Free Market Football
Parc des Princes, Paris
From The Classical:
“Don’t forget,” Pierre said to me as we walked into a match at Parc des Princes this February, “‘PSG’ means ‘Pas Sûr de Gagner.’” Winning, the joke goes, is surely not a given for the home team. That night, however, PSG did manage to defeat Toulouse FC, 2–1. But the win we watched was a faint light in a season of missed opportunities: PSG finished Ligue 1 four points adrift from the last Champions’ League spot, crashed out of a promising Europa League campaign in the Round of 16, and failed to defend their 2010 Coupe de France victory. Their vanquishers in the Coupe de France and eventual Ligue 1 champions were plucky LOSC Lille, who won their first domestic honors in half a century. Respectable, of course, this Parisian performance—top half of the table, qualification for Europe, exciting cup runs—but not quite what one might expect from the only professional soccer team in the capital of France.
This fall, though, the first thing Pierre said to me about PSG was, loosely, “I’m fucking sick of seeing all these fucking Pastore shirts.”
Things had changed at PSG over the summer, and these shirts that now dot the landscape feature the name of Javier Pastore, a 22-year-old Argentinian attacking midfielder prised away from Palermo for a sum of money of uncertain magnitude, but certainly larger than any transfer fee in Ligue 1 history. Pastore’s name was only the last and most expensive name added to a team that bought eight players during the summer for a total expenditure in the transfer market of €86.1m. The 19 other teams in Ligue 1, combined, spent €109.9m.3
Has the money been well spent? To the good, just before Christmas, the team was crowned “Champion d’automne” for finishing the first half of the season in first place, three points clear of Montpellier HSC. Of the 30 goals PSG has scored this season, 19 have come from players brought in over the summer: six from Pastore, three from ex-Roma midfielder Jérémy Ménez, one from ex-Juventus defensive midfielder Mohamed Sissoko, and nine from French international Kevin Gameiro, who left FC Lorient in Brittany to return to the region in which he grew up. To the bad, uneven play caused PSG to fail the seemingly simple task of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League. Furthermore, the team’s Ligue 1 lead is softened by a three-game losing streak that featured a humiliating 3–0 drubbing away to arch-rivals Olympique de Marseille. The lackluster performance led to a winter break featuring the sacking of coach and former star Antoine Kombouaré in favor of the more high-profile Carlo Ancelotti, gossip about Pastore’s eagerness to play for a bigger team, and the resolution in the negative of the months-long courting of David Beckham. The winter break ended with PSG’s relying on an extra-time goal to squeak into the Round of 16 in the Coupe de France, edging out amateurs Locminé, who play in the fifth level of French soccer.
But the kickstart to the campaign this fall that has led to the surge in Pastore shirts on Paris streets is only one of two deep changes that PSG has undergone in the past two years. This particular change came rather suddenly in May with consequences—expensive players, world-famous coach—visible on the field. But the other change has had consequences visible off the field, in the stands. Where there used to be a raucous and even threatening atmosphere behind each goal at Parc des Princes, with flares filling the stands with smoke, giant banners stretching the width and depth of the stand, and incessant, tightly organized chanting, now the dispirited crowds are literally fragmented, reflecting both the state’s dissolving their fan associations and the various boycotts by the largely poorer former season ticket holders who are barred entry from the stadium unless they submit to security checks not required of those willing to pay more for their tickets. At a match these days, little more erupts from the crowd than, after each opponent’s name is read over the PA, a flaccid shout of “enculé!”—literally, “fucked in the ass.”
The reasons given for the changes in the stands emerge from the same sack labeled “public safety” that has led to the uncountable daily invasions of our privacy perpetrated by our governments in the name of building a fortress to protect us from some enemy that remains never quite clear. Remember, of course, that this is (PSG fan) Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, which means it is like Bush’s and Obama’s America. But there’s a pleasant side effect to these invasions as well. Just as it does in Bush’s and Obama’s America, bending and breaking society in the name of public safety in France also makes someone very, very rich—a someone who is usually already very, very rich. And in this case, those someones are the brand new owners of PSG.
The new look to the stands and the new faces on the field are versions of the same story, one that fans of American sports, who have complained for years about bought championships and sport turned into mere entertainment, may suspect that they already know rather well. But it’s not just about cash ruling everything around Paris in the case of PSG, because the influx of cash is coupled with turning the stadium into a militarized zone. The new look provides, instead, an acute image of what neoliberalism in the US and European Union promises for our future. In brief, what’s going on at PSG these days not only shows us what’s messed up with sports, but what’s messed up with us. So now the story gets serious, and like most stories involving soccer, this serious story starts in England, with a politician named Margaret Thatcher and a soccer team named Liverpool Football Club.