Revons Plus Grand. Dream Bigger. The phrase — in both French and English as a nod towards the international market, naturally — has been plastered everywhere connected with Paris Saint-Germain for the last 18 months or so. It’s at the reception at Parc des Princes itself, writ large on backdrops in the media areas at the club’s training center in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an affluent suburb on the outskirts of the city, and all over the prime location fan boutique on the Champs-Élysées (it’s a few doors down from Abercrombie and Fitch’s French flagship, set back from the boulevard in an opulent former feudal home).
Yet in this season to date, it is Olympique de Marseille who has given itself the right to dream. Fired by the imagination of its players under celebrated new coach Marcelo Bielsa, and in the spectacular surrounds of a newly-developed Stade Velodrome, OM arrives at the Parc on Sunday night for the season’s first edition of Le Classique – France’s most bitter, intense and visceral club match – filled with determination, rather than trepidation.
It’s not only the four points more held by OM at the start of play that might elicit a hint of jealousy in the capital, even if Les Parisians would never admit it. PSG has won the title in the last two seasons, and it would be little short of a miracle if it did not reprise that success this time around. Yet for sheer exhilaration, there’s only been one place to be in Ligue 1 this season.
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Bielsa’s side is the division’s top scorer (with 27 in 12 games) as well as its leaders, a remarkable feat given that all of its typical starting XI were part of the squad that crawled in a miserable sixth at the end of last season, less than six months ago. In the last campaign, a fan boycott in protest at the club’s direction saw internal strife and crowds drop below the 20,000 mark. Last month, just under 62,000 saw OM beat Toulouse 2-0 in the first game since the new, improved Vélodrome had been inaugurated.
The possibilities are endless. For those familiar with the stadium as was, the atmosphere was already unforgettable. Think of any big goal there in the last decade – Didier Drogba’s opener in the UEFA Cup semifinal against Newcastle, or André Ayew’s last-gasp winner versus Internazionale in the Champions League – and it felt like an explosion filtering down through your ears to your chest.
That was without a roof. Now, with one topping off the new design, the Vélodrome could shake your soul.
Yet if the magical new possibilities authored by the Argentinian coach are key to the current upturn, the Marseillais public was always ready and waiting to be swept off its feet. That omnipresent tension at the club, and in the city, sees OM constantly tiptoeing a line between heaven and hell, and it is clear where they are now. The bottom may well fall out of it – it would not be the first time that has happened under Bielsa – but it will be great fun while it lasts.
The numbers make it plain where both clubs are at. PSG’s stratospheric season budget of 490 millions euros is more than three times that of any of their domestic competitors, with OM sustaining itself on 105 million euros, a reduction of 20 million euros on 2013-14 following the failure to qualify for European competition. The last of the big earners, including Ayew and top scorer André-Pierre Gignac, are likely to walk when their contracts expire in summer 2015.
Yet now, with champions PSG enjoying riches beyond their wildest dreams, and with players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and company the sort to charm the world, the club is at a crossroads, certainly in terms of proving itself as the hub of a football culture. PSG, and its ownership, still feels it has to relate to Paris the city on Paris’ own terms. OM requires no such justification or validation. OM is Marseille, the rough and ready city, and vice versa.
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There is no ambiguity about footballing life on La Canebière. One club, one love. Paris should be the same. Though Ligue 2 Creteil, founded by the city’s considerable Portuguese community, and third-tier Red Star have their cultish appeal, PSG have no rivals – a curious situation when you consider that just across the channel, London contains no fewer than six Premier League clubs.
For a long time, that meant PSG had a schizophrenic personality, harboring supporter groups as diverse as the right-wing Boulogne Boys and the largely non-white base of Tigris Mystic under one uneasy roof. Disturbances at Paris’ Gare du Nord station and the stadium alike were commonplace, and in the last season before the Qataris arrived, the club were beginning to be crippled by overwhelming security costs.
Even if one senses that the Parc has lost a bit of edge as the celebrity treadmill carries through Jay-Z, Serena, Lenny Kravitz and the rest, nobody misses the bad old days. It does, however, mean that PSG’s identity is still a work in progress. While it and its owners are not quite sure what success from this season should be, OM is already enjoying its renewal.