I first visited Paris in summer 2011. My friend took a photo of me outside the Parc des Princes – home to the newly-purchased football club Paris Saint-Germain – so I could say I was there before they became big. At the time, the Ligue 1 title had been swapping hands regularly after the dominance of Lyon in the previous decade. Montpellier went on to win the title in the season following PSG’s takeover but the Parisians have transformed the entire French football scene since.
World class footballing names such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Neymar have been bought by the club’s billionaire Qatari owners in the past eight seasons – the latter breaking the world transfer record for a player at a staggering €222m. Their substantial investment has paid off, though, with PSG quadrupling their Ligue 1 title tally from two to eight, while a further nine cup triumphs have been achieved.
Heading back to Paris in summer 2019, PSG were a major force in European football, as well as a global international brand. I felt very excited to have tickets for their first Ligue 1 game of the season against Nimes Olympique and eager to see some of the best players in Europe.
Mbappe, Mbappe, Mbappe
One of the biggest stars in the PSG team is Kylian Mbappe. The French winger is only fresh out of his teens but he’s already won the World Cup, three consecutive Ligue 1 titles and the golden boot for PSG last season (33 goals in 29 games). His extraordinary performances on the biggest stages have cemented his name in the minds – and shirts – of football fans across the world and I was buzzing to see his name in the starting line-up whilst queuing up outside the Parc des Princes.
The other standout player in the 11 was Cavani, who, after six years in the French capital, was PSG’s all-time top goal scorer on 193 goals. He extended his record during the match by opening the scoring from the spot with an emphatic strike that had too much power for visiting goalkeeper Paul Bernardoni, who’d guessed the right way.
I was pleased to see a PSG legend score right in front of us and then perform his trademark ‘sniper’ celebration. However, it didn’t compare to the rush provided by their wonder-kid on the wing.
Mbappe was exactly that I wanted him to be: unpredictable. When he looked isolated out wide, he would take on two players and suddenly find himself free in the box. His pace was electric. His runs were impeccable. When he made it 2-0 in the second half, my brain had a moment delay processing the bullet first-time shot he hit into the top corner.
I thoroughly enjoyed joining in with the three stadium shoutouts he had after scoring. A picture of him came on the big screen with his arms folded under his armpits – the power stance which indicates he’s just produced another piece of magic. Kylian… Mbappe! Kylian… Mbappe! Kylian… MBAPPE! Later, he confirmed his status as player of the match by finding substitute Angel Di Maria free in the box and the Argentinian made it 3-0.
Mbappe should have scored more. Other players should have profited from his stunning deliveries. But at least I can say I’ve seen him score a goal live. Even if my brain couldn’t keep up with it.
Another major influence on my matchday enjoyment came from the ultras. We were sat next to a block of Nimes fans who were bouncing – and shirtless – for the whole 90 minutes. Some were waving inflatable crocodiles in honour of the team’s nickname.
The home supporters were equally as rowdy. There were a few making a racket in the tier above us but those in the stand opposite were the most memorable. Not only did they provide the best atmosphere but their banners against their absent forward, Neymar, were cutting.
I’ve never been a fan of the Brazilian. He’s undoubtedly a class player but his attitude is appalling, indicated by his failure to show up on PSG’s first day of pre-season training this summer. He’s currently seeking a move away from Paris and PSG’s ultras revealed exactly how they felt about that.
Chants calling him a ‘son of a bitch’ were heard around the ground, while banners told him to ‘get lost’ and also compared him to a prostitute. My favourite anti-Neymar sign, though, was one which congratulated Marquinhos and Thiago Silva on winning the Copa America with Brazil in the summer. Neymar missed the tournament through injury, so the hidden message read: Brazil didn’t need you to be successful and neither do we. Subtle but sweet.
More positive vibes came from the seats right next to us. A father had taken his young boy to the game, possibly for the first time, and was determined to make him an ultra. They chanted together, cheered together and the boy nearly punched me in the face a couple of times through pure excitement. He screamed Mbappe’s name whenever he caught a glimpse of the man. It was really endearing to see them enjoying football to that level.
