By David Esposto
A look back 20 years shows that the parallels exist between Paris St-Germain’s 1991 takeover by Canal Plus and their current owners Qatar Sports Investment – the lavish spending, the top talent, the expectation of immediate success, but will things end differently this time around? As the club begins their Champions League campaign on Tuesday, this is the story of Les Parisiens – from then to now.
The early 1990s were a time of transition for football in France. On the national scene, the glory years of Euro 1984 and the carre magique or Magic Square of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez were finished as Les Bleus failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup and were eliminated in the group stage at Euro 1992. Domestically, clubs who were once led by doctors, forestry workers and civil servants, made way to the new order of banks, media empires and technology firms. On the pitch, the Bernard Tapie-owned Olympique Marseille dominated, capturing four league titles in a row from 1989 to 1992. The tycoon-entrepreneur turned celebrity had turned OM into the greatest side ever assembled in France. In the shadows, however, another revolution was about to begin in France; and it would be televised: Canal Plus purchased Paris St-Germain in May of 1991.
For a league on the outside looking in when it came to profitability and notoriety, Ligue Un was on the rise in the early nineties. The total income of the French domestic top-tier rose dramatically from the 1970s to 1990. In 1970, the league drew revenues of ₣37 million (Francs). In 1990, that number had grown to ₣1.2 billion. With demand evident, Canal Plus jumped on board, realizing the massive potential to compete with Olympique Marseille on the pitch and grab a stranglehold on the sports market in the country. Led by sporting director Charles Bietry and former commentator Michel Denisot, the wheels were set in motion for Paris Saint-Germain’s golden era to begin.
With money flowing and top talent now plying their trade in Paris—the likes of David Ginola, George Weah and Rai, to name a few—PSG set out to not only alter the landscape of the domestic game but to make a splash in Europe as well. Known as perennial underachievers, France’s second-best supported side began to turn heads. After standing idly by for years, watching Marseille win title after title, a change of the guard was necessary for both the sake of Canal Plus’s financial involvement, and for Ligue Un as a whole. That change would come in 1994, as Marseille’s years of dominance would come crashing down following allegations of match-fixing against Tapie, which saw their 1992-93 League title stripped. Meanwhile Paris now had something to cheer about as PSG were crowned league champions the following season. The statement of intent was made, as now all of France were aware of the winning ways of the capital side. But the Ligue Un triumph would be just the beginning.
In the years that followed, Les Parisiens continued to show just how strong of a side they were, both domestically and in Europe. On the home front, they would go on to win three French Cups, two League Cups and, perhaps the biggest success, a European Cup Winners Cup in 1996. In seven years, Canal Plus changed the fortunes of the capital side and brought them to unprecedented heights which could only be rivalled by that of Olympique Marseille. But whether it was a cruel twist of fate, or perhaps success running its course, PSG would again crumble after their 1996 European triumph, as Fernandez, the influential manager and former player, stepped down from his post. Behind the scenes and the success, Bietry and Denisot were blamed for their ignorance in running the side. Former coach Artur Jorge, who was fired by Bietry because his team did not ‘play with a smile’, put things into perspective:
“He did everything possible against us,” Jorge said as he was heading out the door. “He wanted to destroy us. I don’t want to mention the name of the gentleman, but he spent three years doing great harm to PSG. He exercised daily pressure to get the coach fired. If I left Paris, it was because of the political problems inside Canal Plus.”
After all the success in the mid-nineties, mediocrity now beckoned for PSG. Lyon would now be the crown jewel of Ligue Un and Europe, a status once enjoyed by Les Parisiens. In 2001, after a 15-year partnership, Canal Plus and PSG would part ways as the club would now belong to a consortium led by Colony Capital, Butler Capital Partners and Morgan Stanley.
In 2011, however, everything would change—again.
Qatar Sports Investments, led by director of Al-Jazeera TV, Nasser El-Khelaifi purchased the remaining 70% stake in Paris Saint-Germain, obtaining full control and, in turn, making them one of the richest clubs in world football. The new ownership would waste no time in appointing a significant figure as sporting director, luring former player Leonardo to the club. Armed with contacts and charisma, the former Milan manager wasted in no time in signing the club’s first marquee name, former Palermo midfielder Javier Pastore in the summer of 2011. The signing of Pastore was a significant statement of intent to the rest of Europe, as the club would go on to spend over $146 million that summer on 11 new players. The side would go on to improve drastically that following season, finishing second in Ligue One, behind surprise winners Montpellier. With Champions League qualification now set, QSI’s plan for global domination could begin.
After unsuccessful attempts to sign the likes of David Beckham, Alexandre Pato and Carlos Tevez, along with being linked with seemingly every other player on the planet, PSG finally got their man on July 18, 2012: former Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the world’s most expensive player, ever. L’Equipe, the country’s most read sports daily, had already crowned PSG Ligue One champions before a ball was even kicked. But the signing of Ibrahimovic had prompted them to ask, ‘Can they start thinking about the Champions League already?’ In his usual coy, but cocky demeanor, the Swede admitted he did not know much about his new surroundings, stating: “It’s true I don’t know that much about Ligue 1, but Ligue 1 knows who I am.”
With their five-year plan in place, QSI have invested heavily in the French capital side, as the club have been responsible for 70% of the entire Ligue One transfer spending. But while the grandeur of football’s latest vanity project continues to shine bright, it is difficult to look forward before looking back at the Canal Plus era as a precursor to how things may end up five years from now. Sure, the money is there. The world-class talent is there, so too the ambition, but this is football, where anything can happen, and where money doesn’t always guarantee happiness. Yet another revolution has begun in Paris, and both QSI and the Parc des Princes faithful will be hoping it doesn’t end like it did 21 years ago.