Paris St. Germain 2 Lille 1, French League Cup Final (23rd April 2017)
This wasn’t my first trip to Paris. In fact it was my third. The first was way back in 1977. Although my memories, as a 7 year old nipper, have mainly faded, one that stuck with me was that my Dad was too tight to pay the fee to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, so we could only go up to the 2nd stage.
On my 2nd trip I righted this wrong by making going to the top the very first thing I did, persuading a group of dithering American tourists that they had to do it too, as they’d probably never come back and get the chance again. That trip up the tower was at almost midnight, with the opening hours specially extended due to it being Bastille Day the following day. I had no idea about Bastille Day, and was very surprised to emerge at from the Arc de Triomphe metro station the following morning to see the place surrounded by tanks, and began to wonder if France had fallen to a military coup.
The view at night was terrific. Unfortunately, my camera back then was utterly useless, being just a cheap disposable one – this was back in 1999 – and not a single picture I took that night came out. This meant that on my third trip to the city, I was determined to complete a quest to not only go to the top, but to have some pictures as well. In truth, my Dad’s customary Yorkshire frugality had a point, as the view from the very top isn’t really any better from the middle. You just pay an extra €6 for the thrill of being higher up.
Something else I’d failed to do in France was watch a football match there, which is quite surprising considering that as the crow flies, France is nearer to my house than Derby. The problem has always been a mixture of TV rearranging games at very short notice, and a fondness for Friday night games. It wasn’t an immediate concern. I’d be going to six venues for Euro 2016, so I knew I could let going to a club game slide for another season.
For this weekend, I’d actually planned to go to Lewes, and have a look round the castle and the old town centre, before taking in a game at the fantastically named “Dripping Pan”. I’d was hit by curiosity in the week though, and checked out the Stade de France website for any games potentially next month. I saw an advert for the upcoming League Cup Final at the stadium on Saturday. I didn’t even know France had a League Cup, but more crucially, there was a button offering the chance to buy tickets.
I clicked on the link and saw decently priced tickets, then checked out Eurostar prices – only mildly extortionate – and decided to take the plunge and go for it. Earlier trains were cheaper, but they’d have meant getting up at silly O’Clock to get to St. Pancras, and in any case, the kick off was late enough to mean I could arrive for lunch, and still have the whole afternoon to whizz round Paris (+ a few hours the following day too).
And by late kick-off, it really was late, not starting until 9 pm. Such late kick offs were something I’d have to get used to in June, with no fewer than five of my six games in the Euros having that same late night slot. After a beer (€7.50!) and half of an Irish breakfast (I couldn’t eat it all after an afternoon snack of a Nutella & coconut crêpe proved far more filling that I imagined) in a pub near the Pompidou Centre, I set off at about 7.30 for the regional express train from the nearby station that went direct to the stadium.
It actually took me longer to find the right platform than it did to take the train the stadium. Parisian Metro interchange stations are the work of a fiendish mind, combining a lack of signage with a network of twisting, turning, multi-level passageways so labyrinthian than you expect to see a minotaur appearing round each corner.
The approach from the station is slightly reminiscent of Wembley Way, without quite visual impact, due to trees blocking the view, and a motorway overpass cutting across. It still had the same legion of food stalls and knock-off scarf sellers though. These weren’t actually too bad. Not really favouring either team, I picked up a half & half scarf for €10. They aren’t something I’m keen on as a rule, but for a final it made sense, especially for someone one who doesn’t have any colours to nail to the mast.
Part of me favoured Lille, for being underdogs, but part of me felt I should be loyal to the city I was staying in. I was also niggled by Lille’s stadium. I have a lower ticket for Italy v Ireland in the Euros, as was quite pleased to be in Row 23, with a decent view, until I found that someone had inexplicably decided that in Lille, the front row isn’t Row 1. In Lille, the front row is Row 16.
Not surprisingly, considering the terrorist attacks of November, part of which took place at this very stadium, security was extremely tight. A first ticket check took place at the underpass for the motorway flyover. All tickets were then checked against the names on each ticket as fans queued to get in, and once inside, fans – every single fan – was given the most thorough frisking I’ve seen at a game.
I’d never really been that taken with the Stade de France before. It looked a little too grey, and a little too much of a bowl. It was definitely one of those that look far better when you are there though. Somehow the camera flattens stadiums, and you never get that feeling of being inside the bowl of the stadium. This was one of those though that makes you go “wow” when you emerge for the first time from the stairway.
