March 28, 2014 11:39 am

Can Paris Saint-Germain become the world’s richest sports club?

How a Qatari state investment company bought one of Europe’s youngest and most troubled football clubs and transformed it into a brand sensation
Zlatan Ibrahimović©Roberto Frankenberg

Paris Saint-Germain’s star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) in a match against St Etienne

Paris never was a football city, and has only one serious club. Soon after moving here, in 2002, I went to my first Paris Saint-Germain game. PSG were playing the little Corsican club Ajaccio. The home crowd ignored the approximately 15 visiting fans, and mostly ignored the match itself. Instead, the “white” end and the ethnic end of the Parc des Princes – both supposedly supporting PSG – chanted hate songs at each other. Outside the stadium, in the streets of the chic 16th arrondissement, PSG fan scuffled with PSG fan. Ajaccio flew home almost unnoticed with a draw.

For decades, watching PSG was like watching an English match circa 1984: poor football, scary fans, empty seats. Then Paris experienced a transformation on a scale rarely seen in sporting history. In 2011, Qatar Sports Investments – effectively a wing of the Qatari state – bought the club and began buying brilliant footballers. PSG meet Chelsea in April’s Champions League quarter-finals as serious contenders to win European football’s biggest prize. Soon PSG could become the richest club in any sport on earth. “We have a very clear vision, to be honest,” PSG’s 40-year-old Qatari president Nasser al-Khelaifi told me. “In five years, we want to be one of the best clubs in Europe and to win the Champions League. And our brand to be worth €1bn. And we will be there.” The French capital is reeling in surprise.

If you can find a ticket to a PSG game nowadays, you’re liable to be welcomed outside the Parc by jazz orchestras instead of skinheads. The club’s VIP salons and burgeoning luxury suites may boast more celebrities per square foot than any restaurant in Paris. On the field, the brilliant Swedish giant Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores goals and trash-talks opponents. When there’s a big game, Parisians fill cafés to watch on TV. Times have changed.

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Simon Kuper

PSG, founded in 1970, is one of Europe’s youngest football clubs. Soon it became a hooligan bastion. “Blue-white-red, France is white,” the white skinhead “Boulogne” end of the ground would chant or, in honour of the long-time far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, “Jean-Marie, président!” Boulogne often jeered PSG’s black players. Later the stand opposite Boulogne, called Auteuil, became the multi-ethnic black-brown-white “end”. Boulogne and Auteuil began a civil war. The club subsidised fan groups on both sides. “Oh PSG, thanks to you we are the shame of all France,” fans would often chant. Club directors rarely dared to punish violent fans, because the supporters knew where they lived. The fear was understandable. On Bastille day in 2002, Maxime Brunerie, a neo-Nazi Boulogne regular, tried to assassinate President Jacques Chirac with a .22 rifle.

The old PSG didn’t do long-term planning. “I ran PSG with the demand to create spectacle,” a former club president told me, “not to build a project for 20 years to come.” Players were stifled by the atmosphere at home games, the so-called syndrome du Parc. The club won French titles in 1986 and 1994, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996, but those were exceptions. Jean-Claude Blanc, now PSG’s director-general, says the old club “was burned by Paris’s power”. He adds: “Paris is a city where you must very quickly achieve excellence.”

Until very recently, most Parisians ignored PSG. You could spend your life in Paris and never know that football existed. Inside the périphérique, the ring road that defines the city proper, you hardly ever saw anyone in a PSG shirt. Football arguably wasn’t even Paris’s biggest sport. The rugby club Stade Français sometimes outdrew PSG. But the violent deaths of two PSG fans in 2006 and 2010 changed things. The authorities stepped in and broke up the hooligan groups. No longer could a group of more than five people buy seats together. Seating was randomised. Some fans were banned. One former leader of a fan group likened what happened at PSG to 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.” It’s true that the Parc is tamer now: during PSG’s victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League this month, the small contingent of Leverkusen fans out-chanted the home support. Still, PSG was a rare law-and-order success for President Sarkozy.

