A club that oozes prestige and charisma, from a city that effortlessly exudes poetic beauty, romance and illusion, Paris Saint-Germain are the modern glamour club of France. But those unaware of PSG’s history will be shocked to know that the club is only 44 years old; a baby amongst the older, experienced statesmen of French football today. Their rapid and unbridled success is perhaps the most significant success story in modern European football as they continue their march to the pinnacle of the continental game. Excitement, beauty and drama symbolise and encapsulate the city, and the football team is no exception.
It was in 1904 that PSG began life in humble beginnings of the regional division d’Honneur de la Ligue de Paris as small omnisport outfit Baptisé Stade Saint-Germain. It would take a further 50 years for the club to make any impression on the world of football, let alone within the confines of the French capital. In 1957, the club won the DH Ligue de Paris to claim a place in the Championnat de France Amateurs. At the time, it was the French equivalent of the third division.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1960s that the Saint-Germain-based club began their flittering first footsteps towards glory. In 1969, the club reached the quarter-finals of the French Cup but were edged out by a Marseille team boasting Cameroon legend Joseph Yegba Maya. It was an encounter that had driven the Parisian public out of hiding as they played to a crowd of just over 14,500 spectators. It was also the early stages of the two behemoths’ bitter rivalry.
Despite their growth, the success couldn’t mask the fact that Paris still didn’t boast a renowned team. Other major cities across L’hexagone had successful and historically prestigious clubs such as Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Étienne and Marseille. The lack of Parisian-based teams was all too apparent and previous establishments like Olympique de Paris, Club Français, CA Paris had all disappeared during the Second World War. Only Red Star remained in the First Division, and they were marooned at the foot of the table. Something was needed, and the winds of change approached.
As a result, in 1969 a bigger club was to be formed for Paris. A resounding seal of approval was met from all sides of the project as Paris FC and the little Yvelines team, Baptisé Stade Saint-Germain, merged. Thousands of famous Parisians backed the plan, everyone from politicians and businessmen, like CEO of Calberson, Guy Crescent, to the local man on the street. Thanks to the financial backing and huge media campaign, Paris Saint-Germain was founded in May 1970.
The club benefited hugely from the merged fan base and improved roster. Surprisingly it was the Stade Saint-Germain players who dominated the early roster. Indeed, the club was to strengthen its squad with the capture of the France national team captain Jean Djorkaeff. By 1971, led by Djorkaeff, the club were promoted to the top flight for the first time in their history.
Their inaugural year was a better-than-expected sixth place in the league, however turmoil flared the following season as PSG became embroiled in a running battle with the local Paris authorities. They demanded that the club adopt a more Parisian flavour to their name in exchange for 800,000 francs. The PSG directors predictably refused the name change and municipal support was withdrawn. The divorce was a messy fiasco and a faction of supporters who backed the local authorities re-formed Paris FC.
The new Paris FC remained in the First Division while Paris Saint-Germain kept their name but were relegated to the third tier. Several sanctions were harshly placed upon PSG; many still remembered today as the club basks in its financial glory and on-field success.
Following Quevilly’s withdrawal from the league and subsequent winding-up order, PSG, who had finished in second place, took their place in the Second Division by default. Luck was on their side as they put a troubled twelve months behind them.
In 1973 the club shocked the national game as they appointed legendary goalscorer Just Fontaine as manager. Thanks to smart financial planning, they could attempt to rebuild and prepare for an assault that would take them to the First Division. It was also a time when the club played at several grounds; their old Parc des Princes home, Camps des Loges – now their training ground – in Saint-Germain, and then Jean-Bouin. It was in 1972 that they returned to a new Parc des Princes. That stadium remains their home today.
A year later, the club presided over its newfound professional stature. As a Second Division outfit with a team capable of fighting for honours at the highest level of the game, PSG ran rings around the opposition, including in the Coupe de France, beating Metz 2-1 in front of 25,000 spectators. Inevitably PSG were promoted and irony wielded its heavy axe as Paris FC were relegated from the top flight that same season.
Though failing to challenge for the domestic title, the club remained a consistent force, frequently finishing in the top half of the table. Several stars also passed through the Parc gates at that time, many that would be classed as eternal greats at the club. In 1974, PSG paid Sedan 1.3 million francs for Mustapha Dahleb, a then French transfer record. 1977 saw Carlos Bianchi – who would go on to score 64 goals in 74 games – play for the club after leaving Reims. In 1978 Dominique Bathenay left Saint-Étienne for the capital, followed by Dominique Rocheteau in 1980.
In 1982, prior to signing their finest foreign player to date in Safet Suši?, PSG made history when they achieved their maiden silverware. Jean-Marc Pilorget’s match-winning penalty gave PSG a 6-5 shootout win to clinch the Coupe de France against Saint-Étienne after it had finished 2-2 in normal time. It was the first trophy for a club that risen time and again from the doldrums, but it wasn’t going to be the last. Indeed, the following year, PSG retained the trophy against Nantes. Another final – this time a loss – followed to their now-rivals AS Monaco in 1985.
