It’s been almost four months since Paris Saint-Germain triumphed past Borussia Dortmund and into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. PSG was up against the odds: they were down 2-1 on aggregate, their most important player (Marco Verratti) was suspended, their best player (Kylian Mbappé) was sick, they were facing the demons of three straight disastrous exits in the Round of 16, and fans were not allowed in the Parc des Princes for the second leg due to the coronavirus.
Despite all of this, PSG put together a masterclass, a performance for the ages that no PSG fan will soon forget. Neymar drilled a header from a corner kick into the back of the net to put PSG in front in the 28th minute. Then right before the stroke of halftime, Juan Bernat finished off a lovely bit of play by sneaking one inside the post off a cross from Pablo Sarabia, putting PSG up 2-0 to confirm their qualification for the next round.
I don’t need to remind any PSG fan about how great that night was but let’s just quickly revisit it anyway.
Neymar showed why he is still one of the best players in the world, PSG’s midfield was surgical in keeping possession, and the defense was airtight; most notably center-back Presnel Kimpembe who put in what may have been the best shift of his career. Kimpembe not only kept the red hot sensation Erling Haaland, who scored both Dortmund goals in the first leg, in check but made him a non-factor.
It was PSG’s most complete performance of the season at the most important time.
But I’m not here to write a game recap, those have long been written and are exhausted by now. Dortmund finished up their season and are long past that game. PSG have moved on and are preparing to continue their march towards that elusive first Champions League crown when the competition resumes in August.
However, unlike the athletes, I haven’t moved on and that’s the reason I wanted to remind everyone about the greatness of that night. The reason I haven’t moved on is because that night is the last bit of normalcy I have that I’m still grasping onto.
That match took place on Wednesday, March 11. By then lots of things were in limbo and the world was slowly turning upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. PSG had already had a match postponed, the other Champions League match scheduled for that day had been canceled, and as I said, this match took place without fans in the stadium.
Even then, I don’t think anybody was ready for what would happen that night.
I went out with some friends that night to celebrate the big PSG victory. I mean, they were just going out because, but in my mind, we were all there to celebrate the win. I of course knew the risk of going out at the time. Nobody knew how the virus traveled, or if it had reached where we were by then, but I had to go embrace the joy of PSG finally exorcising their Round of 16 demons. And I’m glad I did because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had that last positive memory of pre-COVID life.
There I was in Fat Daddy’s Bar and Grill in Gainesville, Florida, when I got the news. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a Frenchman and PSG fan himself, had tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA was shutting down the season. For the next 24 hours, my Twitter feed was a constant cycle of sporting events I loved getting postponed or canceled. Hell, the next day I went home in hopes of going to the Inter Miami home opener that weekend, which of course got postponed halfway home.
That was March 12, and I’ve been home ever since, constantly dreaming of the day I get to watch my favorite teams play again with crowds filled with screaming fans.
It’s been hard to keep sight of how great sports can be. It’s been hard watching soccer games in empty stadiums, some of which are cathedrals to the sport, and trying to remember how much better it is when those seats are filled with tens of thousands of fans singing their support for their favorite club. It’s been hard not knowing when we’ll be able to get that all back.
However, one thing has always kept me focused on all of that. One thing has always reminded me of the greatness of sports and the joy it can bring even in the darkest times. It’s the last normal thing I got to experience and celebrate before the world became one we’ve never seen before.
It’s that special night in Paris, with thousands of PSG supporters outside the stadium supporting their team even if they couldn’t be inside. The night PSG finally pushed past the Round of 16 and kept their hopes alive in the Champions League. The night I got to go out and be with my friends one last time before the world stopped in its tracks.
I’ve rewatched that game five or six times now during quarantine and the other night I finally realized why. It’s more than just the last reminder I have of how great sports can be. It’s also the light at the end of the tunnel that reminds me of what’s on the other side. That when we get out of this we’ll all be able to experience that joy and appreciate the greatness of our athletes again.
As cheesy and superficial as this may sound: that night in Paris represents more than just the continuation of the journey towards the Cup With the Big Ears, it represents hope. Hope that we’ll soon get through this, and be able to celebrate again. And like I did that night with my friends, whether they knew it or not, we’ll be able to celebrate together.
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