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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Sanchez Cordova: Singing with the ultras

PARIS – Just 12 hours earlier, I didn’t even have tickets to this game. But my impulse and news that two of the world’s best – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé – won over in the end. I spent an unreasonable amount of money and bought tickets. Section 314, Row 5, Seat 29. 

As I got closer to the famed Le Parc des Princes, I was struck by how tranquil it all was. I was expecting the streets to be packed and the metro to be shoulder to shoulder. Instead, there was hardly a soul on the walk from metro line 10 to the stadium. I scanned in through Door I and after a quick pat down, I looked for my section number on the signs. I was a little late, so no time for a stop at concessions. There was no way I could miss a single second of this.

It was the Champions League. This is the biggest club football competition in the world and I was going to a game. Not only that, I was going to a knockout stage match between two of Europe’s giants: the local club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) F.C. and the historic FC Bayern Munich from Germany. Bayern has won the last ten German domestic league titles; PSG eight of the last ten in France. These clubs are European footballing royalty, and they are now clashing on the biggest stage in club football.

Right away, it was obvious this would be a little different than a normal match. As I walked up the stairs, l could already hear the thunderous chants of the most raucous of PSG supporters. Walking out onto the Tribune Auteuil, I realized that was where I was headed. I was sitting with the ultras. For the uninitiated, ultras are a club’s core supporters. The craziest, most passionate fans of any football club. The PSG ultras were no exception. I took my phone out to photograph the pitch and a PSG supporter reached over, lowered it and looked at me with a stern expression. “No photos,” he said.

As I moved into the section, I found an usher who I thought might help me.

“Where is seat 29?” I asked in French.

“No seats, go anywhere,” he replied.

As I moved my way up, I looked for a spot to settle in the standing-room-only stands. I eventually found one near the front, leaning on the metal bars separating the top level from the one below. All this happened among the constant singing of the fans around me. “ALLEZ PARIS ALLEZ,” they shouted at the top of their lungs. As the game got closer to kickoff, I saw the leading ultras pulling up a big cloth and passing it up the stand. It was a tifo. It was a large banner spread across the entire north stand of the stadium. I later learned it was a photo of Luffy from the anime One Piece.

With the tifo raised above my head, the teams came out onto the pitch. There they were. The reason I had come to this game in the first place. Lined up in front of the fans were the players I’ve watched on TV for years. Lionel Messi. Neymar Jr. Sergio Ramos. And those are just the PSG players. The iconic Champions League anthem started playing and the emotions within me swelled with the music before that final “The Champions!” was sung. The tifo came down and the PSG songs started back up, hardly stopping for the next 90 minutes. 

The game was about to start. Bayern Munich had the ball first and the second they touched it the whistling started. At European football matches, this is how fans express disapproval of the action. It’s the European equivalent of booing. This give-and-take of singing, clapping, jumping and whistling went on for the entire game. Much like a Notre Dame student section, they never sat down and they were always making noise.

Unlike the Notre Dame student section, there were leaders within the crowd. A couple of men, dangling from the railing, conducted the chaos. One of them had a drum that he slammed for the entire match, dictating rhythms. Another had a megaphone, using it to call out the next song to be sung. The last man directed the movements, swaying his arms side to side or up and down to indicate what all the rest should do. All of them faced away from the action. They were not there to watch a game. They were there to lead the ultras.

Another element to watch out for was the massive flags. They waved from side to side and often blocked my view of the pitch. Every time the ball came to the near side, I found myself wishing the flags would let me see, especially when it was Messi on the ball. It was fascinating to just watch him. Diminutive in size, he would walk around for large parts of the game but when PSG got the ball back, he would always be in the right spot to receive it and move it forward. An unparalleled level of footballing IQ.

In a flash, the first half ended 0-0 with Bayern having the better of possession and the chances. As you can tell, the football took a bit of a back seat at times during the game. The sensory overload of what was happening in the stands demanded my attention at all times. I sang along, picking up the simple hooks of the songs and following them. Most of them had the same words anyway.

The halftime break came with some excitement as Mbappé exited the locker room and began to warm up. The French superstar had been out several weeks after suffering a hamstring issue on Feb. 1. However, he defied all expectations and made a miraculous recovery to return in just two weeks for PSG’s biggest game of the year. However, far from full fitness, he was on the bench to start the match. Just eight minutes into the second half, Bayern’s Kingsley Coman – a former PSG player no less – opened the scoring and put them ahead. The ultras were unfazed. After a brief collective groan after conceding, the songs began again in full force. It was like the crowd was telling Bayern that they could never dampen their spirit. Across the way, the Bayern fans crowded into the away end and lit a bright red flare in celebration of their goal.

But PSG had an ace in the hole: Mbappé. After the opener, manager Christophe Galtier quickly made the call and Mbappé came on as a substitute. They sorely needed him. And not just in this game. The Parisians were coming off back-to-back losses to Marseilles and Monaco where it was clear they were missing their star man.

He immediately changed the complexion of the game. The killer instinct and attacking thrust PSG were lacking suddenly appeared as Mbappé used his astonishing pace to threaten the Bayern backline. Then it happened. After a quick counterattack, a ball from Nuno Mendes found Mbappé’s foot and then hit the back of the net. 1-1.

Absolute madness ensued in the stands. Limbs were flying everywhere. I hugged a stranger and we jumped and yelled in celebration. On the pitch, Mbappé picked the ball up and ran it to the center circle, eager to restart play. The stadium announcer called out “Goal scored by Kylian” to which the fans responded with a deafening “MBAPPÉ” three times over. However, in the madness, we all missed one key thing. The goal was ruled offside. By a matter of centimeters, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) denied Mbappé and the Parisian fans. I only realized minutes later when I glanced at the video board to see it still showing Bayern ahead 1-0.

And that’s how it ended. Final score: 1-0 to the visitors. The only thing that ruined an otherwise magical night at the Parc des Princes was the actual sporting result. I’m not usually a PSG fan but the fervor of those fans and that moment saw me feeling “fiers de nos couleurs” as the Parisians say.