PSG Ultràs won’t forget October 2016 in a hurry. On Oct 1 they were allowed to attend a home game at Paris Saint-Germain for the first time in six years. Thanks to the fan sections known as the “kops” in the Boulogne and Auteuil tribunes, Paris reveled in chants and songs, dances and antiphons the Parc des Princes hadn’t seen or heard for years.
But how had the capital’s club come to expel his most passionate fans from their “spiritual home” in the first place? The story of the Paris Ultràs is but one stanza in the evolving saga of modern football.
In 1970 the giant-to-be was hatched from two different clubs, Stade Saint-Germain and the newly founded Paris FC. During PSG’s first two decades fans tried to emulate the famous Kop at Anfield Road . The British style of raucous and passionate singing gave identity to the Kop of Boulogne at PSG’s new home, Parc des Princes stadium, and the “Boulogne Boys” are considered the first Parisian Ultrà group.
But the KoB began to resemble its First Division role models in more than style of support. The close association of football and hooliganism so often tied to Heysel and its aftermath wasn’t an exclusively English problem. Born out of economic and political deprivation, unrest and general frustration hooliganism and violence conquered football in the 1980s. he multicultural, multiracial and highly diverse French capital provided an ideal ground for that unwelcome seed. PSG fans acquired a reputation for being violent, racist and – frankly speaking –dangerous. After violent incidents at away games in 1984-85, PSG fans were banned from travelling altogether.
It is neither fair nor accurate to describe this situation as an inevitable result or integral part of the Ultrà mentality. Although the term “Ultrà” and the resulting phenomenon had been around since the 1960s, the prevalent force in European football of the 1980s wasn’t Ultrà but hooliganism. For the latter, force was the currency, dominance the goal. To show this in outfit and demeanour was more important than to show your club’s colours.
The emerging presence of ultràs in the 1990s provided an alternative to hooliganism. Colourful, creative and focused more on showing support for the team than threatening opposing fans (or the police) the new style took over in the stands and fuelled hope that passion and commitment don’t necessarily also mean violence and intolerance. Its foundation was a passionate identification with the club. Ultràs invest huge amounts of energy, time and money into creating banners for tifos, inventing chants and hymns for a matchday. All this is done with a strong sense of autonomy and commitment. Ultrà means not just to take from football – elation, entertainment, fun – but to give beyond measure. It seemed to be strongly connected with the positive of being “for” something rather than “against” in the beginning.
Football is not an island splendidly isolated from the rest of society. The dreary 1980s were followed by the rising economical and political optimism of the 1990s. Communism crumbling completely changed the both maps and conceptions. No longer did the fear of destruction by atomic bombs, marching boots or Thatcherism taint everyday life. Instead “flowering landscapes”(Helmut Kohl) filled newly reunited Germany, England returned to “the heart of Europe” (John Major) and music soared within one Blink (or even 182) from a Green Day to Nirvana and back looking for an Oasis to escape the nagging feeling that there was worse to come.
The 1990s were a reprieve from reality. In France, that reprieve was best illustrated by the 1998 World Cup. Upon humiliating Brazil in the final, French football witnessed the beginning of a new era. At the Parc des Princes a new stand was established: le Virage Auteuil, the Auteuil Curve. It was there, opposite the Kop of Boulogne, where fans inspired by the new Italian style went to sing and cheer. Encouraged (financially) by the club’s new owners Canal+, a culturally and racially more diverse group of fans created a unique atmosphere at the Parc, on that’s yet to be regained, not even with Qatari money.
At first, the differences in style and background did not create a rift between the two kops of the Parc. In 1997 they began an exchange of chants and slogans that became a legendary trademark of PSG games. One stand cheering on the other, the other answering their call greatly attributed to the fiery atmosphere. The club had started to become a regular in European semifinals and the names of captain Rai, brother to Brazilian all-time legend Socrates, David Ginola, Alain Roche and Paul Le Guen, who defined PSG’s defence long before the days of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, still bring a sparkle to the eyes of old-time fans. The future looked bright.
