Before the mega media saturation of football from all over the globe, European football was a very exotic thing. I have clear memories of sitting in wide-eyed amazement the first time I saw the San Siro or Bernebeau on screen for the first time. These were places you read about in Match, Shoot or 90 Minutes but seeing them live was a special treat. The cameras always looked different, sometimes employing mad overhead and behind-the-keeper angles which were clearly at the whim of the local director and the (usually BBC) commentator sounded scratchy and tinny, like he was recording from a shed, in an outpost on the dark side of the moon. It was all so gloriously alien and ‘foreign’.
I guess 1992 was the first watershed with Channel 4 launching gazetta football italia, fronted by the football hipster’s Jesus, James Richardson, it offered a mix of a live game and a magazine / round-up show. Maybe the initial idea was to cash in on the popularity of Paul Gascoigne who joined David Platt and the less memorable Des Walker as the sole English representatives in what was at that time the best league in Europe. All three were back in the UK within the next few years but Football Italia ran on for 10 more years on channel 4, there was clearly some allure to this fancy foreign football outwith members of the England squad.
Before the premiership became the juggernaut it is today with its shiny, identikit, edge of town stadia there was a lot of crumbling terraces and general greyness about British football. The European games, by contrast, seemed like pageants and colour and noise. I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch Marseille v Milan in what was, I think, a semi final of the old European Cup. Chris Waddle was playing for Marseille, in fact he scored in a 1-0 win. I remember my dad telling me this was ‘entirely different to the shite you see played in England’. He was right on that one, the football was clearly of a much higher quality but the atmosphere was incredible. The flares and the sheer volume and power of the noise emanating from the stands, it seemed both terrfying and exciting and I wanted to see it in person.
I got to see Nantes v PSG by chance really, my French girlfriend was maybe trying to sweeten my stay in her homeland by mentioning her brother might be able to get some tickets for the PSG game while we were visiting. She’d already sat through Celtic v Aberdeen in the pissing rain and freezing cold in Glasgow so I figured it was only right and chivalrous to return the favour. Besides it was a chance to see if Zlatan is as big a bastard in person (he is).
Nantes city is striking due to a number of beautiful features and magnificent buildings, it does also have one notable football quirk, with the old main stand of Nantes original stadium, Stade Marcel-Saupin, still standing and in impressive condition, the other three sides have been demolished for commercial and residential units but the main stand and a pitch remain, used for youth and reserve games in what must make for an odd, if not unattractive setting.
Since 1984 though Nantes have played at Stade de la Beaujoire in the North East of the city. Though the PSG game is slated for a 9pm start on a Sunday night (TV people, hurrah!) traffic is building steadily from around 6pm and by 7pm the fan area around the stadium is already awash with yellow and green as well as a smattering of navy and red-clad PSG fans. A lot of those PSG fans are kids. Success breeds that though and the atmosphere is convivial in general.
The fan area is essentially a massive landscape of tents selling all manner of hot and cold foods and beers (yes, really) though there were no badge sellers there were also no half and half scarves…which i took as a good sign. Instead they had commemorative mugs for your beer, €1 extra. Yes ok fine I bought two, happy now? Having the fan park opened early allows the atmosphere to build but there were one or two other differences.
Firstly, ripping tickets at the gate is still a thing in Ligue 1. It’s something I’d almost forgotten about but there on the outer stadium gate are rows of stewards tearing tickets and directing people inside, up a small flight of stairs there is then the search, the ladies joining a much bigger queue as handbags were checked for flares, drugs and knives. Flares anyway. That was when I first noticed just how many women were at the game, a notable excess on what you’d typically see in the UK barring some tacky ‘ladies day’ promotion. The queues to be searched snaked out as did the queue for the ladies toilets at half time, they certainly weren’t all there to admire Edinson Cavani’s admittedly impressive cheekbones or Thiago Silva’s beefy thighs.
It felt more like a festival pre-game. Outside the stadium musicians in traditional regional attire waved flags and played traditional music whilst the air was thick with those familar football smells tobacco, beer, burgers, fries. From about 8pm people are making their way inside. In the UK or Ireland you might be downing your last pint before dashing in 10 minutes before kick off but with beer and yet more food also availablle inside the ground nobody is in a rush.
The good atmosphere was tainted slightly when everything went a bit 1985 just prior to kick off. It seems a PSG ‘firm’ had gotten some general sale tickets in the home stand closest to the away enclosure. During the pre match tifo there was a deafening roar as a group of away fans attempted to disrupt the tifo and ‘take’ the home end which drew out the more animated members of the home support.
Things turned sour then for a little while. The stewards and police moved quickly to corral the interlopers from Paris who were then marched, much like kids on a day out at the swimming pool, two abreast around the back of the stand and to an adjoining enclosure next to the away section that could only really be described as a cage. Notably, they were kept in that section for the duration, away even from the ‘regular’ PSG fans.
From a purely self-indulgent perspective I was getting the whole experience right here, even with a little fracas thrown in for effect. In any respect nobody was hurt in the incident and the PSG fans seemed content, in spite of all their hand gestures and tattoos, to be surrounded by the police once they made their initial braveheart charge down the stand. The home fans reacted pretty well all things considered with nothing much worse than widespread booing and jeering and a chant of Paris! Paris! On t’ecule! (essentially Paris, Paris, up your arse).
La Loire is the massive terrace behind the goald Nantes traditionally attack in the second half and drives most of the atmosphere in La Beaujoire and seeing and hearing it in person, you would lament the demise of the terrace in football. It looked pretty full 45 minutes before kick off but still more yellow and green clad fans piled in right up until kick off until it took on the look of the heaving mass of humanity you see on Match of the 70s. Flares erupted and a gigantic tifo was passed over the terrace as the other three stands roared their approval. For a club who have not won anything of note for 15 years the home side still draw a good crowd. There was just under 40,000 for the PSG game but they average over 25,000 which is a healthy number in a country where even top teams occasionally play to sparse crowds, not just Monaco either.
On the pitch they are a ways off the visitors and action on the park mirrored the dramatic start off the pitch, adding to the frenetic, whirlwind nature of the first half. Cavani had PSG ahead within 5 minutes and with Nantes visibly shaken they broke through twice more early on drawing fine stops from home keeper Riou, the best performer for the home side on the night. It took the home side around 20 minutes to settle into the game and apply a little pressure of their own but one Douchez save in the first half aside the Champions-elect were rarely troubled at the back.
PSG are a little like Chelsea. You can’t help but admire how they go about taking apart the less-moneyed sides but there is little to love in their personnel, approach or fan base. Matuidi poking home a second before half time meant that the second half was more tame fare with PSG holding on to a valuable three points in their title race with Lyon by ceding terrtory and possession and looking to counter. Nantes show plenty of effort but lack quality in a couple of key areas but most notably up front. They have been mid table for most of the season and the side reflected that, pretty average on the whole. Not bad enough to go down but not good enough to challenge for Europe.
The fans remained with the players until the end, willing at least a goal for their efforts. When it became apparent that goal was not forthcoming the inhabitants of La Loire took to entertaining themselves by doing ‘avalanches’ and cheering anyway. Aside from the odd round of sighs when somebody miscontrolled the ball the home fans were universally supportive and even though the game was lost they seemed to take delight in drowning out the PSG fans. It was the kind of hopelessly outgunned defiance that we saw at Celtic when Murray’s Rangers used to rock up with all their interntationals. If we make more noise and put on a show we can still win, at least in one way.
Post game the fan park remains open for another hour so you can take the chance to grab another drink or, in my case, an ‘American’ which is essentially a big, french hotdog with fries and if you ever get the chance to have one then do yourself a favour. On this night, with the later kick off a lot of people are scurrying off with their early start the next day in mind. An affable local strolled up to me and began giving out (I assumed) before my girlfriend explained to him I didn’t speak French. He muttered and ambled off to pick up the conversation with somebody else. I asked my girlfriend what he had been saying, “moaning about the coach”. I nodded sagely, a different experience for sure but some things are universal.
Photographs courtesy of Virginie Bineau & Florient Bineau