After Paris Saint-Germain qualified for the first Champions League final of their history earlier this week, I went to see a friend who has supported the club since his childhood in a concrete 1970s suburb of Paris. He and I take our kids to PSG’s home stadium, the Parc des Princes, whenever we can scrounge scarce tickets. On a good night in the stands, we have even done “the Poznan” together — the dance where you link arms and turn your backs to the field and jump up and down.
Now, with the peak of his life as a supporter looming — Sunday’s final against Bayern Munich in Lisbon — he was in a reflective mood. He admitted to feeling unease that his club’s rise had been funded by rich Qatari owners: “It’s like you cheated at Monopoly and suddenly you have all these hotels on the board.” Yet he was relieved by the success, partly because the alternative would be more years of mockery from rival fans, who say, “Even with all this money, you can’t get past the quarter-finals of the Champions League.” He felt that PSG had finally overcome what the French call, in franglais, “la lose” — “failure”. And like a true fan, who cannot entirely distinguish between himself and his club, he thought this might presage the end of “la lose” in his own entrepreneurial career.
The popular misconception of PSG is that it’s a “fake” club, without history or identity, created by Qatari money and supported only by glory-hunters and children. In fact, the club has millions of longtime supporters, mostly in the unlovely suburbs of Europe’s largest metropolitan area. PSG might have been founded only in 1970, nearly a century later than many English clubs, but Greater Paris is a newish creation too. As with every football club that matters to people, PSG’s story echoes that of the place it represents.
The Parisian elite created international football: the global authority Fifa was founded in the city in 1904, and the World Cup and the European Cup (later the Champions League) were both invented there. But as French football became increasingly proletarianised during the 20th century, elite Parisians came to disdain it. François Truffaut, in his 1959 film The 400 Blows, depicts football as just another of the horrors that adults impose on boys. In the film an absurdly enthusiastic gym teacher, wearing shorts and doing silly arm exercises, marches his class through Paris to go and play football. Behind him, the boys peel off en route. The Parisian elite’s palace gazette, Le Monde, only launched a regular daily sports page in 1995 — against the wishes of many of its journalists.
But during the second half of the last century, the influx of French provincials, Portuguese and north and west Africans transformed the region. The new suburbs grew to dwarf the ancient city. In 1946 Greater Paris had 6.6m inhabitants, of whom 2.7m lived inside the city proper. By 1975 the region’s population was 9.9m. Today it’s 12.2m, only 2.1m of whom live in Paris itself. Construction has been rapid and often haphazard: the exquisitely detailed building codes of Paris didn’t apply in the car-bound American-style exurbs. Millions of banlieusards, uprooted from their places of birth, needed a common identity and symbols of community.
PSG’s creation, through a merger of two clubs, was just the latest attempt to create a Parisian club with staying power. The Racing Club and Red Star clubs had faded after periods in the sun. Soon the couturier Daniel Hechter became PSG’s president. He outraged provincial fans by attending games in his poshest gear, until he was banned from football for life after a scandal over ticketing in 1977.
PSG had a brief flowering in the 1990s, reaching the Champions League semi-final in 1995, but then faded. When I moved to Paris in 2002, football wasn’t part of the daily conversation, and you rarely saw anyone inside the Périphérique ring-road in a PSG shirt — an item considered irretrievably “banlieue”. On Bastille Day that year, one of PSG’s violent fans, Maxime Brunerie, tried to assassinate President Jacques Chirac with a rifle.
A few weeks later, I made my first visit to the Parc, to see PSG play the little Corsican club Ajaccio. The home crowd ignored the approximately 15 visiting fans and mostly ignored the match itself. Instead, the “white” and ethnically mixed ends of the ground — both supposedly supporting PSG — chanted hate songs at each other, or sang, “Oh PSG, thanks to you we are the shame of France.” Outside the stadium, on the bourgeois streets of the 16th arrondissement, normally filled with immaculate women and tiny dogs, PSG fan scuffled with PSG fan. Ajaccio flew home almost unnoticed with a draw.
Jean-Claude Blanc, PSG’s deputy chief executive, explains: “Paris is a city where you must very quickly achieve excellence.” Since the club wasn’t excellent, most Parisians ignored it. Early this century, the Parisian rugby club Stade Français sometimes drew larger crowds than PSG.
