Sometimes a manager loses it and reaches a point where he must admit that perhaps the game has passed him by. Like a golfer who suddenly gets the yips he must accept that, whatever it was that made him capable of doing the things he once did, it ain’t in him no more. None of it. Arsene Wenger looks increasingly like a man whose best days are long behind him. The Arsenal manager has now gone seven years without winning a trophy, and even a heavily labored 1-0 win against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday — thanks to a goal that looked suspiciously offside — did little to suggest that things will be different this season. We are still in the thick of autumn, yet Arsenal already look as if they will be a footnote in the story of how this season’s Premier League title was won. After consecutive losses against Norwich and Schalke, Wenger admitted last week that, with less than a third of the season behind them, his team has hit a wall. You wonder if any of it matters to the longtime Arsenal boss, who said last week that qualifying for the Champions League was more important than winning a trophy. Wenger, who has an economics degree, has turned Arsenal into a money-making enterprise, making a profit in an era when Chelsea and Manchester City continue to rack up record losses. But he is now in danger of becoming a parody of himself, a man who elevates everything over the result itself.
Yesterday when I, along with about 100 other Paris Saint-Germain fans, landed in Marseille, the welcome wagon arrived in the form of police officers dressed in riot gear ready to escort us to PSG’s clash with Marseille at the Stade Velodrome. Tensions between the teams run high, and when I asked the man next to me why he hates Marseille so much he said, “I don’t know. I have it in my blood.”
There were close to 100 members of the Gendarmerie with assault rifles bracketing us on both sides as we walked to the bus. There were three paddy wagons, at least eight officers on motorcycles, and a helicopter hovering above. Streets were blocked off throughout the city to make for a swift transport to the stadium. When we arrived, our mugshots were taken as we held our identification cards. It was about the time that the unmuzzled German shepherd jumped on me while sniffing for drugs that I felt less like a sports fan and more like someone who was being processed for committing a crime. It was these same security measures that led to Marseille fans boycotting the match in 2010. Without Marseille fans to fight, PSG fans clashed among themselves that night, leading to the death of Yann Lorence.
The story of how I ended up watching Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-0 loss to Porto via streaming video on my laptop really is a debacle for the ages and a cautionary tale for PSG on the limits to which it can overcharge its fans for the services it provides. Early last week the club announced in grand fashion that it would provide round-trip airfare, transportation to and from the stadium, and a ticket for the matches against Porto and Marseille for fans who were willing to cough up ¬340 (roughly $440) for each match. That’s a lot of money for one midweek match and especially expensive for a domestic fixture. When I mentioned it to my French tutor, her response was, "je le trouve scandaleux!" Her opinion on all things PSG is that they are scandalous, the players’ salaries are indecent, and if they make that kind of money they should set up foundations like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and give back to the youth who come to support them at the stadium. She says all of this seriously without a hit of irony.
With that in mind, I took the metro to Parc des Princes last Friday afternoon and plopped down my ¬340. Strangely, I wasn’t given a ticket for the game or the plane, nor was I given any instructions on what to do next. I was told, simply, someone will call you. The woman who took my money then handed me something that looked like a ticket in careful packaging, but really it was a glorified receipt. As an American living in France, one of the first things you must adjust to is the French bureaucracy. They do things differently here, but usually they get it done, so I wasn’t worried. In America things are done efficiently or someone will lose his job. In France, it seems, things are done inefficiently so more people can keep their jobs.
Three games into the Ligue 1 season, things looked bleak for Paris Saint-Germain. The team was winless and sitting in 13th place in the table. It all seemed a long way from the preseason hype and the expectation that the team backed by Qatari billions would dominate this season. If anything, they looked likely to confirm their reputation as perennial underachievers who often flatter to deceive. Everything changed 27 seconds into their match against Lille, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave the team its first lead of the season. PSG defeated Lille, 2-1, and has yet to trail since. After Saturday night’s 2-0 win against Sochaux, the team has now scored 12 goals and conceded one in its last five matches. They will enter Sunday night’s showdown against Marseille on a five-match winning streak with an opportunity to go top of the table after Marseille was trounced 4-1 by Valenciennes, shrinking its lead over PSG to three points.
