Parc des Princes
A hunting forest, a cycle track, hooligans and PSG’s search for identity
The Parc des Princes is situated in the 16th arrondissement on the right bank of the Seine in south-western Paris. This upmarket neighbourhood is also known as Arrondissement de Passy, and on its Place du Trocadéro is the formidable Palais de Chaillot. It was built for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in 1937 and now houses the Théâtre National de Chaillot, several museums and an architectural centre. The name of the square refers to the Battle of Trocadero in 1823, at which the French defeated the Spanish and besieged the fort near Cádiz. With its imposing 19th-century architecture and wide boulevards, parks and private schools, the tennis complex Roland Garros and exorbitantly priced homes, this arrondissement is the stronghold of the rich, and therefore the expression le 16e is commonly used to denote extreme affluence and high standing.
It is thus no small coincidence that this is where the Parc des Princes was inaugurated in 1897. The area had been a dense forest used by the royal family for hunting, day-trips and walking-tours, and it became the bourgeoisie’s preferred recreational space. But as the 19th century was drawing to a close, the Park of Princes was to open up to the top sportsmen within athletics, cycling, football and rugby. Here, up to 3000 paying guests would watch the nation’s finest sportsmen and the most ambitious racing cyclists would gather at the velodrome with the 728-yard track.
Just 50 years earlier, large swathes of the area were still wilderness and it was only in 1860 that the impracticable terrain with its one road became an administrative part of Paris. The territory was explored little by little. This is where the physiologist and cinema pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey studied the movement patterns of animals and humans, experimented with serial photography and construed his device for roll film and the chronophotographic camera. This, of course, was also where the first national French tennis championships took place, in 1891 for men and six years later for women.
Le Parc was built fast and cheap. The director of the stadium, Henri Desgrange, used to be an elite racing cyclist and in 1900 he founded the cycling magazine L’Auto, which played a decisive role in establishing the first Tour de France three years later. It was the journalist Géo Lefèvre who gave the editor the idea for a national race during a lunch at a Parisian café in November 1902. Less than eight months later, 60 racing cyclists embarked on the first of six marathon laps. They began in the capital and ended in the capital, and it was only natural that the ensuing lap of honour took place in Desgrange’s own arena. From 1904, Parc des Princes marked the finish of the Tour.
The sports stadium was far from the only one of its kind in Paris, and during the Olympics in 1900, le Parc had to settle for being a back-up to the main venue, the Vélodrome de Vincennes in the park of the same name in the eastern part of the city. That same year, the Track Cycling World Championships was held at Parc des Princes. The first football and rugby matches took place a few weeks after the opening. The first official football match was held at Christmas 1897. Club Français, a local amateur team, played an English club by the name of English Ramblers. The Englishmen, however, never turned up, and instead, another Parisian club, Standard AC, played under the English flag to ensure an outlandish touch. Club Français won 3-1 in front of 500 spectators.
During the first decade of the 20th century, France’s football championship finals took place at Parc des Princes. Also, the omnisport Racing Club with its athletics, rugby and football sections gained access to the coveted stadium during this period. In 1905, France played Switzerland in its first home football match ever. The next year, the rugby national team played their first international on the same location. The encounter with All Blacks from New Zealand was witnessed by thousands of spectators.
The stadium capacity was trebled before the onset of the Great War and expanded yet again before the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris. Now it could boast an attendance of 20,000. The Games were expected to reassert the Parc des Princes’ position as France’s most important sports arena; however, these aspirations became entangled in political palaver and deep disappointment. The competition for the desired standing as the capital’s main stadium stood between Parc des Princes in south-western Paris, Stade de Colombes in the north-western part and Stade Pershing to the east. For a long time, it seemed that le Parc would draw the long straw, but just a few years before the Olympic Games, the honour fell to Stade de Colombes instead. The arena was enlarged and had seats for a crowd of 60,000 when it was finally time for the Olympics.
The Parc des Princes was brushed aside and did not host one single event during the Games with its 3,000 participators from 44 countries. Hereafter, the city council struck a deal with the sports paper L’Auto, handing it the keys to le Parc and a 40-year lease that was to last until 1964. In the 1930s, Desgrange and his business partner Victor Goddet expanded Parc des Princes so that the stadium had seats for 45,000 visitors. Le Parc hosted the opening match of the 1938 World Cup between Switzerland and Nazi Germany as well as the Hungarian victory in the semi-final against Sweden. Stade de Colombes hosted the final in which the Italians beat Hungary 4-2.
