Cold night, warm thoughts

It was cold at the Stade de France.

Lille came to town to try to snatch away the League Cup from Paris St. Germain. I hadn’t been to a match at the stadium since 2005, more than a decade ago, to see a friendly between France and Sweden. That game was played in February, but I don’t recall it having been as cold then as it was last night.

My phone told me it was 8 degrees Celsius, mid-40s Fahrenheit. I picked up one of the freebie flags they gave us to wave in the part of the stadium reserved for Paris fans, and there was no need to wave it. The wind held it stiff. I’m guessing that with the wind-chill effect, the temperature felt more like 3 degrees, or upper 30s. It reminded me of a game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, when I went to see the Cubs play the Giants. A friend and I showed up with a large GO CUBS sign painted on a bedsheet. By the third inning, it was so cold and windy that we wrapped ourselves up in the sign to keep from freezing. And I had worn a parka!

It wasn’t the coldest I’d ever been at a football match — er, soccer game, sorry about that. That honor goes to the NCAA final on Dec. 3, 1989, at Rutgers Stadium. The official attendance was 3,889, but by the end of the match my friend Cliff and I were among the few dozen spectators left. They played four 15-minute overtimes (no penalty kicks then). It was so cold we considered begging the folks in the press box to let us in. After two and a half hours of play, Santa Clara and Virginia were declared co-champions in a 1-1 tie.

It wasn’t all suffering last night, however. As I entered, the loudspeakers had the expected tribute to Prince (“When Doves Cry”), then they mixed it up a bit with “Go West” from the Village People. Or maybe the Pet Shop Boys. I hadn’t realized they’d covered that song until nearly 24 hours later, when I saw a documentary about them on the Euro Channel featuring that song. “Go West” twice in 24 hours? Strange. The stadium was clean, the staff efficient and friendly, and the stadium food wasn’t the worst I’ve ever had. Lots of security, but to be honest I didn’t think twice about the fact that a couple of suicide bombers attacked the neighborhood on Nov. 13 after failing to enter the stadium.

The match, like the food, was nothing to write home about. Lille committed a defensive blunder in the first minute, but their goalie blocked the point-blank shot from Angel Di Maria that resulted. Lille looked suspect for the rest of the first half, though it dominated during a three-minute burst and had the best of the corners till near the halftime mark, when Paris scored on a nice volley after a corner kick.

The Paris midfielder Adrien Rabiot shoulda stood in bed, as the New Yorkers say. In the second half, he committed an obvious foul, earning a yellow card. The Paris wall looked more like a sieve on the ensuing free kick from 20 yards out. The game was tied, 1-1.

But Lille couldn’t keep its act together. At one point, I counted four giveaways in four minutes. Rabiot, however, wasn’t done with his theatrics. With 20 minutes left and Paris on the attack, Lille took the ball away and moved upfield. Rabiot committed his second horrible foul, when he could easily have left well enough alone, and he left the referee no choice but to issue a second yellow card and the mandatory red card of ejection.

Paris seemed content to play for a draw and penalty kicks, but suddenly Lille committed another amazing defensive blunder. The Paris goalie lofted a clearing pass far downfield, and a Lille defender leaped to head it. He mistimed, and the ball went backward, not forward, to Di Maria, who was unmarked. The goaltender charged out, but this time Di Maria would not be thwarted. With an acrobatic toe, he tipped the ball just enough so that it headed slowly toward the net … and in.

Late in the match, it was nice to see David Luiz come on, bad hair, bad rep and all. I shouldn’t say bad hair. He has a lovely head of hair. Many men his age would die for it. (He turned 29 on Friday.) His reputation as a defender is suffering merciless criticism in the press. He did all right for an old guy. He seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing where to position himself to best break up the momentum of the other side. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad … he was good last night.

On offense, Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominated the field of play for Paris even though he didn’t score. He’s a really old guy (age 34) and Swedish (born in Malmo). In 2005, he won the Footballer of the Year award in Sweden, but he wasn’t on the team that came to the Stade de France that wintry night 11 years ago.

So it was nice to see him live for the first time. And to leave with some good memories and a blue Paris St. Germain pennant to give to my son on his next visit.

One thought on “Cold night, warm thoughts

  1. Playwright, composer and now fútbol commentator. What next? Can’t say I followed your discussion of the match beyond the weather reports. I’ve only had three contacts with soccer.

    One was thirty years ago at Soldiers Field in Chicago which for some reason was the venue for a couple of World Cup games between, if I recall correctly, a Latin American team one from somewhere deep in Eastern Europe, Romania or some such. The stadium was packed, but except for the Latin Americans and the Romanians, perhaps about a quarter of the fans, most of the crowd didn’t know beans about soccer and like fog blowing in from Lake Michigan, boredom gradually settled in on the festivities.

    Another encounter was on the second-class compartment of a train from Glasgow to London filled with second-class soccer fans. They were not just toasting to celebrate or commiserate but chugging as in “let’s get drunk until we puke,” which many of them did halfway through the trip. Not pretty.

    Definitely pretty was my third encounter with soccer through the memorable Dieux du Stade calendar featuring French soccer players in various stages of undress. Who could forget Dimitri Szarsewski even if we don’t remember what position or team he played for? Do they still publish those calendars? I believe proceeds went to charities. Yeah!

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