One team in particular has already caught the eye this season. Here, Gaëtane Thiney describes just what it means to lead Paris FC into the group stage for the first time…
WORDS Chris Burke | INTERVIEW Jérôme Vitoux
“I had pretty much given up on the dream of returning to the Champions League,” says Gaëtane Thiney – and who can blame her? The Paris FC captain announced in February that this would be her final season before retiring, and no one back then could have foreseen the extraordinary journey that lay ahead for the French outsiders, one that would end up taking them back to the continental elite.
Thiney thought she had seen it all. A veteran of over 160 France caps, she had last graced the Women’s Champions League a decade before in 2012/13, when she reached the semi-finals with Juvisy – the club’s former guise before it was purchased by Paris FC in 2017. Lyon stopped them on that occasion and the European juggernauts subsequently barred their return, along with emerging powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain. And even though Paris FC booked a qualifying berth by finishing behind that duo in last season’s French top flight, their route to the group stage was still strewn with obstacles.
The sense that something remarkable was afoot began when Paris FC edged past Arsenal in the first qualifying round, toppling last season’s semi-finalists on penalties. Their reward? A tie against Wolfsburg, just four months after the two-time winners had pushed Barcelona all the way in the 2023 final. Thiney herself was on target in a 3-3 draw at Stade Charléty, before Paris FC edged out Alex Popp and Co with a sensational 2-0 victory in Germany. Against all the odds, the unsung outfit from the French capital were through to the group stage.
“Emotionally, we are having a superb season,” says Thiney, who – now aged 38 – has tried to introduce a little perspective for her younger team-mates. “The most important thing is to make them aware they have to enjoy being in the present moment. Sometimes, when we experience something, we get used to it. In the end, thanks to hindsight and the length of my career, you hold onto memories from ten or 15 years ago.
“You say to yourself, ‘Cool! It’s always like that.’ Whereas, in fact, I realise I’m still searching for moments I experienced when I was 23. I’m lucky to be experiencing it again at the end. It’s not easy for the youngsters because, with a bit of perspective, it’s clear we’re experiencing something unique. I tell them, ‘Enjoy it. Enjoy it.’ I don’t want to be the old-timer stating the obvious, but I really want them to be aware that these are extraordinary moments.”
Thiney can likewise fill them in on how much the competition has changed, both on and off the pitch. “There are more games now and the format is the same as the men’s,” she says. “That’s great. Some teams have big names in their squads, and it gives us the chance to be there with historic clubs, playing at Stamford Bridge, playing against Real Madrid’s women’s team, which didn’t exist a few years ago.
“Now we say, ‘We beat Arsenal,’ whereas, back then, we would say, ‘We beat Stabæk’ or Göteborg. In terms of media coverage and image, everything is different now. When we have 5,000 young girls at Charléty watching us play against Madrid, those are the moments you cherish. They give you the will to go on and they make the world a bit better. That’s what life is about. We need to take a step back and bring a feeling of lightness to everything. Life is about dreaming. It’s extraordinary to be one of the players experiencing it and playing a role in it.”