France may be one of the world’s soccer powers, and Paris may host two of the world’s great athletic spectacles in the French Open and the finale of the Tour de France, but Parisians as a group do not get worked up about their hometown teams the way the citizens of other Western capitals do. When Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund last year bought a controlling stake in the soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, the new owners began gentrifying the underperforming franchise, betting not only that expensive imports like Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian phenom Lucas Moura would yield flashy wins on the pitch, but that a blasé metropolis would notice. Can PSG’s new squad finally get Parisians hooked on the goings-on at Parc des Princes? Erik Bielderman, who grew up in the Paris suburbs and is now the chief football writer for the sports daily L’Equipe, and Duke historian Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire, kick the question around.
Erik Bielderman: It’s kind of a disgrace that Paris is not a sports capital. It’s a cultural capital; it’s a political capital. Football is not the nucleus of our life.
Laurent Dubois: One of the things that interest me is the difference between the way that in Spain or Italy and even in England you have intellectuals who invoke football. There are writers who write literary work, but will also write essays about football. That’s less true in France.
E.B.: It’s not fashionable. To go on the street and wear a Paris Saint-Germain football suit—if you are a teenager, that’s okay. But a middle-aged person like me? People would look at me as if I am just an idiot.
L.D.: I remember having worn the French national jersey in different parts of Paris, and there’s definitely some neighborhoods where you would get a funny look, like, Oh, come on!
E.B.: In the Parisian mind, football is far from being the first way to socialize, the first way to entertain, the first manner to be happy. As a Parisian, when you want to socialize, first thing, you go to the restaurant. Second is culture: theater, cinema, museum, exhibitions. People are prone to say, “Yesterday I went to see this exhibition. You must go,” or, “Yesterday I went to discover a new restaurant. Very great food.” But no one will say, “Oh, yesterday I went to the Parc des Princes, the atmosphere was absolutely brilliant, and we were singing like hell.” No way.
L.D.: If the club does well and if they perform on the European stage, people will be attracted to that.
E.B.: But it’s not a matter of death or life. It’s not something that will make the people happy like if they were Scousers for Liverpool. And it’s not something which would make them sad or ashamed like when Real Madrid lose a game against Barcelona.
L.D.: The fact that Qatari money is coming in and buying and creating this phenomenon will be even more grist for the mill criticizing football from a kind of left standpoint. At the same time, the ultimate snobbery in Paris would be to just not even worry about whether you’re on top.