Paris is Earning, Part 2

Free Market Football in the City of Light
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Photo by Moacir P. de Sá Pereira

Paris has never had a soccer team befitting its image of itself as the center of the world. For 40 years, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club has failed to live up to the lucrative standard of the rest of the city. Despite underperforming teams and a largely working-class fan base, the club has always seemed like it should give its owners a license to print money. The question then: can you gentrify a team? PSG did what unscrupulous developers have done for decades: They changed the rules, preyed on fears of crime, and cynically played for a newer, richer kind of fan. The second of a five-part series examining what happens to a football club when everyone’s eyes have turned to €€.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Single page

Yesterday, I wrote that the story of today’s Paris Saint-Germain Football Club began in England with Liverpool Football Club and a politician named Margaret Thatcher. The part of the story that emerged from Liverpool—the supporter culture—gets decapitated and cauterized in May 2010, when the PSG front office cancels season tickets for those who pay the least for their seats by sitting in either of the “virages” behind each goal. The cancellation came a few months after a scuffle between members of the Virage Boulogne (also known as the generally white and rightwing Kop of Boulogne) and those of the multi-ethnic and apolitical Virage Auteuil, in which one “kobiste” sustained fatal injuries. The part that begins with Thatcher, however, is still very much in business, thank you very much. Its promise of profit, furthermore, was made possible precisely because its twin got cauterized.

Though modern soccer hooliganism emerged before Thatcher took office in 1979, in part with her encouragement it became pathologized in the media and halls of Parliament. Her political legacy, then, includes taking advantage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster to push through a draconian set of policies regarding supporter behavior at soccer matches.1 Still, Thatcher’s role in all of this has less to do with her dislike of soccer and its usually working-class fans than with one of her best-known quotes, which succinctly describes the ideology she exemplified by her words and actions.

In 1987, discussing AIDS and education in the magazine Woman’s Own, Thatcher remarked that, these days, children are being taught to look to the government for help with their problems, like homelessness, “and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” A bit later she doubles down on the sentiment, saying simply, “There is no such thing as society.”2 This radical political view is the centerpiece of neoliberalism, and without neoliberalism, there would be no FIFA in its current form, no money-printing Premier League in England, and, in Paris, no anti-violence program distributing tickets randomly at Parc des Princes between Boulogne and Auteuil.

Neoliberalism is not a new term. Though in the US the term is considered “confusing” by political pundits (who nevertheless used it on Facebook to describe their political views), neoliberalism as meant in this article has no formal ideological ancestral ties with Charles Peters’s advice for Democrats to “distrust all automatic [political] responses, liberal or conservative.” Nor does it have to do with learning to be “sprightly and lampooning” while at Harvard.3 Treating neoliberalism in these terms makes it sound like either a strategy plan for policy writers and campaign strategists in Washington or a past-time for bored and clever elitists dabbling in iconoclasm. These limitations lock up the ideology—and importantly its practice—in wood-paneled corners of western power, making it seem like it’s not terribly important that we all live (US, UK, France) under the increasingly heavy black police boot of neoliberalism. Instead, we must consider this view of the world as something far more central: as the primary ideological engine pushing the west (and the rest of the world remade in the west’s image) since the 1970s.

Nor should neoliberalism be considered as synonymous with globalization; after all, Franklin Foer has already tackled globalization in soccer, which would make this piece redundant. I hope all my readers are already seated when I shock them with the news that many professional teams have many foreign players.4 Now, teams are getting larger numbers of foreign fans and foreign owners, as well.5 The increasing mobility of capital and labor as well as increased technological communication has had completely predictable results. A cheap, exploitable labor force is found in one part of the globe, financed by capital held by a rich part of the globe, and then sold to a third part of the globe with a huge demand for high-profile soccer but with little local supply. This massive international market coexists in glocal symbiosis with the intensely local sentiments of professional soccer, where teams are congratulated for fostering economic improvement around their stadia as well as bringing nearby youth players into their rosters.

