PARIS—On my walk back from the Metro after the PSG game, I passed a fruit vendor on Rue Cler. Baskets of long skinny strawberries sat out front. Gariguettes, the chalkboard sign said. I must have some of these French Gariguettes, I thought. They looked so juicy and fresh that I stopped walking as soon as I saw them.
I took my basket to the register, and the clerk said he liked the way I was wearing my baseball hat, which was backwards. Thanks, I said, turning around to show him my new PSG cap. “I just got back from the game!”
“Wow, you got to see the whistling!” he said. “That was crazy! PSG fans are so spoiled. They have no history, they have nothing, and they think they can act like that!”
I wasn’t planning to write about my first time going to a European soccer match until the clerk made it clear to me how strange and important the game really was. These PSG fans really sat there and jeered at Messi and Neymar, even when Neymar scored the second goal!
I don’t know much about the European kind of football, but I once toured Camp Nou when I was visiting Barcelona. Even though I wasn’t there in season for a game, it was still cool to see all their trophies and Lionel Messi tributes, and I decided that the next time I was in Europe, I would try to get to a big club’s match.
My friend Julia is interning in Paris right now, so I decided to go visit her this month with my friend Sarah. It just so happened that PSG would be playing Bordeaux at home while we were there. We bought tickets in the Boulogne stand, which is directly across from the Auteuil stand, where the most ardent PSG supporters sit, and right below the visiting team’s upper level section.
On Friday night at ZigZag Cafe in the seventh arrondissement, one of Julia’s Parisian friends gave me some background on the PSG team I would be seeing on Sunday. While she rolled her own cigarette at the table (she’s going to quit when she turns 25), she said her brothers were huge fans. She hadn’t been to a game in a few years, but she knew PSG had been underperforming lately and had just lost a huge game. All I knew was that Messi had left Barcelona for Paris last summer, and she said yes, that’s the problem. A big star is here and they still lost! But in between Friday and Sunday, I forgot to look up what game they lost and why it mattered. I googled PSG’s record, and it showed them at the top of Ligue 1, with Bordeaux at the bottom. What’s the problem? I thought. They’re in first place!
My friends and I got off the train at Porte d’Auteuil and walked a few blocks up to the stadium, Parc des Princes, which struck me as a really unfortunate looking place. It reminded me of Northwestern’s main library: a huge blocky concrete eyesore straight out of the late ‘60s. It was a gray and drizzly afternoon and there weren’t really any exciting vibes on the way to the stadium. We could have been walking into a museum. No one tried to sell me counterfeit merchandise (which I would have been so game to buy), and there were no bucket drummers or even a real buzz among the fans walking in.
We missed all the player intros because we hit the wrong entrance, but while we were weaving our way through residential Paris, we heard what sounded like booing. We thought it was just the Bordeaux players being introduced.
Once we finally found the right entrance, we took our seats and freaked out about our view. We were so close behind Bordeaux’s goal! And to our right in the upper level, the Bordeaux Ultras were loudly chanting and clapping. They moved from one song to the next seamlessly and even performed some very complicated choreography that involved turning around to face away from the field. Each time we looked up they had a different prop out. Blue flags, white flags, banners, scarves. The director of the Ultras was perched on the railing of the upper deck with one leg dangling off behind him.
Once we tore our attention from the Bordeaux crowd, we noticed something very strange. The Auteuil stand, where the PSG supporters are, was also mysteriously quiet. They easily outnumbered the Bordeaux Ultras, but were trying only half as hard to cheer and sing. My friends and I hardly know anything about this team, but we could pick out Messi and Neymar right away, and the fans were whistling and jeering every time either player touched the ball. What’s going on? Why are they all being so mean? These are the stars!
PSG’s Kylian Mbappe scored first and everyone jumped up and screamed. I high-fived the man sitting next to me. He looked like a real soccer-knower, but I was worried he was French and wouldn’t bother to answer my pesky questions about PSG. “This is my first game!” I told him, testing the waters to see if this could be a new pal or not.
“That’s great! Are you visiting from the States?” He said in a very clear British accent.
Alistair and I became fast friends, mostly because he also likes American football and identifies as a Packers fan because he has a friend who lives in Milwaukee. He had even been to the Milwaukee suburb Wauwatosa before (which is a hilarious word to hear in a British accent!). Why are they booing Messi and Neymar? We asked our new soccer knower friend.
Alistair generously explained to us that PSG lost to Real Madrid last week. A game that, “they were in position to win,” until Karim Benzema scored three goals in 16 minutes. I then learned that PSG has never won the Champions League. They were semi finalists last year and the runner-up in 2020, added the superstar Messi for this season to get them over the hump, and had the game nearly won against Real Madrid, before allowing a comeback that knocked them out of the round of 16.
Now it made sense why everyone seemed so gloomy outside the stadium. Just before halftime, I noticed a big black banner in the PSG Ultras section that said, “DIRECTION DÉMISSION” (which meant something about management resigning). Then all the fans in the supporters section got up and left. “Where are they going?” I asked Alistair, who has lived in Paris since the summer, but was also attending his first PSG game. “Oh it’s some sort of protest,” he said, rolling his eyes. “They aren’t happy with how the team is being managed.”
The three sections where the Ultras sit have red, white and blue seats that form PSG’s Eiffel Tower design. They remained empty for the rest of the game, and the only fans making real noise were Bordeaux’s. Neymar scored in the 52nd minute, and I cheered, because this was what I paid to see. But everywhere else in the stadium, he got booed! And while I was trying to process this in real-time, with the help of my friend Alistair, the Bordeaux Ultras started a new chant, which Alistair translated for us as “Paris, go fuck yourself!”
The entire section in front of us stood up and flipped the fuck-you European arm motion AND also flipped the bird to the Bordeaux crowd. These people were mad! It made sense, at least, when it was directed towards the opponent.