But the violent deaths of two PSG fans in 2006 and 2010 changed things. French president Nicolas Sarkozy — a PSG fan — decided to eradicate Parisian hooliganism. Groups of hardcore supporters weren’t allowed to sit together in the Parc any more. Some “ultras” were banned. One former leader of a fan group draws a comparison with the clean-up of violent English stadiums after 1990. “The violence in the Parc declined,” he told me, “but the atmosphere became a bit like England. I preferred the old ambience, even if it was an ambience with tear gas at the exits.”
Meanwhile, on November 23 2010, probably the most consequential meal in modern football history was eaten in the Elysée Palace, the French presidential residence. Around the table were Sarkozy, Michel Platini, then head of Europe’s football authority Uefa, and Qatar’s crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. On everyone’s minds was Fifa’s vote for the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, scheduled in Zurich for nine days after the lunch.
Much of Qatari diplomacy is about converting money into friendship. With Saudi Arabia and Iran for neighbours, Qatar needs allies. France — with a seat on the UN security council, a big military, and power inside Fifa — is a useful partner. The French, in turn, need friends bearing foreign investment.
Platini had earlier said he would vote for the US for 2022. He has denied that Sarkozy’s wishes influenced him, but he did shift the block of four European votes from the US to Qatar. That decided the outcome of Fifa’s vote. A kit company owned by the Qatar Investment Authority later gave Platini’s son Laurent a job. Laurent has said his appointment had nothing to do with his father.
Seven months after the lunch, Qatar Sports Investments bought PSG. The Qataris had identified the biggest hole in Europe’s football map: a metropolis of 12m people with just one top-division club. For comparison, London has six clubs in the Premier League. Arsenal’s former manager Arsène Wenger, who advised the Qataris, calls the purchase “a no-brainer”.
Since QSI is backed by the Qatari state, PSG effectively became the property of a foreign country. In parallel, the Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports spent hundreds of millions buying the TV rights to French football — in effect, subsidising every club in Ligue 1. BeIN and PSG moved into a shared office building on a quiet street in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, just south-west of the Parc. The young Qatari Nasser Al-Khelaifi became both president of PSG and chairman and chief executive of beIN. He is due to stand trial in Switzerland next month, accused of inciting Fifa’s former secretary-general Jérôme Valcke to commit “aggravated criminal mismanagement” by providing him with “undue advantages”, in connection with the award of media rights to various international tournaments. He has been cleared of accusations of bribery.
The Qataris have poured money into PSG. Paris had always had great writers, painters, musicians and actors. Suddenly it had great footballers too. Al-Khelaifi told me in 2014: “We have a very clear vision, to be honest. In five years we want to be one of the best clubs in Europe and to win the Champions League.”
Ticket prices jumped. In 2016 PSG upgraded the stadium, more than doubling the number of VIP seats to about 4,500. Tom Sheehan, the project’s architect, said: “What PSG wanted us to do was look at how we could breathe the identity of Paris into the Parc itself. Paris is a very luxurious destination. We’ve tried to make the Parc a chic destination.” He likened the stadium’s renovated VIP entrance to the entrance hall of Paris’s Opéra Garnier, “where people come early, to see and be seen”. Young banlieusards drinking beer and smoking pot on the surrounding pavements didn’t fit PSG’s plan.
In effect, chic Paris was reclaiming the club from the banlieues. The new owners redrew PSG’s badge, making the word “Paris” very big, above a large Eiffel Tower, with “Saint-Germain” in smaller type underneath. Blanc said, “We are called Paris Saint-Germain, but above all we are called Paris.” Sleek men in white shirts in PSG’s sun-filled offices defined (in their new “brand book”) exactly what PSG should stand for: the elegance, beauty and excellence of Paris itself.
The ultras were eventually readmitted to the Parc, on condition of good behaviour and to provide atmosphere with their chants. Even then, many banlieue fans felt the balance had tipped too far. Paris proper, with its soaring house prices, was already becoming a fortress for the rich. PSG was going the same way. The foreign players — few of whom learned much French, even if they stayed years here — exemplified the trend. Thomas Meunier, PSG’s right-back for years, commented after moving to Borussia Dortmund that whereas he was used to birthday parties where you’d play darts in a bar till 6am, PSG players’ festivities were “out of proportion”. He said, “It’s renting a palace, renting a building, partying with tens of hundreds of people. It’s there that you see they are more than footballers.”
