Football nostalgics everywhere may have been left downhearted by scenes at the Etihad stadium this weekend as Manchester City’s excessively assembled squad demonstrated the seemingly irreversible ascent of billionaire backed clubs to football’s highest plains, yet there remained hope for the nostalgic as scenes across the English channel took on a decidedly different feel.
Just a matter of hours after the blue half of Manchester were left toasting their Middle Eastern benefactors, another set of evasive, mysterious and implausibly wealthy owners were markedly more anxious as a set of plucky little upstarts threatened to disrupt their cash laden fairytale. With just one game to go in the French Ligue 1 season, it appears as though Paris Saint-Germain’s desire to finally conquer French football may have to be postponed, for another year at least.
PSG’s Qatari owners arrived at the club with one goal, one ambition in mind; to at last deliver a successful football club worthy of Europe’s most elegant and glamorous of cities. It is an often pondered upon phenomenon that two of the most salient capital cities on the continent in the realms of politics, business and fashion, both historically and in contemporary times, are unable to muster flourishing football cultures. Whilst the clubs London and Madrid flaunt their innumerable silverware across the globe, Berlin and Paris trundle along apologetically, only occasionally threatening to puncture European football’s hierarchy. In the case of Paris, enough is enough. No longer can the city which provides Europe’s cultural heartbeat be consigned to the footballing wastelands.
The 2011/2012 season was set to be the one in which PSG would at last rise: with the billions of their owners reinventing the club, they would dominate the French top flight, sweep up the domestic trophies placed in front of them and assimilate into an unbeatable European force. They had the funds – the rest would be simple, right? Not so. Despite departing with millions of euros in transfer fees and breaking French records along the way, PSG have been unable to shake free from the clutches of Montpellier, only recently rejoining Ligue 1 yet on course to claim their first French title with the use of a defensively tight yet attractive system.
In spite of a traditional fan base struggling to meet even half of the capital city club’s average of attendance of around 40,000, the club from the South coast have captured the hearts of a nation which houses a indubitable penchant for the underdog. Montpellier, a small town with Mediterranean overtones, may not house the outright allure of the capital yet has managed to form a title chasing side on a far inferior budget and with only a fraction of the rampant media attention dedicated the PSG Qatari revolution. Cause for celebration or denouncement for French football?
Despite the successes of Les Bleus at the turn of the Millennium, the domestic game in France has too often been caught trailing behind European counterparts, particularly economically and in terms as prestige as clubs wrestle to prevent their assets leaving for wealthier landscapes. The arrival of a successful global brand of the like that PSG are striving to create would undoubtedly accelerate awareness of French football and perhaps aid the transition of Ligue 1 into the global spectrum in much the same way as the introduction of the Premier League reinvigorated the English game. Attracting the likes of Javier Pastore and Jeremy Menez for startling sums and the luring of Carlo Ancelotti as coach indicates progress for PSG and football in France, yet Montpellier’s capture from the second tier, Olivier Giroud, has been the stand out player of the Ligue 1 season. There is considerable work to be done for PSG.
Paris has struggled to develop a coherent footballing identity as a result of the overtly cosmopolitan composition of the city: besides mass immigration from former colonies, there also lies the problem of provincial migration into the city. Additionally, the prevailing bourgeois attitudes of the city’s more refined citizenry are barely compatible with a sport which at a core level still maintains its working class ethics. Outright support within the city is rare; on Sunday only a spattering of PSG shirts were visible around the metro system, whilst allegiances of those watching bars were alarmingly pro-Montpellier. Many Parisians do not see their place of residence as their spiritual home and thus PSG as a club lack the ability to become a fulcrum of local pride. For all their billions of dollars, PSG’s Qatari owners cannot simply buy the affections of a city.
Montpellier meanwhile, on a broader scale, represent the historically more deprived South taking on the more gregarious North. The poor taking on the rich, a true Robin Hood story. Next weekend’s final round of matches see Montpellier and PSG travel to Auxerre and Lorient respectively, with the two tied on goal difference yet with Montpellier three points to the good needing only a point to secure the title. Few in French football will deny them their place in history; few Parisian tears will be shed.
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