Qatari Hopes for Paris Saint-Germain Meet Reality

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PARIS -- Winning isn't everything, apparently.

On May 12, the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team clinched its first French championship in 19 years to the wild delight of its players, its fans and its owners, Qatar Sports Investment.

Since then, the team has been caught up in a perfect storm of bad news: First, on May 13, rioting broke out during a victory ceremony held across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower, which resulted in 32 people injured and 47 arrests. Then, days later, the club's superstar, David Beckham, announced he was retiring. And now, its coach of less than two years, Carlo Ancelotti, is getting ready to jump ship.

It's been a tough week for the Qatari investors who, since they bought the team in June 2011, had been banking on just such a victory to validate the estimated €300 million, or about $400 million, they've lavished on the club and its star-studded roster of players.

"When they bought the P.S.G., they were buying a showcase window, and now that window is shattered," said Gilles Verdez, a former editor of the newspaper Le Parisien and co-author of "P.S.G., Qatar and Money," which came out in France last January.

Plenty of blame has been thrown around for the assaults, car-burning and looting that took place at the Place du Trocadéro on May 13, caused by hooligans from the poorer Paris suburbs who in recent years have made it a practice of wreaking havoc at demonstrations, celebrations and other events in the city.

The police, the city of Paris and the minister of the interior have been criticized for failing to anticipate the mayhem. But what riles some longtime supporters of the Paris team is the management's attempt to wash its hands of any responsibility.

"What happened was shameful," said the club's president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, in Le Parisien. "We ourselves were the victims."

Yet, the Paris club has a long history of violent behavior by a small minority of its fans. The troubles date from the late 1980s, when parts of the Parc des Princes stadium were held by rival "groupuscules," each with its own political tinge. One section -- on the Boulogne side -- was claimed by far-right groups whose racist taunts were notorious. In due course, other groups, including from Paris's multiethnic population, took up position in the Auteuil section, which created a highly combustible mix.

"I remember as a boy being afraid when I went to games with my mother," said Mr. Verdez. After two deaths and numerous clashes, Robin Leproux, then the club's president, in 2010 instituted rules that singled out violence-prone fans and barred them from the stadium.

The problem is that the aggrieved fans, loosely known as "ultras," are still out there. "The management says it's not us, it's not a P.S.G. problem, but the problem has moved out of the stadium, onto the streets," Mr. Verdez said.

This pattern made the ceremony at the Place du Trocadéro a natural setting for a protest. By the time the team had gathered at 6:30 p.m, some ultras were already dangerously perched on nearby scaffolding, holding up banners, yelling out abuse. The stage was set for hostilities, even if after the riot that followed, no member of an ultra group was charged by the police.

Mr. Verdez wholeheartedly supports the Leproux plan, which the Qataris have kept in place: About 200 hard-core ultras remain on the blacklist. He thinks the French police should go further and borrow the preventive tactics the British police use to control soccer hooliganism.

But he insists that not all ultras are violent, and that the club is wrong to ignore them.

"I don't understand why the Qataris don't open a dialogue with the ultras," he said. "They used to have someone to reach out to the supporters. But now everyone is new. They want to write history from scratch."

Philippe Broussard, a historian of French soccer and an activist fan, also faults the management for not reckoning with recent history. "Given the cocktail of the club's past, and the social context of Paris, violence was virtually inevitable," he said. "The management considered that all these problems were over, which is proof of a stunning naïveté."

Fans like Mr. Verdez and Mr. Broussard, who are hardly in the ultra camp, are irked by the management's high-handed approach to the club's identity, so cherished by longtime supporters. They both point to a new P.S.G. T-shirt, rolled out this month, which rearranged the club colors, and shrank the Saint-Germain reference, to the deference of a more prominent Paris.

"If they tried something like that at Manchester United, the fans would be out in the streets," Mr. Broussard said.

Of course, the club's rebranding is part of the Qataris' multimillion-euro effort to give Paris a winning team. The French championship title this year is a success critics are hard pressed to argue with.

That's why the expected departure of their winning coach, Mr. Ancelotti -- probably for the Spanish club Real Madrid -- is perhaps the hardest blow of all for the Qataris. "Strong disappointment" is the reported reaction in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the rulers of the tiny Gulf country closely follow the fortunes of P.S.G.

"For the Qataris, the purchase of P.S.G. was about diplomacy," said Mr. Verdez. "It's not about sports, it's a bit about economics, but mostly it's political."

The problem is that soccer club politics are necessarily steeped in local history and society -- which can't be erased, no matter how large the checkbook.

"This was the week that showed the disconnect between a certain Parisian reality and the management style of the Qataris," said Mr. Verdez. "It hit them in the face."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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