In those days of red and blue brilliance, the Kop of Boulogne was more conservative and culturally homogeneous (which might be taken as a euphemism for right-wing and racist). In 2001 Boulogne ultràs allegedly organised an attack on Galatasaray supporters during a Champions League match. Like in nearly every stadium, only a limited group of supporters condoned the violence, but it was sufficient to ruin the club’s reputation for years. Fans were banned from the stadium for life. At least eight were even sent to prison. PSG had to play two home games away at Toulouse. Fan violence became a political topic.
As people realized that the shift in political and economic powers was not going to create a golden age for all the world, football – as is the case more often than not – became a lightning rod. Racism, neo-nazism, white-supremacy all lifted their ugly heads in football stadia. In Paris the tension between Kop of Boulogne and Virage Auteuil over their groups’ dominance at the Parc evolved into open enmity. The question became which of the two groups represented Paris, was Paris. This rivalry sparked a new type of trouble in football: violence directed from fans to other fans of the same club but different stand.
Together the two kops at the Parc des Princes can hold up to 20,000 fans. By no means were all violent thugs. Certain groups and fan associations preferred to be neutral towards the opposing – in the literal sense – section. But the situation was combustible. In 2006 the whole thing exploded. At a UEFA Cup match at Hapoel Tel Aviv, a plainclothes police officer interfered in a riot sparked by PSG fans. The incident, tainted by open anti-Semitism and neo-nazism, resulted in the death of a young fan at the officer’s weapon in what couldn’t be called anything but self-defence. The French Interior minister of that time, Nicolas Sarkozy, decided to solve the problem of football violence once and for all even if it meant empty stands at the games. “Better to be alone than in such bad company”, he stated.
Ultràs had become “bad company” par excellence. Passion equaled violence and football, being far from the shiny and polished image it bears now, seemed to be a dark and dangerous area, occupied by dim-witted thugs and best avoided by more intelligent members of society.
At the same time PSG’s golden days paled. The capital club found themselves at the bottom of the table, fighting for their survival rather than for European honors. Those who lived through these dark days, both fans and players, can still see the scars under the gleaming finish Qatar Sports Investment has put upon the club.
Unfortunately 2006’s shooting wasn’t the last casualty. The end for PSG ultràs came in February 2010 when a Boulogne fan was fatally injured in a clash with Auteuil fans. PSG president Robin Leproux, who had already attracted fans’ ire, developed the so-called “plan Leproux” meant to forever extinguish violence at the Parc des Princes. Leproux, who’d previously been tasked with establishing an English version of the German tabloid BILD, had ideas as simple as that paper’s headlines: abandon all fan groups, give free tickets to women and half-priced ones to kids, introduce random seating in certain areas and make travelling to away games complicated.
Ultràs were given the blame and the bad name. Members of Virage Auteuil were accused of creating an “anti-white” climate which provoked Boulogne’s attacks. The Plan Leproux wasn’t interested in who bore responsibility for the death of 37-year-old Yann Lorence, an active member of the Kop de Boulogne who had attacked Virage Auteuil fans that night. Auteuil groups were just as much blamed and dissolved as Boulogne groups.
Autonomy is close to the heart of Ultrà philosophy. The movement is built on, and thrives, off what the fans do themselves. Ultrà tifos can be overwhelmingly creative; they are almost always witty, scathing, romantic and/or provocative. But they are always 100% handmade, done with the initiative, time, money and elbow-grease of the fans themselves. If it isn’t free, it isn’t ultrà. The idea that the club’s authorities were able to dissolve fan groups is alien to Ultrà. Consequently some of them dissolved themselves.
Neither PSG, nor the Paris police and the Ministry of Interior, were bothered with Ultrà philosophy. They just destroyed the movement and thus solved the problem. Supporters who attempted to demonstrate outside stadia were met with a wave of arrests and the presence of riot police who didn’t discriminate any more intensively than Plan Leproux. Ultrà at Paris was dead and everyone knew it.
