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15 May 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:26pm

At a match in France, I was reminded that football fans can fit in anywhere

By Hunter Davies

The last time I was at a football match in France was in 1971 when Spurs were playing Nantes in the second round of the Uefa Cup. We flew there on a BEA charter flight – that’s how long ago it was. Nantes smelled French, thanks to the Gauloises and the open pissoirs in the streets; ugh, how we held our noses. The Spurs directors and the British press were treated to a splendid reception by the Nantes club where the food was good but the speeches were in French, would you believe. It went on for ever. We each got given two bottles of local Muscadet, which was horrible, far too sharp – but then in 1971 I was still asking for a glass of medium white, please. How tastes change.

I’ve just been back to France again, on the Eurostar this time – so fast, so swish – to Lille, close to the Belgium border, to watch Lille play Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade Pierre Mauroy. All the experts, such as moi, expected PSG to hammer Lille, the Qatar-owned PSG being so rich and with Lille nearly 20 points behind in second place in the French Ligue 1 table. Surely PSG would wrap up the title?

Getting to the stadium was so quiet and civilised, compared with London. We went on the Metro – I never knew Lille had one – out into the suburbs. Most fans would appear to drive there, hence the peace and quiet. Walking to the ground, I heard no singing, despite it being a sold-out match with 50,000 spectators.

But inside it was pandemonium. The flags and drums, singing and chanting, were non-stop. The Paris ultras, high up, were setting off fireworks – something you never see in British grounds these days. The Lille chants were led by a raucous rabble-rouser on a microphone, still common in Europe but seldom heard in Britain.

The songs were mainly the same we all sing, such as “Here We Go, Here We Go”, with French words – most of which were, I presume, obscene. I also heard their version of “Yellow Submarine”. All fans watch other fans singing on TV, so we know the tunes being sung all over Europe. You just need to hum them to be accepted. Or punch the air.

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I was invited by my French son-in-law, Richard, who knows a friend of the president of the Lille Club, Gérard López, so we had the best seats, plus endless drinks and food.

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The stadium is enormous, an architectural wonder, but then so many are today. It’s how you know you’re an elite club in a leading European league. Once inside these concrete cathedrals they all seem much the same: a huge, modern bowl with slick hospitality suites and boxes all the way round, filled with freeloaders, such as me. Pity the poorer clubs lower down the top leagues in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England that can’t afford such a status symbol.

There was a huge banner over the main stand where the hardcore Lille fans were shouting: “DOGUES VIRAGE EST.” My French son-in-law, who is not really a football fan, or from Lille, had to go online to work it out.

Fans of Lille are known as “dogues” – as in the English word “dog” – because the emblem of the club is a hound. So it means roughly “Dogs on the East Side” – a bit like the way that in England fans are proud to sit in the Shed, the Shelf, the Kop. I think that’s it.

I predicted PSG would win 5-0. Neymar was not playing but they did have Kylian Mbappé and Thiago Silva. But, blow me, PSG had a player sent off in the first half and then collapsed – what a humiliation – being thrashed 5-1. The Lille supporters were beside themselves with joy at the suffering of the arrogant PSG fans. In football, even when one team is so rich and dominant for so long, anything can happen. But PSG did win the French league again.

Over breakfast the next morning, I read the match report in L’Équipe. Quite easy. The main headline was “Lille fracture le PSG”, which even I could understand. They made things even easier with a column called “Flops and Tops”, giving points to each player. These days, football fans can go and fit in anywhere. You never feel lost. 

This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question