It was a little over two years later after the cup loss to the principality side that PSG clinched their maiden French title – led by Suši? – by going a memorable 26 matches without defeat. It was this domestic success that opened the door for Paris in Europe. They impressed on the continent with their carefree French flair, with their best performance coming courtesy of a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final appearance.
But where ecstasy lay, misery soon followed for the club. In the late-80s, PSG flirted with relegation and the effects of hooliganism began to plague the national game. PSG were no exception, with the terraces becoming a battleground for fighting, social protests and racism.
But as the economic and social lull in France took a stranglehold on French football, a shining light was to give reprieve for the ailing sport. Satellite firm Canal+ invested vast sums of money into the game with a pay-per-view TV deal; the first of its kind in the domestic game. PSG subsequently received a whopping 40% of their income from televised games. Thanks to this money, the club embarked on a spending spree, buying the foremost talent in France and some notable stars from abroad. In came David Ginola, Bernard Lama, Youri Djorkaeff, Raí, George Weah and Marco Simone. The team became a gluttony of stars, finally doing the prestige of the French capital justice.
If the 1970s had given birth to the dominance of Saint-Étienne, the mid-90s were surely the golden age for Paris Saint-Germain. Between 1993 and 1998 the club achieved a fine Ligue 1 title, three domestic cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup, the latter coming in May 1996 via a tight 1-0 victory over Rapid Vienna in Brussels.
Sadly for PSG, just as they had assembled their star-studded squad, it was soon broken up. Although France had increased its stature within the European game, it still couldn’t compete with Spain, England or Italy. And slowly but surely, the best talent left the Parc des Princes. By 1999, the dream was over.
After resigning in December 2000 Philippe Bergeroo was replaced by Luis Fernández who secured the club’s top-flight status. Fernandez set about changing the make-up of the squad with new players from around France and South America. The club managed to finish in a respectable fourth in 2002 and qualify for the UEFA Cup, ultimately going out on penalties to Glasgow Rangers.
In the end, the raft of changes implemented by Fernández created discord and indiscipline rattled throughout the gates of the Parc. Stars such as Laurent Robert, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka – in his second spell at the club – shone for the most part, but sadly the supporting cast let them down. A talented squad with no direction, PSG slumped to mid-table by 2003.
With Fernández’s signings either having left or been shipped out on loan to make way for a new rotation, PSG had something of a South American flavour to it. Despite the numerous signings that many around the Parc disapproved of, there was a Brazilian star that was ready to shine when he signed from Grêmio in 2001. Ronaldinho ignited the fans with a level of skill rarely seen in Europe, let alone France. Though he shone, success still eluded the club.
A cup final appearance in 2003, after another inconsistent season in the league, could have been the ideal parting gift for the already departing Fernández. Despite a Ronaldinho-inspired win over Marseille in the semi-finals, they were undone by two late Auxerre goals in the final. The legendary Guy Roux had outfoxed the young pretender in Fernández.
It really had hit home: PSG were trophyless and out of Europe. With a large squad of underachievers and a sizeable wage-bill, something needed to be done. The arrival of former Nantes and PSG forward Vahid Halilhodži? brought about a new direction and motivation to the team. Out went the vast majority of South American players, Ronaldinho included, and in came the goalscoring instincts of Pauleta.
The new manager set about trying to revert the attack-minded team into a sterner defensive unit. He also made key tactical changes; Frédéric Dehu, a highly-rated midfielder, was moved to the back and given the captain’s armband. Gabriel Heinze, signed by Fernández as a centre-back, converted to a highly effective left-back.
PSG began poorly and many questioned if Halilhodži? was the right man, but after losing at home to Monaco 4-2, PSG went months without defeat and climbed the league table, looking to claw into Monaco’s lead at the top. They eventually finished runners-up to cement Paris as a hotbed of French football once again.
Thanks to a memorable cup run, Paris had reached yet another final of the Coupe de France. With Danijel Ljuboja and the goalscoring threat that was Pauleta, PSG clinched a 1-0 win. It was a largely successful season under the enigmatic Bosnian.
Predictably with Paris-Saint Germain, success and euphoria usually precedes heartache and regression. The squad was disbanded – another example of PSG unable to retain their best players – as out went Heinze, Juan Pablo Sorín and Dehu, and in came Jérôme Rothen, Sylvain Armand and Mario Yepes.
Looking at the cash-rich force that the Parisian club is today, many of its underlying traits have been formed from 30 years of peaks and troughs. The club is loath to lose any of its stars after a history of dismembered teams following periods of success. It’s been a long four decades for the capital outfit with star names coming and going, municipal rows and inconsistent on-field performances.
The history of a club is, in essence, the club itself. Though PSG’s history is brief, their indelible mark on French football is one that should be cherished. It’s easy to get lost in the modern game and forget the past, but it shapes behaviour and attitudes like nothing else. For those that condemn modern cash-rich clubs, look to their past, for it wasn’t always this rosy. And a city like Paris, having battled through two wars, social regression and turmoil on a regular basis, not to mention seeing their rivals come out on top, probably deserves a chance at sustained success.
And, as ever, if they look to the past, they’ll probably shape a bright future.
About the author – Omar Saleen
Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.