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How A Mix Of Qatari Cash And French Resentment Sparked A Paris Soccer Riot

Paris Saint-Germain's fans during a 2007 UEFA Cup match
Paris Saint-Germain's fans during a 2007 UEFA Cup match
Renaud Dely


PARIS -Guerilla scenes, an intolerable gratuitous violence, hundreds of angry youths looting shops… this is not Aleppo in Syria, but central Paris.

On May 13, violence broke out in one of the French capital’s ritziest neighborhood as supporters gathered to celebrate the soccer team Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) winning the French League 1 championship for the first time in 19 years.

Cars and scooters were set on fire; shop windows and bus shelters were destroyed. Thirty people were injured, including three police officers.

Three days later, the public outcry still hasn’t died down. In part because the incident has been playing out around the world, with shocking images being relayed over and over again by news channels. But mostly because people who go to an event with the goal of destroying and assaulting should not be let off easy.

There is no possible justification, no excuse that can be given, no acceptable mitigating circumstances. Justice must be irrevocable in condemning the authors or these actions, and in doing so have the unanimous support of all political parties.

Beyond the obvious blame

There is no doubt that responsibility bears with the club and its owners, but also the French soccer league, the city of Paris, the police department, and the Interior Ministry – who have all failed to various degrees. As in every democracy, these institutions will have to answer for their failings – first to the French public, then to the local residents who bore the grunt of the violence.

But beyond this sad assessment, we should use the May 13 riots as a teaching moment – to ponder on the evolution of the soccer world, and our society in general.

The Qatari-owned PSG has become a shiny showcase, a temple of bling and playground for millionaires wearing shorts, with top-models on their arms and garages full of Ferraris.

It is quite significant that the owners of the PSG had chosen the Trocadero, in the posh 16th arrondissement of Paris, as the place for their celebration – so that the players could brandish the League 1 championship trophy with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. They managed to impose their choice on the city’s powers that be, who are guilty of giving in to the PSG bosses. But then again, who can resist the mysterious powers conveyed by Qatari money? Well, the PSG wanted the image of their victory to be seen around the world – and they got their wish.

A huge rift

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that youths without bearings, who are hostile to all forms of authority, would seize the opportunity of this parade of riches in Paris’s most ritzy ghetto – which will never be theirs – to unleash their inner violence.

The rift between both worlds has become so big that such a clash was unavoidable. Soccer used to be a sport for the masses. It has turned into a tawdry spectacle, for a bourgeois audience.

The PSG’s long violent history finally caught up with the new owners of the club. The first smoke bombs were thrown by the “ultras,” hooligans who have been banned from PSG matches due to stringent security rules implemented in the past three years, just before the Qataris bought the team. These efforts to keep out the bad apples should most certainly continue.

But a second and more Paris-specific factor is the inability of PSG to identify with its natural environment. A project initiated a few years ago to turn the club into a club for the whole of Paris and its poorer suburbs quickly failed. Meanwhile, Mamadou Sakho is the last player on the team that is actually from Paris – and he is the lone survivor of a shipwreck, an oddity drowning in a team of foreign mercenaries. This is another reason why supporters feel alienated by a team that they can't identify with at all.

As symbol of this – irreparable – rift is the commentators that were saying, after the May 13 riots, that none of this would have happened if the celebrations had been held in the cushy protection of the Parc des Princes PSG stadium. At home. Among friends.

An artificial graft

Hooliganism has plagued stadiums all across Europe and last Sunday, like every weekend now, matches were interrupted in Italy because of racist supporters heckling players.

But France is a country with a very short history when it comes to soccer. The absence of a real soccer and a history of its habits and customs transmitted from one generation to the next, like it is the case in the United Kingdom, for instance, only exacerbates the artificial character of the graft.

In France, this sport has no real educational power. English soccer teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are historical institutions that can shape youth consciousness. PSG, on the other hand, sprouted like a sort of ephemeral mushroom – a hallucinogenic one at that. In the era of soccer-biz, it is not a game anymore, for some it is a show, for others it is a lucrative investment.

The damage is profound, especially since there is no other sport with such a global impact as soccer, which has always served as a repository for human passions. It is a melting pot where boils everything that is good or bad in society. It should not come as a surprise, then, that it is a repository for France’s worse problems – this fractured, crumbling country in the midst of an identity crisis and dangerous social tension.

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