What neoliberalism does, however, is to turn globalization’s idea of a worldwide free market into a “social and moral philosophy.” In so doing, the focus of the market drifts from the economy. Neoliberal rationality “involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action.”6 When everything becomes a market and every action a transaction, Thatcher’s words begin to make sense: the whole gets broken up into parts, each atom transactable under different terms. Society disintegrates to become, instead, merely individuals as entrepreneurs at all times, constantly rationally calculating costs and benefits to themselves. Those without the means to look after themselves have to answer to the police. And this disintegration is a feature, not a bug; as David Harvey explains, neoliberals believe that “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms” within a “framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” provides the best path toward advancing “human well-being.”7

The promise of this ideology seldom works out in practice, as the talk about freedom obscures the gap between the few rich and the many poor that has been steadily increasing after thirty postwar years of having the lower and middle classes enjoy an increasingly reasonable share of the western world’s wealth.8 Liberalism already has economic inequality built into it, but neoliberalism launches it into overdrive and adds social inequality to the mix, no longer insulating “citizens against the ghastliness of life exhaustively ordered by the market and measured by market values.” States must protect, after all, the contracts that they oversee, and little things like democracy tend to get in the way of these obligations. It’s much easier to police and prosecute people drinking non-Budweiser beer at the World Cup, where Budweiser is the only FIFA-recognized Official Beer, in a state that views individuals as merely agents entering into contracts (with the stadium, with FIFA), instead of as entities with moral rights derived from sources other than the market.9

CRS (riot police) at Parc des Princes

When PSG’s “plan antiviolence” was officially unveiled, the front office showed their commitment to both neoliberal ideology and practice. The viragistes whose season tickets were cancelled were forced to understand that, for many of them, their relationship to the team was insufficiently market-based, and the police would help keep the new consumers in line.10 “Lovers of PSG,” “loyal supporters,” “the soul of the club,” the fans call themselves in their calls to protest. The president of PSG, they continue, “forgets that for many long seasons, when the results on the field were pathetic, only the fervor of the supporters and the magic of Parc des Princes allowed PSG to continue attracting people. He forgets that the stadium ‘breathes.’ And that he is in the process of stopping that breathing.” But the rhetoric here seems too romantic. The market cares not for love, loyalty, souls, or fervor. And if the fans claim that it is their spirit that attracts others when the team is performing badly, well, the team will quickly calculate that it is more worthwhile to simply stop performing badly by buying better players in record-breaking transactions, rendering the fans’ sideshow unimportant. It was time for the supporters to see exactly what the front office had in mind regarding the supporters’ future role at the stadium.

The previously leaked news about banning season tickets and random distribution of tickets in the virages turned out to be the first two of six new policies at the stadium. The ban annulled about 13,000 season tickets, creating what sociologist Nicolas Hourcade called “collateral damage.” In 2007, Hourcade speculated that, depending on the time and the match, there were a grand total of between 50 and 400 “hard” hooligans in Paris. And yet recall that no effort was made to separate noxious elements of the virages from simply feverish fans. If you sat in a certain part of the stadium (the cheap seats), you were no longer wanted. The other policies involved dissolving loyalty discounts, allowing women to sit in the virages for free, creating family and kids’ sections in the virages, and regulating awaydays so that the bus ride and match ticket were regulated by the team.11 The team also unveiled its name for the plan antiviolence: “Tous PSG,” or “all PSG,” as in, as Club President Robin Leproux said during the introductory press conference on May 18, 2010, “It’s necessary to learn to all be PSG, to live together in the stands.”

But PSG’s goal here was not simply making everyone mix and be friends. The goal was to get rid of the old fans and bring in new ones, preferably ones willing to eventually pay more. The first question at the press conference asked what Tous PSG would be all about. “Our priority is to make the supporters of Auteuil and Boulogne coexist,” responded Leproux. “I’d like total diversity in the stands. In the virages, we’ll welcome families to the lower deck and children [youth soccer players from the area] to the upper deck. We’ll also propose a very attractive price plan. Adult tickets will be sold for €12, women will be allowed in for free, and those under 16 will pay half-fare. It’s an investment.”

The attractive price plan, at a limit of four tickets per, was to be available only to customers who first acquired a “carte Tous PSG,” a mostly white card that proves that the bearer went to Parc des Princes, presented a state-issued ID, and let a photograph be taken that would be associated in a database with his or her name. Without the number on this card, only seats in the stands along the touchline, which start at about twice as much per ticket, are available for purchase. The name on the card is subsequently printed on each ticket bought with the card, and the face on the card has to match the face of the person bearing the tickets when trying to enter the stadium. If you wanted to sit in either Boulogne or Auteuil for cheap—but only in those sections—PSG had decided that it wanted to know quite a bit about you.

Finally, the front office started a promotional blitz by launching touspsg.com, which featured a seven-point pledge that the team asked each fan to sign online, thereby letting PSG to take a “new turn”(un nouveau virage). All seven points are variations of the fifth, which states that “We want to be able to come to the Parc with our families, as couples, among friends, to attend matches in a soothing ambience in order to support our team and our colors.” The adjective used to modify ambience, “apaisée,” shares etymological roots with “peace” and “pacify,” which captures the kind of attitude the front office wanted at the stadium with this new turn. PSG then sweetened the PR pot by asking prominent French celebrities to take the initiative to sign online. In the first week or so, over 20,000 alleged fans, “alleged” because of the fact that many of their names were also anti-Tous PSG sentiments, had joined them.12

The former season ticket holders from the virages reacted negatively to the colonization of their corners of Parc des Princes by families and kids. Furthermore, the idea of being forced to join a photographic database of official, allowed supporters, while those willing to pay more could get in without a photograph struck them as offensive. In response to the Tous PSG pledge, some launched a project called “Tous abonnés”—“All season ticket holders”, whose slogan was “No to violence, but not like this!” Obviously, in contemporary fashion, Facebook groups also emerged. Other supporters left in the cold simply called for a boycott until supporters could again choose where to sit, as is the case of Jérémy Laroche and his group, “Liberté pour les abonnés.” This group oversaw, among other protests, a march in March from the Panthéon to the Bastille. The overall resentment among devoted fans can be gauged from a thread called “I signed” on the official PSG forum, where supporter after supporter, in contrast to the original poster, refuses to sign PSG’s “death certificate.”

After the first match under the Tous PSG regime, a summertime match in the exhibition Tournoi de Paris, it became clear that the changes to the stadium were not quite what had been advertised by Leproux back in May. The concourses of the Virage Auteuil, which since 2005 had hosted PSG-approved murals dedicated to supporters’ associations as well as deceased members, were completely whitewashed.13 In the Kop of Boulogne, sedate commemorative plaques to deceased members were also removed. Before these whitewashed walls everything was now arranged to “amuse the Smurfs”: face painting, skills workshops, flags and horns for sale, and a new anthem to the tune of “Go West.”14 The only problem, sports magazine SO FOOT noted, was that the mascot Germain the Lynx, announced only a week before the Tournoi de Paris, was not introduced in time for the start of the season, as promised.15

For the survival of the people’s stands,” the pamphlet drawn up the previous May, calling supporters to protest on the last match of the season, had warned that the new policy at the stadium would invite fair-weather audiences made of curious, seated spectators who were interested only in seeing what the match was like from these seats so long reserved for season ticket holders. Tourists on trips to Paris would come. Fans of opposing teams would sit in the virages to cheer on their teams against PSG. The team in this way would “lose its soul.” Instead of rabid “ultras”-style fans, we now would have “families, Mickey, and Pépito.”

Unfortunately for PSG, families, Mickey, and Pépito did not have much drawing power, since the 22,689 who showed up to watch the season opener made for the smallest crowd at Parc des Princes for a Ligue 1 match since the 1993–1994 season.16 A month later, only 19,025 spectators gathered to watch PSG put away newly promoted Arles. It was the smallest home crowd since the 1992–1993 season.

Where were the hard-core? Getting tossed into paddy wagons. Two protests were scheduled, one by each virage, before the first match of the season, and 249 supporters were taken in for questioning. The protesters, considering themselves “orphans” abandoned in a scheme to get rid of the working-class rabble at the stadium, were under strict orders from their associations not to cause a disturbance. The French riot police (CRS) started arresting the Boulogne supporters and then moved to the supporters on the Auteuil side. Fan-journalist Sami Battikh again wrote about his experience for Rue 89, noting how he ended up at the police station, being told that he was part of nearly 250 supporters who had physically obstructed access to the stadium, had ignored orders from the police, and had thrown flares and other objects at the police, actions actually attributable to a few trouble makers on the Boulogne side of the stadium. Battikh, along with the others who were gathered up, were punished with “interdictions de stade”—blanket stadium bans that could last up to a year.17 Half-empty stadium, fans outside getting arbitrarily arrested en masse—it was certainly not a great start to the season.


  1. Liverpool was playing in an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday. A mass of Liverpool fans, delayed in traffic, tried to enter the stadium at once, and they were all directed to the same pen, where 96 people were crushed to death. The 88-page Taylor Report, commissioned by the government, laid most of the blame for the disaster at the feet of the police, finding that unruly or drunken fan behavior was a secondary cause. The report’s recommendations mostly dealt with improving communications between police and the team as well as better enforcing a maximum number of people per standing-room-only terrace. The government’s response, however, was to turn soccer stadia into “all-seaters” and making standing up during a match an offense. With smaller stadium capacities, ticket prices rose. In his ethnography of Paulista and Mancunian fan reaction to the commercialization of their local soccer teams, Sam Dubal suggests that the post-Hillsborough reality “Perhaps unintentionally… allowed the public ritual of football to be transformed into a profitable business.” My quibble with Dubal’s perspective makes up the today’s part of this article: it is a folly to think that there was anything “unintentional” about the fact that changes in professional soccer ordered in the name of public safety also happened to turn the sport into a giant, profit-generating engine. ↩

  2. Though Thatcher might not have referred to herself as a neoliberal, it seems that any current work describing neoliberalism at some point has to reckon with this expression of hers, as well as with her remark from 1981, while again complaining about policies geared toward “the collectivist society,” that “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” ↩

  3. That said, it is certainly right to consider The New Republic a thoroughly neoliberal rag, just not for the reasons espoused by David Brooks, for whom neoliberalism competes formidably with bone, cartilage, meninges, and neurons in the constitution of his own, proper spine. ↩

  4. Perhaps the most important aspect of “globalization” in the world of soccer players involves two words that appear nowhere in Foer’s text: “Bosman” and “transfer.” Transfers are, of course, how players move from team to team. As for Bosman, in 1995, with the Bosman ruling, the European Court of Justice found that EU nationals within the EU enjoyed freedom of movement and freedom of association. Teams could henceforth not refuse a player’s desire to leave his team once his contract had expired (called a “Bosman” or “free” transfer). Additionally, the court banned quotas affixed on “foreign” players from other EU states. Despite FIFA’s reliance on markets blasted open around the globe relating to the soccer industry, they have been fighting the Bosman ruling for over a decade, most recently by pushing for the “6 + 5” rule, which allows a team to start only five foreign players. This rule has been rejected by the European Parliament, in lieu of UEFA’s “home-grown players” rule, which requires a minimum number of players on a squad who have trained in-country since they were young, without discriminating based on citizenship. UEFA’s rule may end up getting knocked down by the European Court of Justice as well, but that’s for the future. As a point of similarity, in the US’s Major League Soccer, the right to have an international player on the roster is a commodity that can be traded from team to team, as long as there are no more than 144 total international players. For the two Canadian MLS teams, legal US residents count as “domestic” players (of course!), though both teams must also roster at least three players eligible to work legally in the former Dominion. ↩

  5. Both sides of this coin have played a role in a set of stories that have warned of grave threats to the future of the Premier League in England this past fall. The increase in foreign fans has led a representative from Liverpool, which has a massive international fan base, to speculate about whether his team would be better off if it could negotiate its international TV rights on its own, like Real Madrid and Barcelona do in Spain. The increase in foreign owners, on the other hand, has led to fears that they may want to rid the Premier League of relegation. ↩

  6. My main sources here are five. Most easily accessible—it’s a free web page—is Paul Treanor’s definition of neoliberalism, though Treanor focusses too heavily on the economic side of things. Wendy Brown’s “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” reprinted in Edgework, emphasizes, on the other hand, the pernicious move of the market into politics and morality. Of my sources, this essay is the most satisfying march through neoliberalism. Another of Brown’s articles, “American Nightmare,” shows how neoliberalism prepares the American public for neoconservatism. David Harvey’s brief history of the subject is an engaging read that covers neoliberalism’s various manifestations around the globe, in contrast with Brown’s focus on the US. Harvey’s account also describes how neoliberalism attracts American “liberals” through its focus on individual rights. Finally, Michel Foucault’s lectures on the birth of biopolitics describe German and American (and nascent French) neoliberalism as a response to strong state policies of the 1930s and early 1940s in Europe and the US. Foucault’s work is from 1979, so it is a bit dated, but it directly addresses the history of neoclassical economic theories. Gary Becker, for example, whose ideas of human capital are important to the neoliberal reconfiguration of labor, is only referenced by Foucault. ↩

  7. Harvey begins his story about neoliberalism with the overthrow of the socialist Allende government in Chile. Volcker Eick traces the neoliberalism of FIFA to an incident a month after Allende’s death on September 11th, 1973. Chile was to play the USSR in the second leg of a World Cup qualifier on November 21, at the Estadio nacional in Santiago, which had been used since the coup as a prison and torture area for Allende supporters. The new regime, Pinochet’s, convinced FIFA that the stadium was usable for the match, but the USSR boycotted and, hence, lost, 1–0. A year later, FIFA’s general secretary, who oversaw the decision to play the match at the Estadio nacional, João Havelange, would be elected president of FIFA. Havelange turned the organization from one that was “not notably corrupt, only racist and Eurocentric” to a ruthless business enterprise whose primary goal seems to be honoring the massive sponsorship and exclusivity contracts companies sign for FIFA’s only real event, the World Cup. ↩

  8. As Harvey writes, “An open project around the restoration of economic power to a small elite would probably not gain much popular support. But a programmatic attempt to advance the cause of individual freedoms could appeal to a mass base and so disguise the drive to restore class power.” ↩

  9. Brian Phillips notes FIFA’s increasing disinterest in democracy by pointing out that “The past four World Cups to be awarded… have charted a line straight down the Democracy Index, from South Africa (30th place) to Brazil (47th) to Russia (107th) to Qatar (137th), where political power is hereditary and homosexuality is a crime.” ↩

  10. The 2011 law regulating police power in France, “Loppsi 2,” contains many provisions relating to new powers of the (police) state to regulate soccer supporters. The state can prohibit the movement of an individual or group of soccer fans if the state feels that there is a public safety risk, and stadium bans were extended. Parts of the law were judged unconstitutional, but not the sections relating to soccer. Only the PCF, the Communist Party of France, responded, with a letter to the legislators exclaiming that “we are not all hooligans!” Sociologist Patrick Mignon has criticized the escalation of police repression as misguided, and it is, if one assumes that the goal is peace in the stands with the supporters who care about being there. That’s not a safe assumption, however. ↩

  11. Before reacting with shock at the casual sexism of the point regarding women, recall that the French government has no issue telling women that they are wearing too much clothing in public. On the other hand, ultimately, this free seat is offered to women and “compagnons Pacsés,” or companions of the ticket buyer in (gender-agnostic) civil unions. ↩

  12. These low numbers are damning, in the opinion of the protesting ex-season ticket holders, because they show that the pledge is just a PR blitz designed to marginalize them as psychopaths no longer wanted by the team or its fans willing to sign the pledge. If they were so unwanted, many more would have signed the petition. Furthermore, they view the fact that the online web counter tracking pledges had six places to be indicative of the hubris of the team, thinking it could collect over 100,000 supporters who want a pacified park. Even though the list included several unprintable spoof names, as one supporter noted, in this case, it’s only the sum of signatures that matters, not the individuals. Finally, the site is notably no longer online. ↩

  13. In this way, journalist Sami Battikh’s warning about the “kärcherisation” of Parc des Princes proved itself entirely valid. ↩

  14. The Village People song, made popular by the Pet Shop Boys in 1993, has become a standard soccer anthem and chant, as its rhythm can be easily manipulated to express an opinion from “Nayim from the halfway line” to “Steh’ auf, wenn du für Deutschland bist.” Its popularity led to its providing the framework for the anthem of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, “Stand Up! (Champions Theme),” and this version was played at every World Cup match. If the idea of the adoption of a Pet Shop Boys cover of a Village People song about escaping to an idealized gay Arcadia by a bunch of soccer fans does not strain one’s credulity enough, watch Howard Greenhalgh’s excellent video. ↩

  15. PSG started the 2010–2011 season hosting AS Saint-Étienne and SO FOOT’s writeup closes with a reference to the banner unfurled by the visiting stéphanois, which read, “Thanks to Leproux, it’s like we’re at home.” Without megaphones or cheer leaders, the local fans were disorganized and embarrassed themselves in their support compared to the visitors from the south. ↩

  16. All of my attendance figures throughout come from the unwieldy but comprehensive Stades et spectateurs. ↩

  17. The “IDS” is an especially nasty kind of sentence in its bureaucratic excess. As Battikh notes in his candid description of his interactions with the police, which includes pdfs of his charges and sentencing, the IDS involves having to report at a police station every game night at kick-off and then again 45 minutes later. Even though his own IDS was only for a month, Battikh counted up six evenings he would be spending with the cops, including the night of August 26, 2010, when, despite the fact that PSG was in Tel Aviv, Battikh still had to make two trips to the police station. One of the Auteuil supporters appealed the IDS and, a year later, had it overturned and was awarded €1,500 in damages. ↩


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Comments

This piece is turning out pretty excellent. I had never thought of the connections between neoliberalism and sports before, but now they are becoming evident to me, especially in the United States surrounding the public finance of private stadiums for teams, and the complicity of local governments in misleading taxpayers into basically setting up a steady stream of income for teams, who then can proceed to increase ticket prices without fear of losing money. In this, much like in the case of PSG, teams are able to keep out factions they consider undesirable for whatever reason while maintaining or even increasing their profits.