Under the Qataris, PSG’s seasons settled into a predictable rhythm: effortless dominance of the French league, and then, usually in the quarter-finals in March, humiliating elimination from the Champions League. Winning the big one became PSG’s obsession. To make it happen, in summer 2017 the club splashed out on what remain the two biggest transfers in football’s history: the Brazilian Neymar came from Barcelona for €222m, and 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé from Monaco for about €180m. In Neymar’s first two seasons, he missed the knockout rounds of the Champions League through injury, and PSG’s humiliating exits continued. This year, for the first time, he is present when it counts.
Neymar is the genius whom football fans love to hate. He likes giving his marker a chance by receiving the ball standing still, then dribbling past in the most dismissive way possible, ideally by putting the ball between his legs — football’s symbolic castration. This style earns Neymar constant kicking, and he’s always rolling on the ground in pain, but only he could have delivered the back-heeled-volley assist that set up Angel Di María’s goal in the 3-0 canter past Leipzig in Tuesday’s semi-final. Di María, an Argentine, is my favourite PSG player: a left foot like Roger Federer’s forehand, able to impart spin and power in countless different ways, plus the face of Franz Kafka.
But PSG’s most beloved player is the striker Mbappé. He is the hero from the banlieues that PSG had sought for decades. The attempted anointment of Nicolas Anelka backfired 20 years ago after the kind of internal conflicts that beset the old PSG. Today, great footballers from the Paris region such as Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial all play abroad. PSG will probably start Sunday’s final with nine foreigners.
Mbappé comes from Bondy, a banlieue that looks as if someone has plonked a Soviet city on to an old French village, then added fast-food joints. He is the platonic ideal of a banlieusard. Son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother, he exemplifies the mixité of the suburbs. Armed with the school-leaving bac exam, and speaking “correct” French, he also incarnates the republican ideal. Even winning the World Cup with France in 2018, aged 19, hasn’t given him a big head. His courtesy and good cheer make it hard for France’s legion of anti-Parisian PSG-haters to hate PSG unreservedly. On the field, he is complete. A sprinter who has perfect ball control and almost always makes the right decision, he might have been designed to run on to Neymar’s passes.
His pace will encourage Bayern’s defence to stay further back than usual. That will lengthen the playing area and create space for Neymar. Coaches usually hate to single out individuals, but PSG’s coach Thomas Tuchel says: “The relationship between Neymar and Kylian is the strong point of our team. That’s clear, clear, clear.”
Sunday is the match that matters. PSG fans have come to take domestic victories for granted. After the French league was ended early by the virus in March, PSG were declared runaway winners. They then didn’t play until July, when they won the French Cup and League Cup finals almost as warm-up games for the Champions League “Final Eight” in Lisbon.
Paris now dominates French football as it does every other sphere of French life. In this era of booming metropoles, London too is a power in the sport. No club from either city reached the final of the European Cup (later Champions League) in the competition’s first 50 years from 1955. Since 2006, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea (twice) and PSG all have.
Because of the pandemic, PSG’s big night will have the most anticlimactic decor imaginable: an empty stadium in Lisbon. Paris this August is scarcely fuller: there are almost no tourists, and many locals are away. Some have remained in their countryside refuges since the coronavirus-induced exodus in March. I’m writing this from a Breton town where I’m visiting my PSG friend, who paces the local beach fretting about Bayern’s pressing game.
But there are still millions of banlieusards of all colours in situ who will watch on Sunday. For all the grumbling about the chic new PSG, there is more joy. Some fans like arriving at a stadium to be welcomed by live jazz instead of ranks of riot police. They like watching Neymar and Mbappé rather than the donkeys of yesteryear. Even the former leader of the fan group says he feels proud to see superstars playing for Paris: “Of course, inevitably.” On Tuesday night, after victory over Leipzig, there were fireworks and honking cars all over Paris and the banlieues, as well as illegal gatherings of fans without any social distancing outside the Parc and on the Champs-Elysées.
On Sunday, wearing a PSG shirt (or PSG mask) in town will be entirely acceptable. Café terraces across the region will be packed with fans who feel no nostalgia for the old club. PSG has pulled off an improbable trifecta: it’s now the club of Qatar, of Paris, and, still, most of all, of the banlieues.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist. He will appear at this year’s FT Weekend Festival, September 3-5. For more information and tickets visit ftweekendfestival.com
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