May 19, 2024

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SPECIAL REPORT: Paris Saint-Germain rise from Ligue 1 also-rans to global powerhouse

14 min read
SPECIAL REPORT: Paris Saint-Germain rise from Ligue 1 also-rans to global powerhouse

If you think a year is a long time in football, try a decade. Paris Saint-Germain may be one of the youngest top-flight clubs in the world but they have done a lot of growing up over the past 10 years.

The arrival of owners Qatar Sports Investments has catapulted the club to domestic dominance in France, with the goal of European glory more firmly focussed in their sights more than ever.

But it’s not just on the pitch where their reputation has exploded. The club have documented the 10 year anniversary since president Nasser Al-Khelaifi took charge with a book, ‘Off the Pitch’, which details the incredible speed and success with which the QSI have turned a modest Ligue 1 team into a genuine global powerhouse.

It has not come without its issues. The continued absence of a Champions League success is a bone of contention that sees the PSG managerial role as one of the most uncomfortable hotseats in the game. 

And while the club have achieved its goal in reaching every single corner of the globe thanks to its unparalleled ability to push a sporting brand into collaboration with numerous new genres, its desire for picking up new followers along the way is eroding the links with those that came before.

Today marks the tenth occasion they will enter the knockout stages of the competition since the takeover, with Real Madrid lying in wait. A club they once only dreamed of competing with are now an equal – at the very least – both on and off the pitch. 

Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the three branches of the football club and how they have morphed over a head-spinning 10 years in the French capital.

Paris Saint-Germain have become one of the most successful clubs in world football since their takeover 10 years ago

Paris Saint-Germain have become one of the most successful clubs in world football since their takeover 10 years ago 

Under president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the club have dominated French football and moved to become a genuine global brand

Under president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the club have dominated French football and moved to become a genuine global brand

ON THE PITCH

Frank Lebeouf knows what it is to face an all-star Paris Saint-Germain side. His early Ligue 1 days at Strasbourg were spent testing himself against some of the biggest names in world football when they would visit the Parc des Princes.

‘When I played against Paris Saint-Germain with Strasbourg, PSG was a great PSG,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘With [George] Weah, with Valdo, with [David] Ginola, Ricardo, Rai, [Antoine] Kombouare, [Daniel] Bravo, [Paul] Le Guen, that was a hell of a team.

‘It’s a team that won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, won the French Cup against us. That was a successful team at the time. Not as big as Marseille, because they were the best club, maybe in the world in the nineties.

‘It was where the rivalry started with Paris Saint-Germain and the Classique meant something at that time. It was scary.’

Scary is a word some might use to describe the distance PSG have been able to put between themselves and their rivals, not to mention the rest of Ligue 1, in the past 10 years.

Before the takeover in 2011, the club boasted a total of two league titles. Today that record stands at nine. They’ve also added six Coupe de France successes, six Coupe de la Ligue wins and have lifted the Trophee des Champions eight times.

They hold the record in France for most Coupe de France (14), Coupe de la Ligue (9) and Trophee des Champions (10) victories.

Since QSI's takover, PSG hold the record for most Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophee des Champions victories

Since QSI’s takover, PSG hold the record for most Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophee des Champions victories

Such is there dominance domestically that the gaze of ambition falls further afield, with eyes firmly fixed on lifting the Champions League. It is something they have come close to, having reached the final in 2020, but Europe’s biggest honour continues to be elusive – a source of real frustration.

Even so, Lebeouf insists that even having a French club in the conversation is something that should not be taken lightly.

‘It’s an unbelievable club. The world knows about Ligue 1 because of Paris Saint-Germain,’ adds the former France World Cup winner. ‘We need to be thankful for that, to the club, to Qatar institution, to put that club at such a level where we think in France about winning the Champions League again.’

Those thoughts are in no small part down to their world-class frontline that has come to illustrate the financial clout QSI have given the club.

In 2018, the footballing world sat up and took notice as PSG smashed the transfer record by meeting Neymar’s £198m release clause to prise him away from Barcelona. At the same time they convinced French wonderkid Kylian Mbappe to join on an initial loan from Monaco – a move eventually made permanent for £166m.

Throw in the astonishing free transfer of Lionel Messi last summer, and you have an attack consisting of three of the globe’s most recognisable stars.

