The Parc des Princes in Paris was supposed to be one of the loudest places on Earth on Easter Sunday. The night’s matchup in the capital was the biggest one of all: Paris Saint-Germain vs. Olympique de Marseille, a fixture known in France as Le Classique. The two most supported clubs in the country have been arch-rivals for decades. The excitement should have been even greater this year, as the home side has fielded perhaps the most star-studded squad ever assembled on the club or international level. Having enjoyed perhaps the best transfer window in the sport’s history last summer, PSG seemed to be on course to win their first title in the Champions League, the world’s premier club competition. I was expecting mobs of chanting fans of both sides, waving flags and setting off flares, ready to watch superstars Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and Neymar face-off against their archrivals in the biggest match in one of the most football-mad countries on the planet. When I arrived for the match at the Parc des Princes, I was expecting chaos. But that’s not quite what I found.
Why is it so quiet?
Since PSG was acquired by Qatar Sports Investments in 2012, the Marseillais have been consistently outclassed in a rivalry in which they once had the upper-hand. Sitting 15 points behind PSG in second place on the Ligue 1 table, this match’s significance was mostly symbolic. PSG has already run away with the Ligue 1 title, and while OM will still want to finish the season strong to secure second place and thus Champions League berth for next season, defeating their rival was the primary concern for both sides. The match ended in a 2-1 victory for the Parisians, but all told, it was a frustrating and lukewarm affair, perfectly representative of PSG’s difficulties over the last few years to field a cohesive team, as well as OM’s inability to best its wealthy rival (it has not won a Classique since 2020, and before then, since 2011).
But it wasn’t the match itself that was to blame for the noticeably subdued atmosphere at the Parc des Princes. Across the stadium from my seat on the Tribune Boulogne (Boulogne stand), the only officially recognized PSG supporters’ club, the Collectif Ultras Paris, sat in deliberate silence on the Virage Auteuil (Auteuil stand). The only indication that the notoriously rowdy ultras were even in attendance was their massive Virage Auteuil banner, hanging upside-down from the stand, a display of protest in the wake of a string of perceived issues with the club, punctuated by a humiliating Champions League exit in the round of sixteen versus Real Madrid last month. Without the ultras to lead the crowd, only a few simple chants were audible during the match, including several iterations of, “Marseille! Marseille! Dans ton cul!” (“Up your ass!”). At first, the ultras’ silence might have seemed like a sign of the Parisians’ indifference to their club, but this conclusion could not be further from the truth. The city and surrounding suburbs are the hottest spot on the planet for football talent, and Parisians love their club. But at the moment, the PSG ultras just seem to be practicing some tough-love. In response to their protest, team captain Marquinhos said after the match, “I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t the right time to do that. I understand if they haven’t gotten a response. They should have put their pride to one side. As a player, I don’t agree with it.”
This episode is just the latest in the tumultuous history of the PSG ultras. The ultra movement—the rise of zealous supporters associations, often with political affiliations and often associated with hooliganism by the general public—began in Italy, and spread throughout Europe, strongly taking hold in France beginning in the 80s. While most stadiums in Europe have a home end and an away end, the Parc des Princes effectively had two home ends for many years, with the generally right-wing ultras groups organizing on the Tribune Boulogne and the generally left-wing groups organizing on the opposite Virage Auteuil, an internal rivalry that made the Parc des Princes one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world. Likewise, political and racial tensions between the two ends often led to violent incidents at matches, ultimately leading to the expulsion of all ultras from the Parc by the club in 2010, an action known as the Plan Leroux after the club’s president at the time. Ultra groups argued that a small minority were violent and that ultras were crucial to the atmosphere in the stadium and thus the success and identity of the club. It’s hard to argue with this second point, as for the next six seasons, the Parc des Princes had turned from one of the loudest sporting venues in the world to almost completely silent, practically overnight. In 2016, the club allowed the Collectif Ultras Paris—the only officially recognized and sanctioned ultra group—to come back to the Parc des Princes on the Virage Auteuil. Now, believing that their team is managed not by “people who serve it,” but instead by “people who are served by it,” they’re demanding “genuine, large-scale changes,” placing much of the blame on club president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi (although his job appears completely safe). They also blame the club’s many “stars” whom they feel are not committed to playing in a “complementary” way with the rest of the team. In the first match after the loss to Real Madrid, the ultras booed Messi and Neymar.
So with many of the team’s most passionate fans either not in attendance or sitting silently on the Virage Auteuil, who was filling the seats for Le Classique? Well, people like me. As one might expect with a team boasting three of the most famous players in the world (Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and Neymar), located in the second most visited city outside of Asia, the crowd was diluted with tourists who might not know the songs, chants, or language, and most importantly, certainly don’t feel the rivalry like a local. From my seat on the Tribune Boulogne across the stadium from the Virage Auteuil, there was an English mother and son on my left, an American family behind me to my left, and a German-speaking family behind me to my right. At the end of the match, the announcer read the 2-1 scoreline and proclaimed, “Ici c’est…” (“this is…”), to which the Paris faithful were supposed to reply “Paris!” But the responses of “Paris!” were not as loud as one might expect after a nail-biting victory over a bitter rival in the biggest match on the domestic French calendar, no doubt softened by the silence of those in attendance who apparently did not know if this was, indeed, Paris.
