Thursday, May 08, 2008

Footballing schadenfreude Part 1

Paris is a city that is close to my heart but I have never been able to reconcile it to something that is equally close to my most vital of organs: football. Paris just isn't a football town. Though it has hosted two World Cup finals, two European Championship finals and five Champions' Cup finals (as well as being the birthplace of all three tournaments) there is no buzz around the city associated with the game. It is not London, Manchester, Liverpool, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, much less more heaving cauldrons of fandom such as São Paolo, Buenos Aires, Istanbul or Cairo.

The city's main team is Paris Saint-Germain, who have a flimsy pedigree, having being founded only in 1970. I have never warmed to PSG, partly because of that prefabricated heritage, partly because of the flagrant bias shown the club in the French media and also because of the indulgent attitude the club has towards its notorious racist hooligan element, the Boulogne Boys. Since media heir and friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, Arnaud Lagardère tired of having Racing Club de France as a plaything, Paris has been without a second club in the top flight. US Créteil-Lusitanos, a suburban club with roots in the Portuguese immigrant community, narrowly missed out on promotion to Ligue 1 a couple of years back but they have since dropped down to the third division where they play derby matches against Paris FC, who are themselves a splinter from PSG. Now, PSG are in serious danger of dropping to the second division for the first time since 1974. With two games to go they are in the relegation zone level on points with Toulouse, who they drew 1-1 with last Saturday.

I would not be lying if I said that PSG's relegation would fill me with pleasure but my own preferred French team, the once mighty St-Etienne may have benefited from a fortuitous cup final pairing of PSG and the dominant Lyon, St-Etienne's bitter local rivals. Because PSG have already carried off the League Cup in a final remembered more for the notorious banner unfurled by the Boulogne Boys and Lyon look likely to wrap up their seventh title in a row, an extra UEFA Cup place will be open to the fifth-placed team, which is at the moment, les verts from the Massif Central. This would mean that ASSE (to give them their full abbreviation) would play European football for the first time since 1982, the year of their last title and also the year that a certain Michel Platini embarked for Turin and five successful years with Juventus. Given that my own reasons for supporting St-Etienne are wrapped up in nostalgia - they were defeated in the 1976 Champions' Cup final by Bayern Munich, stymied by Hampden Park's famous square goalposts, which deflected a Jacques Santini effort away from danger, this would be pleasing symmetry. While St-Etienne, after years of financial turmoil and numerous relegations, are nowhere close to emulating their glory years, which saw them win a record ten league titles, the team, still one of the best-supported in France, and having, along with Marseille and Lens, the best fans, it would be thrilling to see them back in the big time. First they have to face PSG in the penultimate game at the Parc de Princes on Saturday. To see ASSE reach Europe again while PSG go down would please me greatly.

Here's the best of the action from that night in Hampden: