Paris is Earning, Part 4

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 fourth 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

On August 2, the newspaper Libération featured a special section devoted to Qatar’s tight relationship with France. One headline announced that France has been “the Emirate’s best friend since 2007,” highlighting the close relationship between Nicolas Sarkozy and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, two unscrupulous, ambitious peas in the same pod. As Libé explains, Hamad was the first Arab Head of State to visit and congratulate Sarkozy on his presidential inauguration.

The friendship has spread throughout the French ruling class, with French politicians of the right and left more than willing to fly off to Doha to earn honoraria at various seminars and conferences. The French-Qatari axis was even alluded to by Michel Platini, current president of UEFA, who said that Sarkozy told him that “it would be a good thing” if he were to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.1 But during the glad-handling, some money exchanges hands, as well. Since Sarkozy’s ascent, Libé explains, “the Qatari investments in the French economy and in luxury Parisian real estate have exploded.” And why not? in 2009, the French parliament exempted Qatari real estate investments in France from capital gains tax. Qatar buys French: airplanes, arms, construction, services…

And now Qatar has bought French again: on May 31, PSG confirmed that 70% of the team had been sold to the Qatari Investment Authority, the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, for a sum between €30m and €40m.2 Sarkozy’s buddy now owns Sarkozy’s team with Sarkozy’s help. The President and First Fan was the Qatari team’s “12th man” in negotiations for the sale, which included some casual conversation on the subject when elevating 31 year–old Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who heads many Qatari sports concerns and is already the new “prince du Parc,” to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, the second-highest degree of the highest decoration in France.3 And Sarkozy snarled at those who critiqued the sale; again, according to Libé, Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno was almost kicked out of her position by Sarkozy after she calmly told radio reporters that she would have preferred French owners.

Seeing a depressed brand in PSG—an underachieving team from a global cultural center in an undercapitalized league—QIA, which had been tied, previously, to several English teams, saw an opportunity for growth, and, equally importantly, a chance to work on its sports profile against the worldwide muttering at Qatar’s winning the World Cup.4 Président Bling-Bling’s home team was ready to “devote itself without restraint to bling-bling soccer.” The neoliberalization of PSG was now complete: first the mass of fans in the stands was converted into individual consumers. Next, the government had intervened to push through new owners who would let the team participate in the big-time transfer market. PSG would no longer be a step on the way to Spain, Italy, or England.5 It would now be a destination, the site where world-class soccer players would play their most world-class soccer. And after former player Leonardo had been hired as sporting director, the gossip around the summer transfer market suggested that many of the top names in soccer might be soon applying for their Métro cards.

So how did the fans respond to all this? PSG “is attracting mobs,” declared Radio Monte Carlo in August, reporting that queues 30 meters long appeared at the box office within 15 minutes of opening. The team sold 13,000 season tickets, which included completely selling out the 6,000 season tickets reserved for the virages. Last season, PSG ground out an unbeaten run at home that lasted from November to May to help boost attendance. This year, the averages are even better. And the nearly full stadium of ticket buyers has generally left happy: PSG’s current point total, 40, was a summit reached only after over 3/4 of the season was played over the past two years. Not half. Everything’s coming up Pastore.

Yet the ex-viragistes continued their protests. Liberté pour les abonnés announced at the start of this season that Parc des Princes “was a full yet soulless stadium.” They remained vigilant in their war against the Tous PSG ticket and ID policy which forced the former fans who sat in the cheapest seats in the stadium—the “virages” behind each goal—to submit to security checks not demanded of those willing to pay more for a ticket, all in the name of, by this point, “respect” as a function of anti-racism.

As long as Tous PSG remains in place, Liberté pour les abonnés continue in their announcement, this discrimination against the people’s stands, enacted by the team in concert with the Ministry of the Interior, remains in force. And though Liberté pour les abonnés welcomes the sale of the team to the QIA as well as the Qatari efforts to raise the profile of the team, a big team, they remind us, is nothing without a big public. Magazine Les Inrockuptibles also ran a feature on several boycotters over the summer. Their tales are all of loss of and mourning for, sometimes rendered physically, both their second home and the awaydays across France and Europe. One former kobiste—a fan from the rightwing “Kop of Boulogne”—reports losing 8kg over the course of the season. In his view, no longer being able to go to Parc des Princes has caused him to lose “a part of [his] body.” The testimonials remind me of reading about veterans still fighting the last war, stubborn in their positions, even as everything around them erodes away. Some of the fans, as long as not serving stadium bans, do sneak into the tribunes and look toward their old haunts in virages and chant at the new fans, “Tous PSG! Tous enculés!

And what are the fans who stay at home missing? Is Rue 89’s characterization of the Parc des Princes as now for “consumers” correct? Most likely. At a recent home match, a 1–0 loss to AS Nancy-Lorraine—their first loss at home since the season opener—I watched the action behind the goal from the Virage Auteuil.6 The stadium was certainly practically full, but there was nearly no ambience outside of the virages. Early on, the most unified howls revolved around a young fan who had brought a vuvuzela into the stadium and blew it from time to time, earning disdain and reminders that we weren’t in South Africa. Past that, the tribunes felt silent. The virages were also disorganized and intermittent with their support once the match began. The upper deck of Auteuil had a man daringly standing on the ledge with his back to the action, acting as a capo and trying to organize cheers, but without a megaphone. Even typical chants, like heckling the opposing goalie on goal kicks, fell to only scattered fans.

The lower deck of Auteuil was a mélange of youths in PSG shirts and scarves, fooling around, occasionally chanting or swearing at the action on the field, and smoking hash. Many seemed to be on dates and only rarely focussed on the field. One young man, dressed in the shiny, puffy down jacket with fake fur trim that comprises a contemporary Parisian uniform, spent much of the match trying to reach a speaker with his expectorations as his girlfriend cheered him on. A middle-aged man, wrapped in a PSG cape, stomped the length of the first row, trying, in Portuguese-accented French, to get the everyone around him to cheer on the home team. Eventually, he ran out of steam and matched the rhythm of the game with a predictable series of muttered single-word obscenities. The more elaborate streams of cursing involving grandmothers and the like he saved for occasional salvos spat toward the Nancy fans some 80 meters away.

On the other hand, security had a soft touch in our section, and no one was sitting—in contrast to my experience in the tribunes, where standing was rare. The match began with everyone waving their scarves, and some fans had collected all the nearby pre-match programs to tear them up into kick-off confetti. All the youths joined in singing the team’s “Go West” anthem. But after half-time, the biggest fan expression seemed to be that, over on the Boulogne side, the team-provided “FIERS DE NOS COULEURS” (“Proud of our colors”) banner stretching across the entire virage had been torn down to read just “DE NOS COUL,” punning on “from our asses.” The similarly huge official banner on our side, which only read the name of the team we were supporting, was also slowly torn down during the course of the second half, prompting security to make their sole entrance among the seats. So while the stadium wasn’t dead, when I compare what I saw around me with photos of tifo from before Tous PSG was instituted, or with stories from ex-viragistes, especially about the tenth anniversary of dissolved fan association Supras Auteuil, I can hardly believe that it is the same stadium.

Once Nancy jumped ahead with a goal scored 30 meters before our eyes, whatever passion remained was stamped out of the whole stadium. The team never quit, blowing open goal after open goal, but the fans certainly did. With ten minutes left in the match, we could finally hear, over the silenced home crowd, the 50–100 Nancy supporters who were literally penned into the corner of the stadium. A handful of fans from the German border were making more noise than the 40,000+ locals. With five minutes left, the stands started emptying out. Save the delirious Nancy fans, who were rewarded with players’ shirts after the match, and a few men near me complaining about how useless Kevin Gameiro is, the seats were completely empty five minutes after the final whistle.

PSG is in first place, and qualification for the Champions League seems almost a given. But the uneven play over the first half of the season sows a bit of apprehension. If PSG is losing at home to the likes of Nancy, it is possible that more losses are in the cards. And should the team fall from first or even slip out of the Champions League spots by tumbling to fourth, will the Parc des Princes maintain its level of 85%+ capacity? Will the presence of Javier Pastore stop being a big draw if he can’t find the net against Nancy while mumbling that he has aspirations that are bigger than little PSG? No one yet knows these answers, and it will be exciting to see them develop, but as Parc des Princes becomes, more and more, “consumer”- instead of “supporter”-oriented, it also starts feeling more and more American. And this, certainly, is not good news.

  1. It would take a million WALL-Es a million years to sift through the garbage and graft surrounding the the World Cup vote from December of 2010. Needless to say, giving the tournament to Qatar is a decision that is “hard to understand” at best. While remembering that FIFA in its neoliberal phase has a greater interest in protecting sponsorship contracts than in defending democracy, here is a nice place to point again to Brian Phillips’s article on corruption and murder in FIFA. I suppose in the previous sentence one could infer that there was a “non-neoliberal” phase of FIFA where it was (or will be) interested in defending democracy. That would be a terrible misreading. ↩

  2. Lest one think the Qatari government was done spending there, they then dropped €90m two weeks later for the rights to televize two Ligue 1 matches a week in a surprise move for their Francophone al-Jazeera channel, set to launch in France and worldwide this year. The Qatari monarch’s dream, apparently, is to turn his nation into a world power by “freely investing in the key sectors of the globalized world: information and sports.” Furthermore, another wing of the massive Qatari wealth machine, the Qatar Foundation, which is dedicated to education, spent £125m over the summer for five year contract sponsoring the jersey of FC Barcelona. Barça’s shirt had never had a sponsor before, leading romanticizing fans to extoll the team’s “purity” and its showing “that it resides on a higher plane than the base world of commerce.” Instead of receiving money from a sponsor, Barça donated €2m a year to UNICEF and wore its logo on their shirt. Crippling debt has a funny effect on moral purity and one’s attitude toward “base commerce.” But overspending in response to the pressure of maintaining a global brand is just part of our globalized world, right? ↩

  3. The longer view of the sale, in which Colony Capital retains, for now, a 30% stake, involves the the future of the stadia around Paris, as PSG has long been rumored to move permanently from Parc des Princes to Stade de France on the other side of town, which would add over 35,000 extra tickets per match. Before France hosts the European championships in 2016, Parc des Princes will be expanded and upgraded, forcing PSG to the national stadium for a season, which will also be an opportunity to kick the tires regarding a permanent move. Parc des Princes is owned by Paris but managed until 2014 by Société d’Exploitation Sports-Evénements, which is a subsidiary of Colony Capital. Colony figures there is still a pile of money to be made from the stadium beyond having PSG as its (near sole) tenants, and they are hoping for state aid in expanding the stadium. On the other hand, the state is eager to have a permanent resident (like PSG) in the Stade de France, in the nearby suburb of Saint-Denis, to get out from under the huge fees they owe the operators of the stadium, VINCI. VINCI’s largest shareholder after its employees? The Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, wholly controlled by the QIA. As Libé explains, in untangling all of this, “small world.” ↩

  4. Pace Malcolm Gladwell and his thesis on the “psychic benefits” of team ownership, many, many owners consider their sports subsidiaries as wealth producing entities. PSG was owned until this year by a investment fund, after all; it was explicitly in the business of making money. For every team with a petulant boy-king owner treating it like a game of Football Manager, there is a team run by a faceless front office watching the bottom line. Of course, PSG was founded by investors eager to have top-flight Parisian soccer and eager for the psychic benefit of bringing such a thing to the capital. Furthermore, of course, the Paris FC splinter happened precisely because some investors felt a team named “Paris Saint-Germain” was insufficiently Parisian—hence not providing enough of that psychic benefit. These days, however, PSG exists to make its owners even richer. Luckily for fans of good soccer, the new owners seem convinced that the best way to make money off the team is by turning it into an international brand—like Manchester United—by ensuring a string of success in domestic and continental competitions. ↩

  5. David Ginola left in 1995 for Newcastle, George Weah left in 1995 for A.C. Milan, Youri Djorkaeff left in 1996 for Inter Milan, Leonardo left in 1997 for A.C. Milan, Nicolas Anelka left for Arsenal in 1997 and then again in 2002 for Manchester City, Ronaldinho left in 2003 for Barcelona, and Gabriel Heinze left in 2004 for Manchester United. Players leave all the time at all teams, of course. The point of this short list is to show that PSG has a history of being a “selling,” not a “buying,” team. ↩

  6. Behind me was an old kobiste, maybe in his early 50s, with a “Kop of Boulogne” sweatshirt underneath his parka. He drunkenly slurred and swore for much of the beginning of the match before shutting up and swaying, with his pants undone, staring in silence at the chances PSG kept missing. I was eager to get his photograph, but he looked positively catatonic after half-time, and it all felt wrong. ↩

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