But fan displeasure was not the whole story. Before the match, the French Ministry of the Interior banned all Marseille supporters, “individual or collective,” from attending the match, a ban that they have placed on every match between the two clubs since February of 2018, when eight police officers were injured attempting to control the rival crowds. Violence at matches across Ligue 1 has also been on the rise this season, characterized by brawls between supporters before and after matches, the use of pyrotechnics inside stadiums, and acts of violence against players, including two pitch invasions at Marseille matches, the first of which began after a supporter threw a water bottle at long-time OM forward Dimitri Payet, and the second when hundreds of fans rushed the pitch and Payet was assaulted by a supporter (Payet received heavy boos at the Parc des Princes on Sunday every time he touched the ball). In preparation for any unexpected incidents during Le Classique, heavily-armed police ushered fans in and out of assigned entry points, and a legion of yellow-vested security personnel lined the pitch, facing the fans, ready to hold-back potential pitch invaders. The measures taken by the Ministry of the Interior were successful in quelling conflict on Sunday to my knowledge, save for a bizarre incident in which a Marseille supporter was discovered in the corner of the Tribune Boulogne behind me, and was subsequently heckled by dozens of PSG supporters for several minutes, before security escorted him out of the stadium. In any case, the result of these drastic efforts by the government, combined with the displeasure of the ultras made Sunday night at the Parc des Princes feel more like Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park.
A historic season?
It had been over a month since Paris Saint-Germain crashed and burned out of the Champions League with a 3-2 loss against Real Madrid, thanks to a remarkable second-half hat-trick by the polarizing but prolific French striker Karim Benzema. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The Parisian side enjoyed possibly the greatest transfer window ever last summer, signing goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma from AC Milan on a free transfer and right-back Achraf Hakimi for an initial fee of €60 million, both only 22-years-old at the time and already two of the best players at their positions in the world. They also added veteran talent in the iconic Real Madrid center-back Sergio Ramos and the highly capable Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, both on free transfers. But the crown jewel in PSG’s summer additions was none other than Lionel Messi, arguably the finest player to ever put boots to pitch. The 34-year-old Argentine forward had been with FC Barcelona since he joined the club’s academy system, La Masia, as a teenager in 2000. Messi himself made it clear that he wanted to stay, but years of poor financial management at the club finally culminated with the shocking news on August 5 that it did not have enough money to pay their star, the man who led the club to 10 La Liga Championships, 4 UEFA Champions League trophies, and a myriad of other trophies. The perfect storm sent the GOAT to Paris. And they didn’t have to pay Barcelona a cent.
That is all to say that the 2021-2022 season for PSG was going to be historic no matter what. Never had such star-power been assembled on the club or international level. On paper, failure seemed impossible. But from the get-go, commentators and fans began considering the possibility that PSG would once again fall short of the Champions League trophy, the most coveted trophy in club soccer. PSG has been chasing the trophy ever since their acquisition in 2012 by Qatar Sports Investments, a state-run entity, transformed the club from an often mediocre side in one of Western Europe’s poorest leagues, to one of the best (and richest) teams in the world. And while PSG has attracted millions of new fans from around the world and achieved great success on the domestic level, winning Ligue 1 in eight of the last ten seasons since the acquisition (including this year’s title, which they have already clinched), they have failed to win the Champions League developed a poor reputation in the process. For one, the autocratic nature of its ownership has raised questions of financial corruption related to their massive transfer market expenditures, concerns that also extend to Qatar’s controversial selection as the host of the upcoming FIFA World Cup later this year. On the pitch, the club also has something of a reputation for underperforming, and often spectacularly blowing big leads in big games. Well, that’s exactly what happened this year. They didn’t even get close to Champions League glory, exiting in the first knock-out round. Similar things had happened before, most famously in a legendary match versus FC Barcelona (both Neymar and Messi played for Barcelona at the time) in which the Catalan club won 6-5 on aggregate after falling behind 4-0 to PSG in the first leg. Perhaps this legacy, combined with sky-high expectations, and the various management issues identified by the ultras killed this Champions League run before it even got off the ground.
Paris Saint-Germain gave into the ultras when they let them back into the Parc des Princes in 2016. If six years of exile by the club they support did not deter them, then it seems unlikely that the Collectif Ultras Paris will soon let up in their demands to PSG’s executives. But it’s even harder to see Qatar Sports Investments make any of the “genuine, large-scale changes” that the ultras want. Forgive me if I’m making an unfair assumption, but I don’t think that anyone honestly believes that QSI, a bureaucratic branch of Qatar’s autocratic government, actually cares about the fans. Its executives clearly care about making money and raising Qatar’s global profile, but winning trophies can help them do both. It would be reductive to say that all PSG fans want is to win, but it is fair to say that it is their primary concern. In the ongoing struggle between fans and owners that has been taking place across Europe and the world, the owners clearly have the upper-hand, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. But perhaps fans will be able to do enough to convince owners that their interests are aligned in the success of their clubs. For PSG, Qatar and Nasser Al-Khelaïfi aren’t going anywhere, but soccer is about money, and one day they will win the Champions League. The only question is whether or not PSG loses Paris in the process.