In the post-war era, France’s national football team had no fixed abode. Its home matches were played at the Olympic stadium in Colombes as well as at Stade Pershing, the Stade de Paris, the Stade Buffalo and the Parc des Princes. Even the provinces – Nantes, Marseille, Lyon, and Strasbourg – were graced with the chosen few now and again. However, President Charles de Gaulle – elected in 1959 – was of the conviction that his country deserved a joint national arena for football and rugby. It went without saying that it was to be located in the capital.
Again, the Parc des Princes was an obvious choice, only the situation surrounding the Parisian stadium was delicate, threatened as it was by the so-called périphérique. According to plan, this new bypass was to cut a corner off the old and worn-down arena. Yet the challenges and the gloomy outlook turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In 1967, the state gave the go-ahead to a comprehensive reconstruction that would take years. The architect Roger Taillibert conducted the building project in close collaboration with the Iranian artist Siavash Teimouri. That same year, the Frenchman Raymond Poulidor won the final stage of the Tour de France at Parc des Princes. This was the 54th and last time that la course rolled into le Parc.
It took five years before the new Parc des Princes was built in June 1972. The sparkling arena was sensational. Taillibert’s creation near the Métro station Porte de Saint-Cloud was more than simply a stadium; it was an overgrown, vanguard washtub and ideal for the mass events of the new era. No fewer than 50 concrete pillars distributed as closely set ribs supported the circle-shaped, corrugated roof and kept the elliptical and perforated construction together. The new ring road ran underneath the new grandstand.
De Gaulle did not live to see the final result that earned Taillibert several design and architecture awards. The patriarch passed away in 1970, and it was his successor, Georges Pompidou, who two years later inaugurated the new national stadium before the cup final between Olympique de Marseille and Bastia. The following year, Paris Saint-Germain moved into le Parc, and from 1974 this start-up club – a fusion between Paris FC and the suburban team Stade Saint-Germain – was the only team to play at home at le Parc, apart from the national team. By then, the Parc des Princes was France’s biggest stadium and French football’s natural meeting point. This was where the cup finals and the internationals took place and this was where the country received the world’s elite.
It was there that France defeated Spain in the final of the European Championship in 1984, and as early as 1978 le Parc hosted the European Cup Winners’ Cup final between Anderlecht and Austria Wien. Three years later, football’s finest club match, the final of the European Cup between Liverpool and Real Madrid was played in the Parc des Princes; yet it is the final of 1975 between Bayern Munich and Leeds United that has gone down in history. Not due to the match itself, which the Germans won 2-0, but due to the behaviour of the English supporters before, during and after the match. “The English supporters were placed in one corner and kept rather calm during the first half, although they did get rather loud, when – with certain reason – they felt robbed of a penalty kick. When an English goal was overruled due to offside, the disappointment got the better of them and the first bottles and beer cans started raining down on the police officers that had lined up behind the goals in blue tracksuits,” wrote Per Høyer Hansen, the late Danish football reporter.
The discontent grew during the second half. The French referee, Michel Kitabdjian, had to interrupt the match several times, before the Germans took the lead and later added another goal. The English supporters started setting fire to the stands. “Chains of police officers in riot gear – the same force that had so efficiently quashed the Parisian student riots seven years earlier – moved into the areas surrounding the pitch and held up their shields against the seats flying through the air while the fires spread during the last minutes,” reported Høyer Hansen.
Franz Beckenbauer and the rest of the Bayern players had to cut short their lap of honour. 20 people were arrested, and nearly 50 supporters and police officers were wounded during the disturbances. Taillibert’s beautiful stadium looked like a battlefield.
In 1992, France was named host of the World Cup six years later. It was the first on French soil since the finals in 1938 and a new arena was needed. In May 1995, ground was broken for a new national stadium in Saint-Denis in the northern part of Paris. 32 months later, the splendid Stade de France stood ready at a cost of €290 million. It was inaugurated with a friendly against Spain six months before the World Cup. Aimé Jacquet’s national team was a part of both the opening and the closing of the great tournament at Stade de France.
The summer of 1998 was a great festival that brought people together and ended in a historic sporting result; it did, however, also contribute to reducing the Parc des Prince’s status considerably. While the fabled stadium hosted four group matches, one match in the round of 16 and the third-place play-off, all eyes were now on the imposing Stade de France, which could house 81,000 spectators. This was where France won the tournament and this, it seemed, was the stadium of the future. Thus, there was a wicked symbolism to the fact that Parc des Princes hosted its last international final in May 1998, a few days before the World Cup began at the Stade de France, as Inter won an all-Italian Uefa Cup final against Lazio. Three years earlier, Real Zaragoza had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the same venue.