What was also dead was the atmosphere. The transition from a fan-atmosphere to a family-atmosphere under the Plan Leproux foreshadowed the modern football ideal now presented to fans all over Europe. Minus the free tickets for women, of course.
Then, in 2011 Qatar Sports Investment bought the club and started pumping money in. Over the following years the club’s crest and image were subtly changed into the plastic version most now associate with the three letters of PSG. Like in the Premier League, prices were raised and football was deliberately made into entertainment for the wealthy rather than a passion of the working class. No better place than the Parc des Princes to create a family-friendly, bubbly and perfectly organised environment. Something resembling the Disneyland situated east of Paris, in almost precisely the opposite direction to the Parc.
Only it didn’t work. PSG has been labeled a European giant for some years now, primarily due to using their billions to buy up stars for incomprehensible sums. They’ve installed the likes of Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimović in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, providing an element of glamour as befits Paris, but the atmosphere at the games stalled. Paris ultràs as individuals boycotted the games. Since fan associations had been dissolved and ticket regulations required personalised tickets and permitted the collection of personal data by the club, supporters who identify with Ultrà kept clear of the stadium. Compared to other arenas, the Parc des Princes seemed stale and paralysed.
But Paris ultràs made themselves visible. They were slowly reassembling, recovering from what was, in great part, a self-inflicted destruction. If possible, they met the team in front of the training ground. They went to away games, preferably outside France. Several groups recently convened to create the Collectif Ultrà Paris (CUP) providing the club’s and the city’s authorities with a contact person should they ever reconsider their ban on the ultràs.
After weeks and months of meetings and talks, the police, previously the biggest obstacle for a return, okayed the return of a limited number of Paris ultràs for the game against Girondins Bordeaux on Oct 1. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of the struggle. Even at this historic moment, leading members of the CUP were banned from entering the stadium on short notice. With no satisfying explanation for this unexpected decision from either the club or the municipal authorities the CUP temporarily cancelled the talks. This was all the more disappointing as PSG’s president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and prominent players, including team captain Thaigo Silva, had explicitly welcomed the return of the ultràs to the Parc.
People on all sides of the issue support the ultràs return; for what reasons is a different matter. The club attribute at least part of their recurring, disappointing early exits from the Champions League to the obvious lack of enthusiasm in the stadium. A return to the glorious atmosphere in the 1990s is clearly wished for. But PSG also wants to keep the upper hand, as demonstrated by their inexplicable ban on CUP leaders. Ultràs will be allowed back in limited number, on a short leash and under complete control of the club.
There are questions that should continue to trouble Paris ultràs: do PSG authorities really want the people who provided the atmosphere in the “good old days” to return, or do they just want the Parc to be filled with noise again? Is the passion required to be distilled, secure and family-friendly? If so, is that even possible? Can you have passion just for a thing – a club, a crest, colours – and be sure it will never turn into passion against something? An opposing fan after a humiliating defeat, for instance? No one, neither CUP nor the police nor PSG, can guarantee a “Never Again” when it comes to fan violence.
But on Oct 1, when PSG played Bordeaux at the Parc des Princes, the ultràs were back. About 150 fans had been allowed to enter the Auteuil stands and the spark flew over to the Boulogne end, too. For the first time in years the all-seater stadium saw supporters standing for the whole game, shouting at the top of their lungs, dancing, singing and raising their arms with no sign of tiring. Muted into oblivion the travelling Bordeaux fans finally witnessed an iconic moment when Auteuil and Boulogne exchanged their chants. “Boulogne c’est Paris!” “Auteuil c’est Paris!”
PSG won 2-0. Although talks between CUP and the authorities were hampered by the incidents mentioned above, none of the parties considered abolishing them for good. The return of the ultràs to Parc des Princes was slowed, but is still moving forward. It may not be the raging fire it used to be, yet, but the spark has come back to the Parc.