Nicolas Sarkozy in PSG’s VIP stand©Roberto Frankenberg

Nicolas Sarkozy in PSG’s VIP stand

Sarkozy supports PSG. Recently, his entourage irritated the Qataris by trailing the possibility of his becoming the club’s president should he fail to return as France’s president in 2017. But he certainly facilitated PSG’s turnround. Every French president gets to know the Qatari elite, who increasingly invest in France. In November 2010, Sarkozy hosted a famous lunch at the Elysée Palace. The guests were Michel Platini, French president of Europe’s football association Uefa, and Qatari crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Platini denies that Sarkozy asked him to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup but admitted to the Spanish football magazine Don Balon, widely quoted in the French press, that the president said it would be “a good thing if [he] did”.

Whatever was said at lunch, afterwards three things happened. The swing votes of Platini’s European bloc in Fifa’s executive committee gave Qatar the World Cup. (Previously, Platini had said that Qatar as host would be “a catastrophe”.) Then Qatar’s TV network Al Jazeera bought some of the rights to screen French football on French TV. And, in June 2011, Qatar Sports Investments bought PSG from the American investment firm Colony Capital reportedly for about €70m. PSG, says the French sports economist Bastien Drut, became unique: a football club owned by a state. The takeover exemplified a new trend: London, Paris and their resident super-rich are challenging provincial cities such as Barcelona and Munich for supremacy in football.

Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser al-Khelaifi©Roberto Frankenberg

Nasser al-Khelaifi, president of Paris Saint-Germain

Shortly before PSG’s recent 2-0 canter past Saint-Etienne, I met PSG’s president al-Khelaifi in his office behind the players’ tunnel. He’s a thin, smiling, shy man with a business degree, a lover of falconry and a former tennis professional, one of the only Qataris qualified to lead this project. He also runs al Jazeera’s French TV network beIN Sports, housed in the same building just southwest of Paris as PSG’s offices. I asked him why, of all the world’s football clubs, Qatar chose PSG. “It’s the only club in a capital of Europe,” he replied. “You have 12 million people living around this city.”

For comparison, London has six clubs in the Premier League. Manchester has two clubs. Paris was the biggest hole in Europe’s football map. Blanc, who previously worked at Juventus in Turin, goes further: “If there was one sports property on earth to take over two and a half years ago, it was PSG. You’ll do a project like this once in your life. It was a sleeping beauty for 40 years, we kissed it and peeeooow!” he slaps his fist into his palm. “It explodes.” The only other sporting project of comparable audacity may be tiny Qatar’s own World Cup.

Soon after buying PSG, the Qataris broke the French transfer record by buying Javier Pastore from Palermo for €42m. Embarrassingly, Pastore said he dreamt of “later playing for a bigger club than Paris St-Germain”. Many French chortled when the newly rich Parisians ended their first season second in France behind little Montpellier. But in summer 2012, PSG spent €145m on transfer fees, more than any other club on earth. Most strikingly, Brazil’s captain Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic arrived together from Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan. Paris didn’t instantly seduce them. “My desire and my family’s was not to leave Milan,” said Silva. Viewed from Italy, as the Italian football writer Tommaso Pellizzari once explained, “France is not a football country. Apparently matches are played there, perhaps they are even televised, but nobody here cares.” If a French team somehow beat an Italian one, said Pellizzari, Italians felt a sense of “man bites dog”.

Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic©Roberto Frankenberg

Thiago Silva, defender, cost €42m while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, forward, cost €20m

The big-spending French-Qatari newcomer unsettled club football’s elite. Blanc says PSG obeyed industry etiquette: “The honour code among big clubs is to have good relations with the other big clubs. If a player interests us, we talk between clubs, and don’t send agents or other intermediaries to act as go-betweens. If a big club wants to buy one of our players, they call this office or Nasser and ask: ‘Would you consider selling this player?’ If the answer is no, then 90 per cent of the time the conversation is over. Generally among big clubs, one doesn’t steal players. PSG is respected for this.” Al-Khelaifi adds: “Florentino Pérez [Real Madrid’s president] is a very good friend of mine. I have close relations with Arsenal. Of course, you have some jealousy but it’s not the point to talk about the jealousy.”

Yet PSG still encounters resentment. Uefa’s new “financial fair play” rules forbid clubs from spending more than their revenues. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern Munich’s chairman, said last month: “It’s hard to imagine that PSG are complying with financial fair play,” and urged Uefa to act. When I asked al-Khelaifi about PSG’s critics, he retorted: “They should manage their club, and not tell any other club’s business. We are not here to get into any other club’s management.”

PSG insists it’s abiding by “financial fair play”. After all, its revenues of €398.8m last season were fifth highest in European football, according to the consultants Deloitte. This season PSG expects to finish nearer €500m. Real Madrid’s revenues of €521m last year were the highest for any sports club ever. Given that PSG’s revenues are rising faster, Paris could soon top the sporting rich list. Surely that should offer scope to spend?

Rummenigge notes that most of PSG’s revenues last year came from Qatar. One sponsor alone, the Qatar Tourism Authority, pays an estimated €200m a year. But, insists Blanc, that sum isn’t a gift. Rather, he says, Qatar is the first country to attempt nation-branding through club football. Or in Ibrahimovic’s words: “Today we represent Paris, France and Qatar.”

Putting money into PSG, Blanc argues, may buy more global recognition than hosting a two-week Olympics or advertising in business magazines. It’s also cheaper than buying a big English club, notes Pascal Boniface, director of the French international-relations think-tank Iris and a regular at the Parc. Certainly, Qatar has had better PR from PSG so far than from its impending World Cup – which has inspired allegations of corruption around Qatar’s bid (denied by Qatar) plus media reports about immigrant construction workers killed while building stadiums. Still, it would be wrong to paint Qatar’s takeover of PSG as a strictly rational pursuit of state interests. The unfeasibly rich emirate has an elite that wants to have fun.

PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alex flank Saint-Etienne’s Josuha Guilavogui©Roberto Frankenberg

PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alex flank Saint-Etienne’s Josuha Guilavogui at Parc des Princes

On the field, Qatar’s money took time to lift Paris. Carlo Ancelotti, PSG’s coach from 2011 to 2013, told me last December from his new perch at Real Madrid: “At PSG you have to build everything from a low, low level.” His team, he explained, was divided into ethnic factions. “We had the South Americans, the French, the Italians. The relationship is not easy. The South Americans like to play with each other. The Italians the same. The players were not used to having a winning mentality.” Players expected to leave the training centre by 1pm, straight after morning practice, said Ancelotti. “To change this was not easy . . . It was important to have Ibrahimovic, the best player with good professionalism. He was a model for others in training sessions, because he concentrated every time.”

Ibrahimovic incarnates the new PSG. The Swede, whose net salary is reportedly €14m a year, arrived in Paris exuding snootiness about PSG. That was fair enough: his eight consecutive league titles through 2011 (in three different countries) were then six more than PSG had managed in its history. He’d scarcely moved into his €3,000-a-night suite in the Hotel Bristol when the French satirical TV programme Les Guignols introduced a Zlatan puppet. “Interviewed” on Les Guignols before playing Toulouse, the puppet indicated he had no idea which bunch of French losers PSG were facing, then unfolded his strategy in broken French:

Zlatan puppet: Zlatan tackles Jeremy Menez . . .

Presenter puppet: But Menez is in your own team!

Zlatan: Yes, but Zlatan no confidence in Menez. Zlatan takes ball Menez. Then I zlatan three Toulouse players. I hit a zlatan from 30 metres out. The keeper is zlatanned. 1-0 for Zlatan.

Zlatanner – broadly meaning “to crush” – became a French word. Recently Zlatan “zlatanned” Olympique Marseille’s striker André Gignac, an admirer of his. After PSG had “Zlatanned” their old rivals in the Parc, with Gignac as a bystander, Ibrahimovic commented: “We played with five defenders, our four plus Gignac.” Ibrahimovic can afford to talk: he’s scored 40 goals in 41 matches. “I think it’s the best season in his career,” says al-Khelaifi. That’s remarkable, as Zlatan is 32.

. . .

David Beckham lifts the Ligue 1 trophy©Getty

David Beckham lifts the Ligue 1 trophy after PSG won the match against Brest on May 18 2013. It was the last game of Beckham’s career

Fabien Allegre, PSG’s head of merchandising, has on his desk a Swedish milk packet featuring Ibrahimovic among his teammates. “We’re looking for a young clientele,” says Allegre, “because later they will be our supporters. They are attracted to icons, and Zlatan is an icon.” Even in Paris’s poshest arrondissements you now see kids in PSG shirts, generally with Ibrahimovic’s number 10.

The other footballer who did most to brand PSG spent just four months here last spring. Before David Beckham arrived, only 1 per cent of PSG’s merchandise products sold online went outside France. Beckham raised the proportion to 10 per cent, and it has stayed there. He retired from football last May with a French league title, though disappointingly for the Qataris, the official celebrations opposite the Eiffel Tower ended in an old-fashioned PSG fans’ riot.

Winning isn’t everything. The club’s officials care just as much about branding. Sleek men in white shirts in PSG’s white sun-filled offices have defined (in their new “brand book”) exactly what the club should stand for. Briefly put: PSG is to be as elegant, beautiful and generally excellent as Paris itself. Spectators should be welcomed to the Parc as if at an upmarket hotel. PSG is acquiring luxury brands as sponsors: as you head out of the Parc, a young woman might hand you a sample of face cream. On the field, says Blanc: “The playing style must be chevalier-esque, with panache, Parisian.”

The brand “Paris” trumps the brand “PSG”. No wonder the new owners have effectively renamed the club. They have redrawn PSG’s logo, making the word “Paris” very big, above a large Eiffel Tower, with “Saint-Germain” in smaller letters underneath. As Blanc says: “We are called Paris Saint-Germain but, above all, we are called Paris.”

A Parisian club, he says, can become “one of the 10 biggest franchises in sport. Our reference points are Real Madrid, Manchester United but also the New York Yankees, the Lakers in LA, Ferrari in Italy.” Blanc thinks Paris can get there fast: “The world is now instantaneous, digital. It took 50 years to make Real Madrid into a great world club. Now it can be done in five years. If Zlatan scores with a ‘pigeon’s wing’ [a flying back-heel], it goes around the world in 10 seconds.”

This talk of luxury brands infuriates PSG’s traditional fans. They haven’t all disappeared. On match nights, the posh streets around the Parc fill with young men from the banlieues, who drink beer and smoke pot, watched by the police. Many of them distrust flash new PSG. Paris, with its rising house prices, is becoming a fortress for the rich. PSG, with its rising ticket prices, may too. The “banlieusards” risk losing one of their last footholds inside the capital. President François Hollande commented in 2012: “I’ve heard that PSG’s coach or sporting director earns €6m a year. Does PSG – a good team for which I have affection – have such good results that its coach should be paid that much?”

Yet Boniface of Iris says the new PSG is overwhelmingly popular. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he says. “The stadium is full, whatever the time, match or opposition – which never happened before.” Few Parisians can summon much nostalgia for the old PSG. Even the former leader of the fan group says he feels proud to see Ibrahimovic playing for Paris: “Of course, inevitably.”

True, there is much grumbling about foreign money transforming French football. But most French people outside Paris also accept the new PSG, says Boniface. First, Qatari TV money lifts all French clubs. Second, whenever PSG plays away, stadiums fill as entire towns come to gawp at Zlatan. And third, France now has a club that can win the Champions League. A country anxious about its declining international status has acquired a “national champion” in the world’s most popular sport.

Nowadays, the characteristic sound of the Parc is polite applause as if in the Paris Opera. The Parc’s two ends favour chants straight out of the owners’ brand book: “Paris est magique!”, and “Ici, c’est Paris!”. The old Boulogne and Auteuil gangs have been reduced to occasional nostalgic scuffles in bars. The players, living in Paris’s finer arrondissements, surely don’t regret coming here. The club will pay Hollande’s 75 per cent tax for them.

And the new PSG has only just got going. The club’s offices are still full of builders. Boniface expects Qatari funding to flow at least until their World Cup of 2022. There’s talk of eventually expanding the Parc from 47,000 seats to 60,000 – though inconveniently, the stadium’s original architect, Roger Taillibert, is alive, pin-sharp at 88, and entitled by French law to veto any rebuilding.

On the field things are progressing fast. In last year’s Champions League quarter-finals, PSG lost to Barcelona. Ancelotti thinks the turning point came when Barça sent on a half-fit Lionel Messi, and his aura dimmed PSG’s confidence. Now Paris’s players feel more secure at the top. Don’t bet against them winning a Champions League soon. But already something more remarkable is happening: Paris is becoming a football city.

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