In the international stadium landscape, Parc des Princes is stuck in a hopeless no-man’s land. With its 48,712 seats, it is too small to attract a Champions League final, while the final matches in the Europa League nowadays tend to be played out on the margins of European football: in Istanbul, Dublin, Bucharest, Stockholm. Back in Paris, le Parc is overshadowed by its overgrown younger brother. The Stade de France is France’s unquestioned home ground and whenever the national team moves away from Saint-Denis it is to cities such as Saint-Étienne, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Metz, Lille or Marseille. In this millennium, le Parc has more than anything been Paris Saint-Germain’s home ground, but recently the world has begun to look towards this fine stadium yet again. In 2011, PSG were taken over by the investment fund Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority whose founder, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was appointed Qatar’s head of state and emir two years later, taking over from his father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. The head of Qatar Sports Investment, the former professional tennis player Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, was appointed president of the club.
The affable Al-Khelaïfi was all smiles. He came across as a modern-day businessman, but the new reign was met with vitriolic distrust. The Al-Thani family was already engaged in Málaga CF and six months before taking over PSG, the small oil state sealed a lucrative but controversial sponsorship contract with FC Barcelona.
The detractors viewed Qatar Sports Investment as a part of a larger Qatari acquisition of French sports culture. Tamim Al-Thani is friendly with ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy who is also a close friend of Sébastien Bazin, a French businessman. Bazin was a member of the former group of PSG owners and he played a decisive role in entrusting le Parc to Qatar Sports Investment. Al-Jazeera’s sports network, beIN Sports, has also taken over most French TV football rights together with Canal+. Furthermore, Charles Biétry, director of beIN Sports until 2014, was formerly the director of Canal+ and president of PSG. Today, Al-Khelaïfi is the chairman of beIN Media Group.
The entry of the Qataris is only the latest attempt to establish a base for Parisian football that has been sought for almost a century. Historically, football in France has been dominated by Nantes, Olympique Marseille, AS Monaco, Girondins de Bordeaux, the Rhône-Alpes clubs Saint-Étienne and Olympique Lyon as well as Stade Reims. Since the founding of PSG in 1970, the club has sought to join that group. In 1991, PSG were bought by the TV channel Canal+ and experienced a few bright years. The club won the national championship in 1994 for the second time in its brief history and the cup in 1993, 1995, and 1998. In 1996, the club also won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Intoxicated by the success, PSG created a rugby team in 1995 with equally high ambitions. PSG-RL had its base at Bernard Zehrfuss’s Stade Charléty in the 13th arrondissement, but the endeavour lasted only two seasons.
Gradually, Canal+ reduced the investment that had brought high-profile players such as George Weah, Raí, Leonardo and later Ronaldinho to Paris. In April 2006, the two US investment funds, Morgan Stanley and Colony Capital, took control of the club. But there was no end to the internal tension and PSG sank down to the soft mid-level of French elite football. The glory years, however, had ensured the club a loyal following. From the early 1990s to the end of the decade the average crowd at Parc des Princes doubled until 40,000 fans showed up for PSG’s home games.
For almost four decades, le Parc has had a dedicated, yet controversial fan base. In the late 1970s, PSG started selling cheap tickets for the Kop of Boulogne, the end stand nearest the Boulogne forest. The cheap entrance fee attracted thousands of young unemployed men who, more often than not, used the occasion to vent their discontent with the game and the overpaid players, with the coach and the management, and with society. During the 1980s, the Kop of Boulogne turned political, the skinheads and the extreme right took over the stand and racist and anti-Semitic outpourings as well as drugs were the order of the day. The sections and groupings were many and murky.
In the last decade of the last century, the club management gave the colourful but offensive Boulogne stand worthy opposition by creating a new ‘atmosphere section’ in the Auteuil stand at the other end. However, the cunning appeasement plans only made matters worse. Soon, Auteuil – named after one of the arrondissement’s four administrative neighbourhoods – became a rendezvous for firebrand left-wing radicals and sons of immigrants from the poor suburbs. Le Parc was famous for its formidable acoustics, and in France it became known as the Caisse de Résonnance, the sound box. One end’s deafening roar “Ici c’est Paris!“ at the other throughout the match would make the visiting team shiver.
The violence exchanged between the most extreme supporters from both ends escalated and the city council, which owns Parc des Princes asked the PSG management to bring their fans under control. In October 2000, there was a serious incident for the first time: during a match against their rivals from Olympique Marseille, one of the visiting team’s supporters was hit by a flying seat. The young man, only 18 years of age, was paralysed for life and PSG had to pay heavy compensation. 16 months later, another edition of Le Classique was spoiled by disturbances before and during the match. A teenager from Marseille was injured in a bus accident and a PSG supporter was lucky only to break his arm when attempting to jump from the Auteuil stand onto the field.
