Thursday, January 22, 2009

Football in France: PSG vs. Sochaux

As the Metro eased into the station, I prayed from the platform that people were getting off. It seemed unlikely that any more humanity could fit onto the string of small, efficient cars that pulled up in front of me. I lifted the lever to open the door, but not one person moved. I had to shove on. I established a standing area toward the back, and I held onto my purse for dear life as even more people squeezed onboard at each successive stop. The agoraphobic conditions were not without purpose, however: we were all headed to Parc des Princes to watch and cheer as Paris-Saint Germain took on Sochaux in good ol’ French football.

Once arrived, I followed the pulsing throng of men to the stadium, easily visible from the metro stop. The lack of women was acutely apparent. Although there is certainly gender imbalance at American sporting events, the female presence at the PSG match was almost imperceptible. It was a reminder of the absence of female athletic culture in France, and I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to play so many sports growing up in the United States.

In spite of my familiarity with athletics, I was having difficulty understanding my ticket. I knew that I was in the “A ROUGE PRESIDENTIELLE” section with “ACCES: 11,” but finding these places was a bit tricky. In the end, I asked a “STEWARD,” and he pointed me in the right direction. I was uncomfortable with my stadium ignorance; I felt like a sports-newbie, which is not how I like to think of myself. Stadiums everywhere are essentially the same, but interpreting signage is more country specific. I made it to my seat to reunite with the rest of the Stanford group just as the game started.

The fans sitting in the section above us were going crazy. The chanting and cheering didn’t cease for one minute, transitioning gracefully from coordinated song to plain yelling. It was great. I couldn’t understand a word of it but I could feel the heat of their enthusiasm floating down with the confetti they threw. Flares would periodically go off, and the Stanford group would wonder aloud, “How did they get those things inside?” We had all received a full pat-down and bag inspection, but somehow flares had been smuggled in. None of us minded. In fact, we enjoyed the fire and smoke. It added spontaneous visual interest to the massive flags that were waving, celebrating France and, of course, PSG. Watching the section across the stadium was even more entertaining, since we could see their coordinated efforts from the front. Somehow they all knew when to hold out their PSG scarves, so that their section became a sea of red, white and blue. They held a giant sheet (that must have obscured the view of the 100 people underneath it), depicting a giant fist with a PSG ring. “ICI, C’EST PARIS,” written across the top of the stadium, was certainly accurate.

I had discussed the differences between American and French sports cultures with my language partner the day before, and inevitably the level of soccer enthusiasm stood out as a major difference. I had said, “In the U.S., there are the big three: football, basketball, and baseball.” He responded, “In France, there is the big one: soccer. It is a religion.” This rang true at Parc des Princes, as French fans chanted in unison with religious fervor.

Our group soaked in the atmosphere yet remained apart. It was difficult to feel connected to the crowd not knowing any of the cheers—kind of like being a Christian kid at your friend’s bat mitzvah service. Nonetheless, the soccer itself was as enjoyable to watch, having no language barrier. I played soccer for many years before switching to fulltime field hockey and being at the match both assuaged and worsened my perpetual soccer thirst. I admired their passing, their speed and fitness, their mastery of their bodies. I valued the international understanding of a yellow card, a penalty kick, and a throw-in. I wanted so badly to play again. In the midst of an overwhelming French crowd, I could better see the beauty of soccer’s universality. I could go anywhere in the world to a soccer match and it would be the same game.

Three goals were scored during the game. Fortunately, it was PSG who scored two of them. We left the stadium in high spirits that were only slightly dampened by the cold and shoved back onto the metro to make the return trip up Line 9. Celebratory singing continued in the packed car and I thought that maybe the melody started to sound familiar.

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