VAR gets worse
Besides the strange entry system to the Parc des Princes that involves walking around a car park to access the Boulogne Stand, the only real negative from the matchday was the use of VAR.
My first introduction to Video Assistance Refereeing came in the Women’s World Cup when a penalty was given for handball. The match continued for around half a minute before the referee stopped the game to make a review. A further minute delay occurred and a penalty was awarded afterwards. We were given a brief look at the penalty incident on the big screen but many of those in the ground still felt bemused by the decision.
PSG’s opening penalty in this game was like that World Cup incident but to the nth degree. It was given for another handball. No one appealed for it at the time and the VAR review didn’t start until two minutes after the initial contact had been made. No replays were given during or after the review. PSG fans celebrated when the ref pointed to the spot but they were timid cheers. Most people were just confused as to why they’d been awarded a spot-kick.
I don’t think Cavani’s goal had much impact on the final result – Nimes were playing for a draw at best. But as a spectator, I’ve hated my two VAR experiences. It wasn’t until I got back to England and watched the match highlights back that I managed to find out what the penalty was given for. That’s not good enough and it’s killing the joy of watching high-level sport in person. Give us a challenge-system, please.
The Parc des Princes has been on my groundhopping hit list for a while. I really like the Jurassic-looking spinal exterior of the stadium and I was pleased to learn the former velodrome had an impressive interior to match.
Despite being quite a distance away from the pitch, I was impressed with the view from the cheapest seats in the ground (€25). I could still feel the raw talent of Mbappe as he attacked the wing in front of us, however, I do wish he’d scored in our end, as our low-angled position slightly hampered our understanding of the game in the second half.
The relentless noise coming from around the stadium made up for that, though, and I would definitely love to re-visit. Mbappe might have moved on by then but maybe I can revel in Neymar’s last season at the club before he retires as a PSG legend following a trophy-laden decade in the French capital. Nous verrons.
Paris Saint-Germain 3
Nimes Olympique 0
Ground rating: 8.5/10
Best Of The Rest
The football was the final act of a long weekend in Paris for the girlfriend and I. Much of our time before the match consisted of seeing world class architecture on the streets and world class artwork in the Musee d’Orsay and the Musee Louvre.
Musee d’Orsay is a beautiful converted train station that now homes famous artwork from the likes of Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. The entry fee was €14 for me and free for Saffron because she was under 26. A bit steep – and a little unfair – but I did get to see Monet’s Rue Montorgueil, a painting that I’ve loved since my days studying art in college.
The Musee Louvre had another ghastly entry price of €17. Saffron, again, walked in for free. However, I felt less aggrieved by this figure following our visit.
The Louvre is a staggering museum. The building is ornate and grand, while the art inside is never-ending. We admired sculptures, artifacts and some of the most iconic paintings in the world. I say ‘some’ because I didn’t see the most famous of all paintings, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, due to the museum map being a literal riddle.
I guess I shouldn’t have picked up the French version. I did manage to see a da Vinci, though, and I got it – the man was seriously good at art. I don’t think I would have came to that conclusion had I seen one of his works from five yards away behind bulletproof glass and scores of tourists. But it still would have been nice to find out.
Other noteworthy experiences came from the world of entertainment. The day after my birthday, we headed to Jardin du Luxembourg and recreated the cover to one of my all-time favourite albums: Lonerism by Tame Impala.
That album soundtracked my years of feeling lonely and depressed. It helped me through a lot of dark days. To finally be at those garden gates, particularly with a sounder mind, made me extremely happy.
Elsewhere, we visited the bridge from Inception and the cafe where Audrey Tautou’s Amelie worked in the film. We also ran across the craziest roundabout in Europe to reach the Arc de Triomphe and walked through Montmartre and the red light district on my actual birthday.
All this, and we still missed out on many things. I’ll have to book another trip in eight years time.