WORDS: MATTHEW GOODING
When a Parisian romance led to marriage, Matthew Gooding began to fall in love with French football as well and, after years of supporting Paris Saint Germain, his affections for the national team have grown and grown. Last week, when his new darlings met his native England, he had a decision to make…
Image: nemone (via Flickr)
From the moment the draw was made for the Euro 2012 group stages I knew I was in trouble.
Because, for the best part of a decade, I’ve committed what for many is the cardinal sin of fandom: I’ve supported two international teams.
Sharing my affections have been England, the land of my fathers, and France. The incompetence of both has kept them apart in recent years – England didn’t even make it to Euro 2008, and the less said about World Cup 2010 the better – but when the teams were drawn together in Group D for this year’s championship I knew it was decision time. I had to nail my colours to a footballing mast, but the question was: which one to choose?
It was a tough decision, but Les Bleus got the nod over Les Rosbifs, and I’m going to try and explain why.
My affection for France began, as many of the best stories do, with a girl. I got together with my girlfriend (now wife) in 2004 and, as a proud Parisienne, she soon introduced me to her city of birth.
It didn’t take me long to take the place to heart and, eight years on, I still love the good food, spectacular sights and psychopathic drivers that the French capital has in abundance. Later that year, I visited the Parc-des-Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain FC, for the first time, to watch Les Rouges-et-Bleu play Caen.
You will have read a lot about PSG in the last 12 months thanks to their take-over by QSI, the sporting arm of the Qatari royal family, which has seen them develop into something of a French Manchester City, splashing out millions of Euros on the likes of Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta.
Back then, however, the team were about to embark on a typical season of mid-table mediocrity in Ligue 1, and the nearest thing they had to a world star was Portuguese striker, and club legend, Pauleta.
Even though what was being served up on the pitch was more befitting of a Little Chef than a Parisien bistro, I loved the experience of the match. The fans were loud and passionate, but friendly with it, and there was little evidence of the kind of behaviour that has earned the PSG fans a reputation as the most poorly behaved in France. Better still, there was no sign of the corporate nonsense that has infected English football in the last 20 years: you were more likely to get high off the smell of the copious amounts of marijuana being smoked in the stadium than you were to catch a whiff of a prawn sandwich.
Image: psgmag.net (via Flickr)
As I started to take more of an interest in the fortunes of PSG, my fondness for the national side began to grow too. I defy anyone not to have been enthralled by their run to the final of World Cup 2006, when veteran trio Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele came out of retirement to inspire the team to victories over Spain, Brazil and Portugal. That Zidane blotted his copy-book in such spectacular fashion in the Final only added to the drama.
I was a convert.
This year, in pure footballing terms, it isn’t even a contest. Having come out the other side of the Raymond Domenech debacle, France are fast and fluid, while England remain stodgy and rigid. Watching Monday’s game, and Ireland’s defeat to Croatia, brought to mind a quote from the excellent Pete Davies book about Italia 90, All Played Out. In it, Davies complains about the two representatives of the British Isles “stinking the place out” with their out-of-date football. Twenty two years on, little has changed. We still stink.
But, moreover, I increasingly found that I spent my time supporting England being acutely worried about, and embarrassed by, the behaviour of fellow fans.
Now, I don’t have a problem with those who support England throughout qualifying, but tournaments bring out the worst in people. I’ll never forget watching England play France in Euro 2004 with the missus, in a reasonably upmarket London pub. When Zidane slotted in the winning penalty, she and a few other supporters jumped up to celebrate, and got the contents of several pint glasses tipped over their heads.
I haven’t watched an England game in France, but I’m fairly sure that wouldn’t be acceptable behaviour there. The attitude the French public at large take towards their national team is much less intense – some might say indifferent – and for me that is a lot more healthy. I love football, but anyone who thinks it is a good excuse to throw stale beer at someone they don’t know needs their head examining.
That’s not to say the French aren’t interested and, now that Roland Garros is finished and football provides the main sporting focus, I’m sure the vast majority are fully behind Laurent Blanc’s boys. So, if Hugo Lloris goes on to lift the trophy in Kiev on July 1, expect plenty more dancing in fountains, a la World Cup 98.
I only wish I could be there to join them.