In the years that followed, there was more trouble at Parc des Princes than at most other stadiums. The area around the arena was a battlefield whenever important matches took place. In November 2006, the hardcore group Boulogne Boys attacked a Hapoel Tel Aviv supporter near the Métro station. A police officer in plain clothes came to the distressed supporter’s rescue using tear gas, but endangered his own life. He then directed two shots at the aggressors and one of the shots killed a 25-year old man. The reactions were immense. Only once before had a life been lost in connection with a French football match.
The incident spurred the authorities and PSG to increase their joint efforts against the most extreme troublemakers, and it was not long before the effects were seen. That same year, the Auteuil group Tigris Mystic was dissolved and a few years later the Boulogne Boys – one of the oldest hooligan associations in France – was banned from le Parc after showing an offensive banner during a match against Lens. In 2010, Supras, another Auteuil group, was banned from the stadium, after being found guilty of the murder of Yann Lorence, one of the best-known Boulogne hooligans.
Five years after Qatar Sports Investment’s arrival, most things have changed: today, PSG are not only the strongest football club in France, having won four championships in a row between 2012-13 and 2015-16, but they have become an international force with one of the five biggest annual turnovers in the world and regular participation in the final stages of the Champions League. The Parc des Princes is sold out for all of their home matches, most of them long before kick-off. The crowd has been able to watch highnesses such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Luiz, and more recently Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani, Dani Alves and Neymar up close weekend after weekend. A non negligible portion of tourists visit Le Parc all year round.
The club president Al-Khelaïfi has rallied for a head-on battle against the gadflies at each end. Qatar Sports Investment has set the explicit goal of ensuring that Parc des Princes is also a place for women and children, the elderly and the whole family – and also for the business elite from La Defense. Inspired by Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in north London, the Qataris want the Parisian businessmen and women to view le Parc as an important part of customer care. This leaves no space for even the slightest, most harmless uproar. Ticket prices have gone up, but so has the number of spectators. The Parc des Princes was conquered by the higher middle classes long ago, but the Qataris are in no mind to slacken the gentrification.
The zero tolerance policy launched in 2009 by the former PSG president Robin Leproux under the title Tous Paris has been continued and intensified. The comprehensive campaign against violence barred all groups carrying visible badges or similar symbols from the arena. PSG have enlisted 50 informers to mix and mingle with the most fanatic fans behind each goal. The anonymous team of volunteers is equipped with microphones and recording equipment so that they can document any racist remarks or violent behaviour. Likewise, club stewards closely monitor the PSG supporters joining the team for away games.
The methods have received praise from anti-discrimination groups all over Europe and smashed local hooliganism to such an extent that Qatar Sports Investment has been able to abrogate the ban on badges and other gang symbols. But not everyone is happy, far from it. The detractors believe that while le Parc has become immaculate, it has also lost its magic. They say that by acquiring a family-friendly attitude the Parisian arena has also become soulless and the atmosphere has declined markedly as a result. Not only does it hamstring the troublemakers, it also cramps the style of law-abiding but passionate supporters, the critics say.
The antagonism between supporters and administration has resulted in a bitter fight over a slogan. As far back as 2008, PSG’s supporters patented the slogan “Ici c’est Paris!” but a few years later, the club began making use of the iconic expression in its marketing. Under Qatar Sports Investment’s auspices, the marketing department has gone in with guns blazing. The slogan can be seen everywhere: banners on the stands, TV adverts, merchandise. In February 2016 the supporters’ association Défense des Droits des Supporters turned down the club’s offer of €2,000 for the right to the catchphrase and threatens to go to court.
In Marseille, the Stade Vélodrome has undergone a comprehensive modernisation and extension. In cities such as Lille and Lyon, new, shiny, giant stadiums have been built from the ground, while Parc des Princes did not even undergo a simple renovation between 1972 and 2014. However, before Euro 2016, redevelopment finally happened. Le Parc got two new rows of seats close to the field, new dugouts and a number of exclusive lounges and VIP boxes.
In November 2013, PSG signed a new 30-year lease with the city council at a low price, but the club owners – who paid for the €75m modernisation – are said to be interested in buying le Parc. The price is secret, but rumoured to be around €150m. QSI’s problem is that Parc des Princes cannot be extended at its current location due to housing complexes, the road network and Stade Jean-Bouin, the ground used by the rugby club Stade Français, on the other side of the narrow Rue Claude Farrère. In order to get a bigger stadium, it would be necessary to move.
Paris will host the Summer Olympic Games in 2024, marking the 100th anniversary of the previous Olympics in Paris, when le Parc was bypassed. According to the Parisian bid, this time Parc des Princes has been chosen to host the Games’ football tournament along with eight stadiums outside the capital. In south-western Paris they are preparing finally to get their own back
Translation from the Danish by Sara Høyrup