‘How many leagues in the world would love to see that?’ asks Lebeouf. ‘We are lucky, fortunate. Of course, we can criticise Paris, the way they play and everything but I will say that it’s a chance to see players like that playing for a club in France.

Frank Leboeuf insists any league in the world would be happy to host the trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe

Frank Leboeuf insists any league in the world would be happy to host the trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe

‘All clubs in the world try to attract big players for their brand for the club, for the result, for everything. When you see the frontline: Mbappe, Neymar, Messi, who wouldn’t love to have those players?

‘It’s difficult for a coach to deal with, that’s for sure.’

That has certainly appeared the case. QSI have made five appointments, their first being Carlo Ancelotti in January 2012. Since then, Laurent Blanc, Unai Emery, Thomas Tuchel and, presently, Mauricio Pochettino have tried to extract the most out of a star-studded line-up.

All have brought success, but all have endured their fair-share of run-ins in attempting to retain unity in a dressing room of egos, whether it’s dealing with an AWOL Neymar returning late for pre-season, or a petulant Kylian Mbappe throwing a very public strop on the bench, as was the case last September. The France striker’s current contract dispute is also a challenge to the club’s standing within the game. 

Tuchel is the man who has come closest to clinching the ultimate prize but saw his team lose the 2020 Champions League final 1-0 to Bayern Munich. He would often rail against the weight of expectation from the French press and from within.

It’s a weight that Pochettino now carries, one that felt that little bit heavier after PSG’s shock Coupe de France exit at the hands of Nice on Monday. With each passing setback, a summer move to Manchester United might seem that little more inviting to the Argentinean.

At points in the past, the owners have done little to help alleviate the burden – something Lebeouf believes has hindered the club’s progress in recent years.

Thomas Tuchel (left) consoles Neymar after the 2020 Champions League final. No PSG manager has gotten closer to the prize

Thomas Tuchel (left) consoles Neymar after the 2020 Champions League final. No PSG manager has gotten closer to the prize

Mauricio Pochettino is the current PSG boss, but has his work cut out trying to keep a dressing room of top players all happy

Mauricio Pochettino is the current PSG boss, but has his work cut out trying to keep a dressing room of top players all happy 

‘I think you have to put your foot down when you need to. You have to have the acceptance of the players but also the hierarchy,’ he says. ‘You need to be the top of the top, so if a player wants to complain they cannot complain to anybody but you. I guess that is the main concern that they can have at Paris Saint-Germain.

‘It’s down to the players to do the job as well. They have to get ready to accept the fact that Pochettino is unhappy with some behaviours and will say so. It’s obvious, we can see the three are up front and sometimes they don’t want to defend. They have to wake up and do so. We see in other clubs strikers doing it.

‘I remember [Edinson] Cavani being exceptional for Paris Saint-Germain, coming back, defending and scoring goals. You can score and defend a little bit. We don’t ask for much!’

OFF THE PITCH 

Fabien Allegre ‘woke up 2011’, as one of his colleagues put it.

He has been director of brand and diversification at PSG since 2008, taking on the challenge of one of the most demanding roles in world football. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

‘There is really a gap between 2008 and 2011 when the story began,’ he explains.

‘As you can imagine, it was really different from now. The awareness of Paris Saint-Germain as a brand was lower than Olympique de Marseille as an example. You could see a lot of young people wearing, not Paris Saint-Germain jerseys but Olympique de Marseille jerseys. At this time you couldn’t find any Paris Saint-Germain jersey in any store overseas.

‘Internationally, no one knows at this time who Paris Saint-Germain [are] as a football club. But it was good to be a part of this time, to learn from this stage and take it as an advantage.’

Ten years on, they certainly seem to have made it work for them. PSG boasted 500,000 followers on social media in 2011, with 95 per cent of them based in France. Today, they calculate that a combined total of 150million social media users follow them, with 87 per cent of them international. The club used to sell less than 50,000 jerseys worldwide per year before QSI arrived. That number now tops one million.

Paris Saint-Germain's fanbase has grown around the world, with over 150 million following the club on social media

Paris Saint-Germain’s fanbase has grown around the world, with over 150 million following the club on social media 

The club has stores in Tokyo, Seoul, Doha and Los Angeles. Their new flagship store on the Champs-Elysees comes fitted with a take-away food area, where the club’s medical staff have worked with a local food company to produce health-driven recipes. You can also walk out with a skateboard as well as the latest home shirt. More proof, if it were needed, that this is not your average club.

‘We tend to say we are a club of the new generation,’ says Jean-Martial Ribes, the club’s managing director of communications. ‘We talk to the new generation on different levels. We talk a different language to them, that’s not just football.

‘We’re not a very old club. In Britain you have some very big clubs that are very old that have a lot of tradition. I think that being a younger club – 51 years old – we have more flexibility. It’s easier for us to innovate, to be more creative. You saw that creativity when Nasser did the deal with Jordan a couple of years back.

‘Ten years ago there was nothing, in terms of business, outside of France. It was almost non-existent. Today, when you travel, you will see PSG jerseys, you will see PSG products, you’ll see NBA players, NFL players, other football players wearing our products.’

Fashion has become a major part of the brand’s identity. In Off the Pitch, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the club’s work with fashion houses and clothing brands across the globe. There are a staggering 27 listed, including work with Jordan, Dior and Hugo Boss to name but a few.

Navigating the void between sport and fashion is something that has never come naturally to those in football, and few even in other sports have successfully crossed the divide.

PSG have got the process down to a fine art.

‘One of the core values of the club is to be innovative,’ says Allegre. ‘We have a different story. The positioning of Paris Saint-Germain is really different from the others. You cannot duplicate.

‘If I have one example, maybe it’s the New York Yankees. Why are so many people buying hats from New York with this crest? It’s a sports team.

The club have branched out from matters on the pitch, taking the clubs name into fashion, art and Esports as well

The club have branched out from matters on the pitch, taking the clubs name into fashion, art and Esports as well

‘We wanted to address more than only football fans. That was the best way to make it happen. To be where people are not expecting you to be. That’s why when we started in culture, when we started in art also, people were like “wow, what’s happened there? It’s not football”.’

They have moved beyond fashion, too. In 2016, they became the first club to fully invest in Esports. PSG Talon represents the club in the Pacific Championship Series for League of Legends, winning three titles.

They also invest in youth a little closer to home, too. Street art is major part of the city’s identity and when a number of PSG murals started popping up around the 19th arrondissemont in 2019, the club tracked down the artist responsible ESTIM and asked him to illustrate a wall of legends outside the Parc des Princes by the Tribune Boulogne. The images of Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Ginola are still visible around the ground today.

‘For me it has to inspire and empower youth, that’s our objective,’ says Allegre. ‘The main difference between us and the other is we still forever the youngest club in the big European football clubs.

‘So maybe our mindset and the background of the people that are working together are very complimentary, not only football orientated.‘

The biggest challenge is to continue building outwards, one which has led them out of France and into all corners of the globe.

As well as stores, the club has established academies across the world, with projects set up in places from Rwanda and Shanghai to Caerphilly in Wales.

The club's link-up with fashion brand Jordan is one of the many reasons PSG's kit can be seen in all corners of the globe

The club’s link-up with fashion brand Jordan is one of the many reasons PSG’s kit can be seen in all corners of the globe 

The club insists that it recognises the importance of not losing sight of those closer to home.

‘If we talk about what could be the next move or the next step, it’s just to continue to generate respect,’ says Allegre.

‘There is the Paris Saint-Germain that you can see thanks to the product and all the diversification aspect. But there is also the Paris Saint-Germain formation around that. Giving back to the community is something that is really key, especially if you want to become the club of the new generation. This is part of the challenge also.’

IN THE STANDS 

Hugo Coll grew up 500 metres down the road from the Parc des Princes. His affinity with Paris Saint-Germain was forged at a young age and though he’s moved now, his loyalties remain in the exact same spot.

‘My love for the club grew in the past few years even though I’m not in Paris any more,’ he tells Sportsmail.

That 500 metres has morphed into 250 miles, with Hugo now in London, where he heads up the city’s fan club. It’s one of 129 now dotted across the globe. Just six were in existence before 2011.

‘I’m really impressed by what the club have been doing in the past few years and how quickly they have been able to increase themselves and become a club that everybody knows,’ he says.

PSG have spent some €75million regenerating the Parc des Princes in order to make it an appealing venue for supporters

PSG have spent some €75million regenerating the Parc des Princes in order to make it an appealing venue for supporters

‘I have some friends that are not hardcore football fans. Before they would hear I support PSG and the conversation would end there. Now they know a bit more, some of them will even wear clothes with Paris on it even though they don’t support the club.

