We were late for the match, so had to jump from the train at Porte de Clignancourt, on the northern edge of Paris, and race along the dark rain-streaked roads past the still-bustling Saint-Ouen flea market.
My friend Conor and I were on our way to see a lower league football game between Red Star 93 – based in the Stade Docteur Bauer just north of the flea market – and L’Entente SSG, a club from a few miles up the road in Saint-Gratien.
The weekend was a tale of two matches. Firstly, a trip back in time to historic Red Star, and then back to the present: a journey to French football’s biggest fixture of the year.
Red Star was founded in 1897, and the club was a powerhouse of French football between the wars – winning the Coupe de France five times – before going into a period of decline that was arrested somewhat when they spent the majority of the seasons between 1965 and 1975 in Ligue 1. However, now a much reduced force, they play in group A of the French Amateur League – effectively the fourth tier of French football.
One of our reasons for travelling out to this evocative old stadium on the edge of the city was an Irish connection: Tony Cascarino had joined Red Star from his previous club AS Nancy in the summer of 2000, putting a brave face on stepping down from the top league, hoping it meant a new start. But it didn’t provide the reinvigoration Cascarino was seeking: he only played two games at the beginning of the season, and was soon on his way. Nevertheless, with that short-lived transfer a glancing relationship with Irish football was established, one we were keen to explore.
Our other trip that weekend was to Parc des Princes, to see Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) take on Olympique de Marseille – another of journeyman Cascarino’s ex-clubs – in the grudge match that has become known as ‘la Classique’. PSG’s past provides a sharp contrast to that of Red Star. Red Star has all the history, the connection with a literally iconic figure (the first World Cup trophy was named after their founder, Jules Rimet), yet PSG, formed only in 1970 through the merger of two Paris clubs, have the success – and the crowds – that Red Star lack.
PSG’s first game in Parc des Princes had been in 1973, in a second division game against Red Star. In 1974, both Red Star and PSG were promoted to Ligue 1; this was Red Star’s last season in the top division. The teams passed each other quietly, like ships in the night, embodying two dramatically different eras.
The experience of arriving at Red Star’s ground tells you this is a big club that has fallen far: you turn a corner, pass a church, and reach a muddy car-park behind a large stand, a covered terrace behind one of the goals. The stadium’s capacity far exceeds the relatively small demand for tickets. It’s obvious that the club once had much larger crowds, filling all four corners of the ground.
The floodlights are on, the incandescent light bleeding past the stands into the surrounding streets. From the noise of the crowd you can hear that the game has already kicked off. You buy two tickets at the window, each costing only 4 euro, double-checking the price with the seller in disbelief. Once inside, you’re on a concrete terrace, surrounded by chanting fans who keep up the noise for the whole game, fans of mixed ages and of different races: North African, Sub-Saharan African and Middle-Eastern. People drink cheap beer from plastic glasses; some smoke; in the middle of the stand, there’s a children’s section where at half-time a young lad stands on the terrace practicing his free-kicks with an invisible ball, trying to target its imaginary flight towards somewhere near the centre circle.
At one end of the Stade Bauer stands a wedge-shaped apartment block coloured in brown and yellow, making it resemble nothing so much as an extremely large pizza slice. Silhouetted in the windows, you can see people sitting, watching the game.
The match was played at a good pace, and with remarkable skill, by players who looked good enough to be playing at a much higher level. Two excellent goals in the first half, both spectacular – the first from distance, initially looking like a cross that beat the unfortunate goalkeeper, the second a low swerving shot hit hard from the right that curled inside the post – meant that Red Star ended the game as deserving victors. Afterwards we went across the road to a bar; above the counter was a team photo taken in the summer of 2000 with, unmistakeably, the figure of Tony Cascarino lurking in the back row.
The next day’s game was an altogether different experience. Parc des Princes is a vast concrete amphitheatre in the west of the city, a sharp contrast to the intimacy of Red Star’s ground. For this trip, we were joined by my girlfriend Laura. We arrived in a packed Métro train not far from the ground, not knowing what to expect. PSG fans have a reputation for violence, something that was more than hinted at by the battalions of riot police stationed along the streets outside the stadium. Marseille supporters, sworn enemies of the PSG crowd, were not allowed in, leaving the corner of the stadium reserved for away fans oddly empty.
After several checkpoints and searches, we arrived in our seats. The atmosphere was explosive – PSG had been overshadowed in their midweek European nil-all stalemate by Marseille’s 7-0 away win against Zilnia. The newspapers were full of quotes from Marseille sources about the club’s ‘tradition’ and ‘history’ – an obvious slight to PSG, which celebrates only the 40th anniversary of its founding this year.
Against the grain, PSG ground out a famous victory, scoring two early goals, then conceding a goal from Marseille on the break, before holding on heroically until the end. The crowd, never less than volatile up until the final whistle, erupted in an unwieldy combination of sheer relief and triumphal aggression.
On the train on the way back into the city, PSG fans chanted insulting songs aimed at their absent Marseille counterparts. For tonight, at least, Parisian football would have the upper hand.