Paris Saint-Germain fans are unlikely to forget 9 March, 2003. It was the day that Ronaldinho stunned Olympique de Marseille and silenced the Stade Vélodrome. It was also the day that Matthew Spiro fell in love with Ligue 1.
It is total mayhem outside the Stade Vélodrome. Kick off in the eagerly anticipated clash between Marseille and PSG is still more than an hour away, but the raucous fans that have poured onto the Boulevard Michelet are already in fine voice. The deafening chants – which are invariably being aimed at the PSG manager Luis Fernandez – sound extremely intimidating. They are not my only concern, though. Firecrackers are being released left, right and centre, and I jump out of my skin as one whistles past my ear.
Then, just as I recover my bearings, the crowd suddenly surges away from the stadium and towards the Prado roundabout. Oblivious to the reasons for this movement, I have little choice but to follow. Eventually the penny drops: the PSG bus is arriving, and several thousand Marseillais are intent on giving the opposition a welcome they will not forget.
For a young, innocent Englishman experiencing his first Classique, I have to admit this was all something of an eye-opener. I had travelled to the game mainly because I was writing a feature for FourFourTwo magazine about the rivalry, and I had researched the piece by speaking to OM legend Chris Waddle and ex-PSG goalkeeper Bernard Lama. They had done their best to describe to me what OM-PSG is all about – the noise, the vitriol, the tension, the smoke – but nothing had prepared me for this.
In March 2003, second-placed Marseille were fighting for the title. With Daniel Van Buyten and Frank Leboeuf marshalling the defence, Alain Perrin's team was generally difficult to beat, and they went into this game as the clear favourites. Not only were PSG languishing down in ninth, but they hadn't triumphed at the Vélodrome in 14 years. Fernandez's players must have felt trepidation when they looked out of the windows of their bus and saw those hordes of ferocious OM supporters baying for blood.
There cannot be many more intimidating places in football than the Vélodrome on the night of Le Classique. Inside the stadium, the noise levels were cranked up further. Indeed, the whistling was so loud I genuinely started to worry for my hearing… and this was only during the warm-up. When 55,000 people scream as loudly and angrily as they possibly can – which was the case when the PSG players stepped out – it really is quite something.
In the opening minutes, the atmosphere was frenzied. To the surprise and general disappointment of the home fans, PSG did not look like they were ready to roll over. When the back of Gabriel Heinze's head connected with the forehead of Marseille midfielder Fernando in the tenth minute – and the Brazilian was forced off – the Vélodrome crowd had its villain. Every time the Argentina defender touched the ball after that, a cacophony of boos rained down from the stands. Seven years later, Heinze would become a Marseille hero by helping them to the Ligue 1 title, but it seemed an improbable scenario on that particular evening.
Just when it felt like nothing could quieten the crowd, Jérôme Leroy opened the scoring with a moment of fantastic skill and vision: spotting that goalkeeper Vedran Runje was anticipating a cross, Leroy swerved a shot inside the near post from the right side. PSG were ahead on 27 minutes and a dramatic, stunned silence fell on the Vélodrome.
Ladies and gentlemen… Ronaldinho
Then the Ronaldinho show started. The Brazilian wizard had suffered a fractious relationship with his coach that season. Fernandez wanted him to spend more time at the training ground and less in the Paris nightclubs, but when he was in the mood, he was simply irresistible. And he was most definitely in the mood here.
The mercurial forward doubled PSG's lead on 56 minutes, intercepting Leboeuf's pass on halfway, then showing incredible speed, control and skill to surge through and dink a finish over Runje. The fans could not believe it, but Marseille had no answer to the former Gremio star.
With six minutes left, Ronaldinho destroyed OM again with another 50-metre burst. This time he roared past Brahim Hemdani before dribbling beyond Runje. As Hemdani desperately tried to recover, Ronaldinho simply put his foot on the ball and stopped dead, leaving the Algerian defender racing past him chasing air. He then stroked the ball towards an empty net, and though Leroy prodded it over the line, that sensational goal was all about the genius of Ronaldinho.
Fan for life
Marseille 0-3 PSG. Nobody had seen it coming. As the dejected Marseille fans streamed out of the stadium in a state of shock, and as Ronaldinho danced with a small pocket of travelling PSG fans in the corner, I sat there trying to take it all in. I remember thinking that I had rarely seen an individual performance as breath-takingly brilliant as that one from Ronaldinho, and I certainly had never witnessed an atmosphere like this. What a night it had been. If this is what Ligue 1 is all about, I wouldn't mind seeing a bit more of it...