium hits — U2’s “Desire,” Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”—echoed off the Parc’s angled roof. When Marseille walked onto the field, the crowd booed and whistled, but it was rote, perfunctory. This was the “candy-coated” Parc des Princes that Polin and many others had criticized during the six ultra-less years earlier this decade, and it was about as threatening an environment as a half-full high school gym.
Over in the Virage Auteuil, the ultras stood silently along the concourses.
Out on the pitch, PSG showed just why they’re one of the world’s best teams — and consequently, given their lack of European success, one of the world’s most infuriating. Even with two of their three key weapons — Neymar Jr. and Edinson Cavani — sidelined, they were a relentless wave, firing passes through keyholes, controlling tempo and turf, depantsing Marseille on every possession.
Everything blows up
And then it happened. With 18 minutes elapsed, forward Angel Di Maria broke free and scored what appeared to be a brilliant goal. VAR — soccer’s video review system, as infuriating here as it is in the NFL — overturned the goal, ruling Di Maria had been offsides. But that didn’t even matter, because the moment his shot hit the back of the net, the night took a sharp turn.
In an instant, the ultras abandoned their boycott. They cut loose, flowing down into their seats, kicking off nearly two straight hours of screaming and chanting and pounding twin drums. And the effect was astounding, a jet engine turned on full blast. Listen to this:
I have no idea what the hell they’re chanting, but the SEC needs to step up its fan game pic.twitter.com/BFfZ4FbqmP— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) March 17, 2019
Do you have any idea how loud you have to chant to get an echo in an open-air stadium? The ultras make SEC fans look like Saturday-afternoon dilettantes.
The ultras’ absence and sudden, earsplitting appearance had its desired effect, galvanizing both the rest of the crowd and the team. It was a reunion of lovers kept apart by their own failures and their pride. Mbappé, who appears to operate in an entirely different timestream from his opponents, scored the first official goal just before halftime, and ran past the ultras with his hands out, a half-smirking expression that read something like “is that enough for you?” on his face.
The ultras, meanwhile, celebrated goals by setting off road flares in the stands:
On a darker note, the ultras also showed why the team doesn’t fully trust them even now. Several flares were thrown onto the area behind the goal; on a more ominous note, thrown cherry bombs detonated right near guards ringing the field. One, his hand to his head, left the field entirely but appeared to return later.
Even though Marseille managed to sneak in an equalizer just after halftime, the night never felt like anything more than an inevitable PSG victory. Di Maria scored less than 10 minutes after Marseille’s goal, then poured in another six minutes later on a bank-shot 30-meter free kick.
"We know that the Classique is not a game like the others,” PSG defender Colin Dagba said after the game. “We had to win, especially in front of our fans.”
“It was a good evening because we played with quality but also the right mentality,” Tuchel noted. “It was a special match and we were prepared."
Even after the victory, though, neither PSG nor the ultras were ready to kiss and make up. The PSG players didn’t make their usual trek to the north end of the stadium to salute the ultras. And the ultras, after all, hung that “On N’Oublie Pas” sign.
In the minutes after the game ended, fans piled into the PSG Mega Store just outside the gates, each one looking to expand the brand just a little more. Police were in full hammer-looking-for-a-nail mode, strapped helmet-to-boots in riot gear and holding up plastic shields that formed an unsettling gauntlet. Inside, security guards herded the last of the straggling, selfie-taking fans up the aisles and out the gates. As the last of the fans left, one more cherry bomb exploded in the empty stadium’s upper reaches, echoing into the night.
For now, a fragile peace is back in place. PSG has to start winning big, and the ultras have to keep their devotion from turning violent. Can both sides hold up their end of the deal? No telling. Love doesn’t come with guarantees.
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