‘It’s quite amazing. The club I love, I can see it now even when I am travelling, people wearing the shirts and stuff. I’m proud because the club support, everyone knows about it.’

The London branch of the PSG fan club meet at The Minories in Tower Hill, with each match providing a varying degree of interest to their some 180 members. To some, attendance is based on the names on the team sheet.

‘What we have is football fans, people who are following the players who play with us,’ says another member, Sid Mankour.

‘We have a lot of Neymar fans, today we have a lot of Messi fans as well which is really interesting. We love to welcome new fans into the group, I also feel we don’t have a choice.

‘Back in the day, if you were not born in Paris you didn’t have the right to call yourself a Paris fan. No one would have wanted to!

‘It comes with the tag of being a top club, you lose control of who can call themselves fans.’

It is not an issue solely related to the London fan club. It can be seen in the Parc des Princes, too.

The QSI have thrown serious resources at making PSG’s home a must-visit sports destination. They spent €75million on renovations between 2013 and 2015. By the end of the process, the club was left with a 48,000-capacity stadium, of which more than 10 per cent has been devoted to VIPs and hospitality.

The crowning jewel is La Gallerie – a 60-person capacity lounge that offers views into the tunnel. Only eight tickets are made available for sale, the rest is by invite only.

While it might enamour the club to those unfamiliar with its history, it is alienating those that are.

Football tourism - driven by the big names at PSG - have seen tickets become more expensive and harder to get a hold of

Football tourism – driven by the big names at PSG – have seen tickets become more expensive and harder to get a hold of 

‘I went to see PSG-Lyon in September,’ continues Sid. ‘Messi gets subbed. I s*** you not, when he got substituted, people left the stadium. The score was still 1-1. Across the stadium.

‘The people sitting next to me, I think they were from Eastern Europe. Amazing, they wanted to see Messi and that’s great. But literally they left once he was out.’

While original ticket prices are reasonable, football tourism has seen those prices increasingly difficult to access.

Instead, PSG offer fans the chance to purchase tickets on a secondary market on their own website – TicketPlace – where tickets for matches fetch way over market value. For the Champions League clash with Real Madrid, no ticket is available for under €240. Some are on offer for as much as €2,000. The prices for Ligue 1 games are considerably lower, though still above face value.

The squeeze stems from the fact that 35,000 of the seats inside the stadium belong to season-ticket holders, 7,000 of which pay just €500 a season. 

‘It’s almost sickening, because you realise that’s why the tickets are so expensive,’ says Sid. ‘This behaviour is driving the surge in prices. It goes against everything we believe in.

‘When you hear people speaking different languages and coming to cheer your club, you get to feel: ‘Oh my god, we are so hot right now’. And then you realise the implications on it.’

It is a situation that is unravelling fast for the club. This week, the fan group Collectif Ultras Paris wrote an open letter to the club in which they claimed they no longer recognised their club, accusing it of losing its DNA.

‘I have many friends every game that cannot show up because the tickets are too expensive or there are no seats available and they are hardcore fans and it’s their dream to go there,’ says Hugo.

‘To see that those seats were taken by this kind of people angers me. Who deserves more to be there? The person with the biggest wallet or the person who’s actually the big fan?’

For the owners there is a message that bridges must be built with the loyal fanbase they inherited in 2011. There have been attempts, with fans remarking that the recent release of retro tops was a nod to those with a life-long affinity.

Local supporters and those who followed PSG before the takeover are becoming disillusioned with the state of the club

Local supporters and those who followed PSG before the takeover are becoming disillusioned with the state of the club 

Fans are also concerned about what they see on the pitch, with the shared experiences of those in PSG colours and those in the tribunes diminishing by the season.

One benefit of the club’s newfound global reach has been the revenue which has now been put into a €350m training ground complex in Poissy, which is set to open in 2023. It will allow the club a better platform to bring through more local talent. It will also be key to giving supporters what they long to see – a team truly representative of Paris.

‘An academy that is reflective of the talent we have in Paris,’ is Sid’s biggest wish for PSG.

‘We are by far, before London, before anyone else, the epicentre of football talent in the world. We do not have an academy that is reflecting it. An academy that is living up to the talent in the region –that’s number one.’

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