PARIS – The Auteuil Curve was in fine form last week as Paris Saint-Germain lined out against Olympique Marseille for the “classique” or derby of France’s Ligue 1.
Sheets in glittery red and gold covered the railing of the preferred stand of PSG ultras. Boos rang out as the presenter announced the names of the Marseille line-up.
Cheers followed for the PSG players - including Brazilian Neymar, the star striker that the club brought from Barcelona for a record-breaking 222 million (about R3.3 billion) transfer fee last August.
Neymar’s relationship with the Curve hasn’t always been so positive - he got boos himself in January when he pulled rank to take a penalty shot fans thought should have gone to Edinson Cavani, during an 8-0 victory against Dijon where the Brazilian scored half the goals.
There has been something of a mending of fences since then, with the Curve unfolding two somewhat apologetic banners at the following match against EA Guingamp.
“Booing our players is the opposite of our values,” one read.
The game on Sunday, February 25, looked like a fairly uneventful victory for the Parisians, 3-0 up from the 55th minute.
Neymar didn’t score this time, but he put in a creditable performance as well as a couple of fumbles in the first half.
Then something went wrong that overshadowed the scoreline.
Neymar, who had been contesting a ball on the left side of the pitch, stumbled and fell, then remained down for several minutes as players gathered around.
He was stretchered off the pitch in the 80th minute. And immediately thoughts turned to a more important fixture - Paris Saint Germain’s home leg against Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League. It’s a critical game for the French club, which has never yet gone beyond the quarter-finals in the European contest.
They are trailing 3-1 after a February 14 away leg dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than Neymar, who has now undergone surgery on a right foot fracture and is facing a long spell on the sidelines.
When he presented Neymar to media last August, club president and Qatari businessman Nasser al-Khelaifi was politely evasive about his ambitions for the Champions’ League.
“Our aim is to win the Champions League, it’s always there,” he said. “We can’t say that this year we’re going to win the Champions League. We’re going to fight for it to be sure.”
But crashing out without even getting to the final eight would be an embarrassment for him after splashing out on the Brazilian talent. Now he will have to weather the storm without his star signing.
Outside the Parc des Princes last Wednesday night, fans gathering in below-zero temperatures for a second match against Marseille - this time in the Coupe de France - were nevertheless optimistic about the Champions League fixture.
“They can do it even without Neymar,” said Frederic, 35, as he queued for a pre-match hot dog. “After all, PSG is used to return matches, it’s used to a lot of pressure, an atmosphere.”
Striding towards the stadium waving a PSG flag, 40-year-old Assef was equally upbeat. “We hope there’ll be a comeback,” he said. “There’s a very good Parisian team, and then Real Madrid, well, it’s Real Madrid. Everything is possible.”
And Roman, 24, smoking outside a nearby bar with 45 minutes to go before kick-off, shared the general opinion.
“We’re going to beat them,” he predicted confidently.
Al-Khelaifi too, speaking to journalists afterwards, said he was “sad for us, for him,” but made every effort to look on the bright side.
“We always believe. If not, why play?” he said. “I am very confident about this match. Really, we have a team ready for Real Madrid or another club.”