Fratricidal turf war threatening PSG future
With the Parc des Princes hardly the most modern of stadia, PSG could have stood for 'Pretty Shoddy Ground' for much of the last decade. This season, however, 'Pathetically-Sized Gates' is more appropriate with vast swathes of seats unfilled match upon match as a tug-of-war over the club's future - and perhaps its existence - is played out.
European Cup Winners' Cup winners in 1996, PSG's team of Youri Djorkaeff, Rai and Paul Le Guen caught the imagination of a generation, and helped the club - founded only in 1970 - build a substantial fan base in the least football-oriented capital on the continent.
But after a decade as one of the best supported clubs in Ligue 1, PSG have seen their home gates plummet - the average dipping from 33,266 last season to just 24,597 this - as battle for control of the terraces continues to rage between PSG president Robin Leproux and those who have done most to damage the club's reputation - its most fervent supporters.
Following a game between PSG and virulently detested arch-rivals Marseille last February, a PSG supporter was killed in post-match violence. Perhaps understandable if not forgivable, but for the fact there were no Marseille fans even present.
The tragedy was the rotten fruit of a fratricidal turf war between the club's two main fan groups: the Boulogne Boys and their counterparts in the Auteuil stand at the other end of the Parc des Princes. After taking swift action last season, Leproux extended the measures this summer, preventing the renewal of 13,000 season tickets in the home 'ends', where most of the troublemakers were concentrated; strictly controlling ticket purchases; and allowing women into games for free and children for six euros. The club has paid the price both in its pocket and in terms of atmosphere, with one of Ligue 1's most feared venues now subdued.
"You have to say that there's no atmosphere, the soul of the stadium isn't there. Unfortunately, it was the only thing to be done," said Arnaud Larroque, a Paris-based journalist and PSG supporter. "It's certain that PSG are losing a lot of money for the moment, but there was no choice. There was political pressure for it too, so for the moment, they have to grin and bear it."
"It's very disappointing, because ten years ago this was one of the very best atmospheres in Europe," lamented Andreas Evagora, an English journalist based in Paris. "But the club needed to do something because the fans here were out of control. Perhaps this was the only solution. But there's no guarantee it's going to get better."
That is what PSG club officials must fear with many of the most boisterous fans drawn from the turbulent Paris suburbs. However, Leproux's move looks distinctly less radical when set against the context of PSG's often bloody and violent history. A litany of incidents have darkened the club's door with the 1980s seeing the emergence of the Boulogne Boys, a hooligan gang taking their British neighbours as dubious role models.
In contrast to the post-Heysel clampdown in Britain, and despite tentative moves to break up the Boulogne Kop by owner Canal+, France's premium pay channel, in the early 1990s, the violence escalated. The feared French riot police were expelled by fans from the Boulogne Kop during a game against Caen in 1993, incidents occurred wherever PSG travelled, and only multiplied with the emergence of the Autueil stand as a rival to Boulogne's hegemony on anarchy. The death of Yann L. earlier this year was not even the first in recent memory - Julien Quemener, a Boulogne Kop member, was shot dead by an off-duty policeman during violence following PSG's UEFA Cup tie with Hapoel Tel-Aviv in November 2006.
The presence of the factions was tolerated if not overtly sanctioned, with the powers-that-be inside the club turning a blind eye for the sake of making their stadium one of Ligue 1's most 'lively' venues, while for Canal+, there was the added bonus that it simply made good TV. Francis Graille, then club president, was the last man to attempt anything like Leproux's revolution back in 2005. He was ousted from office.
"The supporters had much more power before. The previous presidents were quite friendly with them, notably Alain Cayzac who was more a supporter than a president. That was a real problem," added Larroque. "The fans were given carte blanche. Power was in the stands, and that had to stop."
Fan power is barely a new phenomenon in France, a country where Marseille's hardcore element sells season tickets with the club's blessing. PSG's problem - or perhaps boon - was that President Nicolas Sarkozy was a frequent visitor to the Parc and witnessed the problem first hand.
"There was pressure from the government. They were saying to the owners of the club, 'If you don't do something, we will'," said Evagora. "There was even talk of the club being closed down by the government. So they've had to take a big risk. The few fans that are left will be hoping this is the start of something good, but there are a lot of question marks over the club's future."
The law and order the government so craves on the streets of its showcase city has been achieved for now, but fierce discontent simmers dangerously below the surface. It would seem the only thing that can bring the rival groups of supporters together is their united hatred of the men who run their club.
"The method of a general boycott is a clear initial success in the long quest to re-conquer our deserted terraces," read a recent press release issued by the former inhabitants of Auteuil, who - along with their opposite numbers in Boulogne - have so far hit back in the only way they know how by simply not turning up. The recent Europa League tie between PSG and Karpaty Lviv, admittedly not the most attractive encounter, attracted less than 10,000, and as the language of the press release suggests, the supporters will not stop there.
There have been calls for PSG fans to 'invade' Dortmund for the two clubs' upcoming Europa League match, creating a potentially explosive situation, while a group called 'Liberté pour les abonnés' - 'Liberty for season-ticket holders' - is hoping to persuade fans to give the November 7 'clasico' with Marseille a miss. Marseille fans certainly will be - the French league has stepped in to ban away fans from the two fixtures between the sides this season.
Ironically, all PSG's off-pitch commotion has overshadowed a decent start on it. The squad, habitually embroiled in one crisis or another, have actually been able to concentrate on playing football, and have found they're rather good at it. Prior to this weekend's trip to Toulouse, Antoine Kombouare's men sit in seventh place, two points off third, and they appear to be toeing the club line. "We're not used to playing in front of so few fans, but we just try to shut that out," said midfielder Clement Chantome after the 2-0 defeat of Karpaty, which followed a surprise 1-0 win at Sevilla. "We play as well as we can to try and get people to come back. But, like the board, we couldn't accept what was happening between the supporters last season."
The question remains whether the results will be enough to bring a new public to the Parc, especially in a capital city far more impassioned by fashion than football, and where the only top-flight club in a region of almost 12 million cannot shake off its sullied reputation.
"It's a massive experiment, because they have to build the supporter base from scratch. There's no real precedent for that in Europe with a club of this size," said Evagora. "They need good results, a Champions League place would be a real boon though that's not going to be easy. It was a club on the brink last year, and it still is."