Greatest Games: Red cards and Cantona on night of drama in Paris

Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona was at Montpellier on loan from Marseille in 1989
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Continuing our Greatest Games series, James Eastham looks back on the Parc des Princes fixture that turned him into a lifelong devotee of football in France...

"Zlatko Vujovic elbowed defender Jean-Jacques Nono in the face. A fight broke out. Montpellier president Louis Nicollin invaded the pitch, as speedily as his considerable frame would allow, to remonstrate with the referee."

PSG 2-1 Montpellier
Ligue 1 (then Division 1) 1989-90

The background

For those labouring under the misapprehension that Paris Saint-Germain were created in a lab in Qatar in 2011, I can confirm the club from the French capital already existed in the 1980s. And they were rather good, too.

PSG won their first French League title under manager Gerard Houllier in 1986. They had two French Cups (1982 and 1983) on the board by then. Locked in a rivalry with heavily-sponsored neighbours Matra Racing (historically better known as Racing), over the next couple of years they vied for not only local supremacy but also to become the best club in France.

With my dad, I was among a crowd of 27,320 when PSG hosted Montpellier at Parc des Princes, the imposing concrete monument that was France's national stadium in those days before the Stade de France had been built. It was a balmy summer's evening and, although only August 5, already the fifth game of the 1989-90 campaign.

Cantona and Susic

The names on the teamsheet whetted the appetite at a time when foreign imports were rare in an English First Division described by former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley, just 15 months earlier, as "the poorest.... I have seen in my years in the game."

PSG's line-up contained five past, present and future France internationals. Instantly recognisable was Joel Bats, goalkeeper from les Bleus' 1984 European Championship-winning side. Also on show was Argentina midfielder Gabriel Calderon, who, within a year, would play in a World Cup final. Crowd favourite was Yugoslav Safet Susic, a playmaker blessed with a magical left foot, and generally regarded as PSG's greatest-ever player until Zlatan Ibrahimovic came along.

Montpellier were alluring opposition, despite the absence of South American duo Julio Cesar (one of the finest performers at the 1986 World Cup) and Carlos Valderrama. Their 23-year-old attacking midfielder Laurent Blanc - soon to be converted into a centre-back - had finished the previous season as Division 1's 15-goal fourth-highest top scorer. On the touchline was manager Aime Jacquet, who would lead France to their first-ever World Cup triumph nine years later.

Division 1's summer big spenders, Montpellier had added young strikers Eric Cantona and Stephane Paille to their ranks after the pair had helped France win the European U21 Championship a year earlier. Back then, there were as many predictions that future Heart of Midlothian striker Paille would become France's next great footballer as there were about Cantona.

Mass brawl and pitch invasion

In my broken schoolboy French, I asked the family in front - living in Paris, originally from Montpellier - about Cantona. "He's good", said the father, giving me the thumbs up, but "he's crazy".

Cantona was more good than crazy that night. He scored on 32 minutes, collecting a poor backpass from PSG defender Philippe Jeannnol to slip the ball calmly past Bats. Cantona's goal made it 1-1: PSG had taken the lead on eight minutes when Yugoslavia striker Zlatko Vujovic had flicked the ball on for Susic to score from close range.

nicollin_montpellier.jpg

On 40 minutes all hell broke loose. At a free-kick, Vujovic elbowed Montpellier defender Jean-Jacques Nono in the face. A fight broke out. Montpellier's president Louis Nicollin (pictured above) invaded the pitch, as speedily as his considerable frame would allow, to remonstrate with the referee. Vujovic and Nono were sent off. Bats - socks rolled down to his ankles - folded his arms and leaned on his post, watching the antics unfold.

At 10 against 10, PSG got on top. Midway through the second-half they scored what would prove the winner. Dynamic midfielder Christian Perez - the best player on the night - misfired, and towering defender Yvon Le Roux latched on to the loose ball to score from close range. PSG held out for the 2-1 win, sending the majority of the crowd home happy.

A different world

It was far from a classic contest - online archives show that France Football magazine gave the match a rating of 6 on 20. But it was the sheer exoticism of the game that lingers in the memory: the bowl-like design of the Parc des Princes, the presence on the pitch of players from seven different countries, the 'RTL' logo emblazoned across the PSG shirts.

It was a stark contrast to the mundanity of the English first division at the time. Michael Knighton may have displayed his ball-juggling skills in front of the masses at Old Trafford just a fortnight later, yet I don't recall many English club owners - prospective or otherwise - taking to the turf in anger midway through a match the way Montpellier boss Nicollin did in front of our eyes that night.

I had started falling for French football a couple of summers earlier through the pages of magazines and newspapers. The game in Paris that night turned my burgeoning passion into a lifelong love affair.

James Eastham,

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