Coupe Round 1 – À bout de souffle

Among the more consistent frustrations the past few years has been Red Star’s complete inability to make the Coupe de la Ligue matter, or at least be enjoyable – after both 2015’s first round exit at the hands of AJ Auxerre and last year’s particularly annoying implosion against Paris FC, we comforted ourselves by brushing off the competition all together, falling into the comfort of “now we can focus on league play,” etc. etc. etc. Why allow your heart to be broken into a golden cup when it’s so completely unreachable, even in the primary stages?

We can take this broader – for all of the soaring highs of the last handful of seasons, in a lot of ways Red Star’s general ascent, both upward through the tiers of French soccer and in the general, hipster-centric consciousness, actions on the field have more or less been defined not so much by the achievements, but as the subsequent tripping and falling down the stairs moments. Promotion was paradigm-shattering, of course, and the elation and disappointment of pushing for a spot in Ligue 1 (one point! Fucking Bob Bradley, double agent.) was so outside of what seemed intellectually possible that it still sort of feels like a fever dream (having a completely different roster, coaching staff, and stadium since doesn’t necessarily cement the reality of that season, either).

The boring, frustrating stank of last season, despite getting the team back to Bauer, has set the attitude for how to conceptualize the team, unfortunately. Yesterday’s match is exactly the sort of contest we expect to lose, and then the team fulfills these cranky expectations with gusto. Which is exactly why it’s so delirium-inducing to watch a squad that’s been together for what…a month? show such flashes of creativity and, fingers crossed, fun.

For as stagnant and listless as last season’s offense consistently was, this team played a high level of inspired, forward-seeking soccer consistently against an ostensibly much higher grade of competition. Grégoire Lefebvre is a revelation in midfield, streaking to the ball like a sherbet-booted electron. Ludovic Sylvestre is as steady as ever, adding a dimension of rhythmic calm to an otherwise very young team. One day the nameless Matias Ferreira will graduate to a complete kit after a few more sneaky-quick rushes from the right wing. Charley Fomen is a slab of beef.

And Teddy Teuma…I’m resisting the urge to anoint him the Bauer’s Next Big Thing™, but it feels like Régis Brouard has knocked this one out of St-Ouen. He may be young, and (yes, still) unproven, and he may have the hairline that’s more banlieue fish monger than world class footballer, but an energized Mhirisi dropping through balls to TT’s feet beneath a flash of Keita and Sané up top has the potential to be something electric.

Revenge has our teeth buzzing, especially against regular antagonist (and former tablemate) AJ Auxerre, and we seem, at least, to have a little bit of momentum for the second round matchup against Gazélec Ajaccio on Corsica.

Winning is fun! Cup wins are great fun! But watching Bauer jolt to life like an electrode-studded frog when Teuma slotted in the winning penalty – in a game that Red Star felt obliged to crumble in years past, no less – that’s enough to leave you breathless.


Fat Man and Little Boy

There’s a sharp contrast in Paris, between an earth-shaking amount of cash pumping up from Qatar toward a future we can’t yet properly conceptualize, and a relegation provoked by a slog of a season that inadvertently reorients the future toward a long absent history. Two atom bombs pointed in different directions in the French capital.

Neymar’s move to PSG, swinging quickly from joke to whispered rumor to record-breaking reality is historic, of course, in the same way that the Sears Tower topping out is historic, or roaring across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 200 miles per hour is historic. The goalposts are forever moving forward, and even if this jump is particularly dizzying, it’s still functionally within the same boundaries as any other big signing – or at least it will be, once the transfer market gradually catches up. For now, the sheer verticality of this move is vertigo-inducing. The fact that Barcelona set an arbitrarily unreachable buyout cause that PSG (really, the Qatari government) casually shrugged at and matched feels like a laptop-smashing Football Manager moment come to life.

We’ll see what happens from here – Barça will take a breath, and inevitably make a move to reclaim their post-Messi future, as one does. And presumably, PSG will need to tweak a roster that should blow past the rest of Ligue 1 like a Titan rocket (which, incidentally, cost around $350 million, or apparently 1.52 Neymars) but doesn’t feel like a shoo-in for the Champions League title. In the meantime, The Ringer’s Ryan O’Hanlon put a nice temporary bow on the late capitalist weirdness of the situation:

Normally, so much has to be leveraged and organized and preplanned to make a world-record signing. Soccer teams are rich, but they’re not multinational corporations. Except, PSG kind of is — and it’s impossible to disentangle this transfer from the chaotic politics of the Middle East. The club was both able and willing to pay so much more for a Neymar than any other athlete in recorded human history, and that makes it seem like they’re operating on a financial plane where concepts like “budgets” and “balance sheets” don’t matter. We’ve never seen something like this before, which means it could all suddenly end or it could be only the beginning.

Up in St-Ouen, the slow-motion catastrophe that was Red Star’s 16-17 campaign is setting the table for a somewhat triumphant homecoming, or at least one that is long-awaited. After two years in exile, the Audonians are returning to the wonderfully gritty, graffiti-covered State Bauer on Friday. Sure, the Bauer is only now a possibility because the poorly coached and mismanaged squad was relegated to the National, which has much lower standards for stadia, but what better way to lick your wounds than in your ancestral home?

Relegation has, if nothing else, sanitized much of what made last season so dreadful – gone is most of the roster (alas, poor Pierrick Cros and Pierrick Cros, I knew y’all well), the manager, training staff, and the rented stadium. Patrice Haddad and Steve Marlet have hitched onto a handful of young, mostly unproven players, as one does. They signed Charley Fomen, who at 5’9” and 180 pounds is the Bartolo Colon of third-tier French fullbacks. The Keitas are back, as is Dada (hypothetically, at least – Raheriharimanana and the (likely) soon to be gone Idriss Mhirsi are duking it out for the title of “Ghost of Stade Bauer”), and Lefebvre.

Expectations, as at the beginning of any season, are high – only a small handful of the teams in the National are professional, and we can hope for a quick bounce back into Ligue 2 – but as the pieces currently fall, this is a team yet to break out of limbo. It didn’t help that the French Football Federation dangled the chance of returning to Ligue 2 on a technicality before snatching it away, potentially handcuffing management from making the proper moves to cement a third-tier roster. It also certainly doesn’t help that the status of Mhirsi has seemingly yet to be resolved – he seems to think of himself more in the Naim Sliti mold than he probably deserves, and likewise seems to expect a transfer back up a tier. (It’s also probably not a good sign that the team has yet to release this year’s kit design – low on the priority list, but not the mark of a well-oiled machine ready to roar back to promotion.)

At any rate, 2017-18 is looming. The Bauer will be full on Friday, the kop loud and bouncing and prideful, and Red Star is expected to remind Pau FC of their rightful place at the bottom of the table. Perhaps one of the youngsters will emerge, a la Sliti in 2014-5, as the dynamic leader the roster seems to lack. Perhaps the good vibes of playing at home, finally, finally, after two years without a true home match, will carry this team further than Hameur Bouazza and Anatole Ngamukol ever could. With crossed fingers and held breaths, the team enters with an intoxicating mix of exuberance and expectation and anxiety and uncertainty – but how interesting would it be otherwise?