The roof certainly looks far better in person. You could uncharitably claim it looks like a large lavatory seat, but it hovers over the stadium with almost no visible means of support, like Saturn’s rings floating overhead. Add in the setting sun (some of those 9 pm games in June will still be daylight at HT) and it was already impressive, and then they decided to put on a laser show.
I’m usually the sort who regards the phrase pre-match entertainment as an oxymoron, but with dancing girls doing their stuff, and lasers drawing patterns on the pitch, it was impressive. I wasn’t sure what I’d have seen pre-match at Lewes if I’d gone, but I suspect dancing girls and lasers wouldn’t have figured too highly. Maybe they have burning crosses for Nov 5th games, but I doubt it.
The ground wasn’t full. In fact this would be the lowest crowd for a final since it moved to the Stade de France in 1998, but there were still nearly 69000 people in, most in PSG blue, but a sizeable chunk in the red of Lille. In fact on the side I was sitting, fans of both teams mixed together, waving their red or blue flags as kick-off approached.
I’m not sure what kept numbers down. Maybe PSG fans were getting a little blase about winning. Being heavily bankrolled, they do win quite a lot these days. They’d already won the league by such a margin that in terms of points, 2nd place Lyon were nearer 19th place Toulouse than PSG, 27 points clear, while they were bidding to win the League Cup for the third year in a row.
They nearly got off to the perfect start. Just 20 seconds into the game Angel Di Maria found the ball being cut back to him around the penalty spot, but he squandered the chance of a dream start by hitting the ball straight at the keeper.
It set the tone though for a lively game, where PSG always seemed to just have the edge, but Lille offered enough threat to make the 36 point gap in their league positions look unlikely. In a game where momentum would shift from one team to the other, PSG edged in front shortly before half time. A ball into the box was only punched to the edge of the area, and it was crashed back on the volley back at the goal. A slight deflection took it away from the keeper to put PSG 1-0 up.
Shortly after the break, the game would swing back to Lille. A free kick just outside the box was lifted over the wall into the bottom corner, with the PSG keeper only able to watch helplessly as it hit the back of the net.
The even game looked to take a big swing in Lille’s favour with 20 minutes to go. PSG’s Adrien Rabiot “took one for the team” with Lille breaking at speed from the own half. Sadly for him, he’d picked up a yellow earlier in the half, and his hands went to his Keegan-permed head as he realised the implications of his actions. Eleven days earlier their Champions League dream had ended, and now the domestic treble was at risk, with PSG down to 10 men.
The sending off sparked Lille’s players, and their fans, who been slightly subdued, as oddly is the way with the showpiece final, and the underdogs were now looking the likelier winners.
The game took a massive swing the other way again though, four minutes later. A kick upfield was met by a Lille defender, but rather than clear, he could only head it backwards. Di Maria pounced onto the loose ball, running towards goal, only to see Lille’s keeper rushing out to try to get to the ball first. It was a bad misjudgment, as Di Maria was always going to get there first, and he clipped it past Vincent Enyeama towards the empty net. Defenders ran back, but there was too much pace on the ball, and it’d hit the back of the net before the defender’s lunge could get there.
Lille battled on, but the goal seemed to drain belief from the team. If anything, PSG were creating the more dangerous chances, even if the great Zlatan was having a game that even he wouldn’t declare as proof of his genius.
Lille’s best chance came with about a minute to go. In a similar situation to PSG’s first goal, a ball dropped at the edge of the box and was lashed back towards goal. Sadly for Lille, it was inches the wrong side of the post, and you got the sense that that was that.
All that was left was for the trophy presentation. The Coupe de la Ligue trophy itself is not an unattractive cup, although the thick spirals of gold that swirl around the outside suggest the man who designed it was inspired while peeling an orange. The organisers had other ideas though, dimming the stadium lights to dramatically the increase drama, but sadly also dramatically reduce the chance of anyone with perfect 20/20 vision from being actually able to see the cup being lifted. A spray of gold glitter in the main stand, with the cup being presented Wembley-style, halfway up the stand, hinted at the general direction. The decision to turn off the TV screens didn’t help either.
And then back came the lasers, much more impressive than before with the lights off now, zipping around, making geometric shapes, and reacting well with the output from the smoke machines, although from my point of view, damn near impossible to photograph.
A second cup presentation took place, still in near darkness, but at least out on the pitch this time. Sadly, it was facing the other direction, so it was again a question of using your imagination, as well as wondering who the poor sod is who has to spend the next day getting all those tiny bits of gold paper off the pitch the following day.
Not that PSG or their fans would worry too much about that. They could celebrate into the night, even if at gone 11 pm by now, there wasn’t that much of that left.