As PSG finds its form and its star players are now fully settled into the team, there is a real threat that they will indeed become an elephant towering over 19 mice. The team has the strength in depth to keep players fresh, and Carlo Ancelotti now looks like a man fully in control.
The singing continued into the streets surrounding Parc des Princes last night long after the match ended. As fans exited the stadium the chants of "Allez Paris!" and "Paris est Magique!" were heard just as loudly as they were in the stadium. Down Rue du Sergent Maginot they went singing in reverie and into the Metro station at Porte de Saint-Cloud with the sounds of "Ô Ville Lumière" echoing in the narrow subway tunnel. "Ô Ville Lumière sens la chaleur de notre cSur ..." This was not a night for restraint, as waves of young men, beer now leaking from their pores, were completely unhinged, banging on the train doors, yelling obscenities with big smiles on their faces, and still in full voice from what they witnessed just moments ago.
Earlier this summer, a group of AC Milan fans gathered for a vigil outside the club’s headquarters near via Turati in the center of Milan. They came with flowers and candles and recited prayers. At the end, they laid their beloved club to rest. The banner outside read, “AC Milan, December 16, 1899–July 22, 2012.” On it, a message that served as a final twist of the knife: “He lacked affection for his loved ones.” Milan received the “you’re dead to me” treatment from its fans the day it sold Thiago Silva and later Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain. The previous season the club allowed Andrea Pirlo to join Juventus instead of renewing his deal. The thinking inside Milan was that Pirlo’s best days were behind him. The midfielder responded by leading Juve to an undefeated season, winning the Scudetto along the way. He then turned in a performance for Italy at Euro 2012 that cemented his position as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation.
Three matches into the Ligue 1 season and the expensively assembled juggernaut that is Paris Saint-Germain is still undefeated. The team hasn’t conceded a goal in two and a half matches, and for the second consecutive week their opponents barely had a shot on target. The chance of an undefeated season is still on. PSG continues to look unbeatable and once again dominated possession for the third consecutive match. Perhaps this is why fans were letting off firecrackers in the stadium and why, earlier this week, team director Leonardo responded to questions about the club being in a crisis by saying “je ne suis pas inquiete”: I’m not worried. So all is well, then? Not so fast, my friends. That is the glass-half-full version of what’s going on in Paris.
Here’s the less generous version: PSG were booed and whistled off the field at the end of another listless performance (drawing 0-0 with Bordeaux) in which they failed to find the net. The Bordeaux keeper had little to do, as most of PSG’s shots were off-target. They are winless in their first three matches, and Sunday night’s 0-0 draw with Bordeaux offered very little to suggest that the champagne-and-caviar football we were all promised is anywhere closer to arriving. This looked more like stale crepes and Nutella (which were on sale at the stadium at halftime). PSG now sit six points behind league leaders Marseille with a tricky away fixture coming up against Lille next weekend. I had planned to travel to Lille for the match, but after Sunday night’s affair those plans are canceled. This team is not worth a road trip.
After all the preseason hype, let’s put away the anointing oil and look at Paris Saint-Germain for what they really are: an overrated and complacent team of underachievers. An overpriced vanity project. A rich man’s plaything. Before a ball was kicked, they were handed the Ligue 1 title. We should give a trophy for second place, everyone said. After two matches they sit in 12th place and are not the world-beaters we expected. But it’s only two matches, you say. True, but with PSG the only perspective that’s proper is a complete lack of it. When you spend as much money as they have, the one thing you can't afford is patience. So after two draws, first against Lorient (2-2), then against Ajaccio (0-0) Sunday night, they are now in crisis. PSG on relegation watch! Ancelotti to be sacked by Christmas! They face Bordeaux at home next Sunday night and need a win to avoid further embarrassment.
There is an elephant and 19 mice in French football. L’Equipe, France’s largest sports daily, was the one to coin that phrase but it seems players and managers agree. In a recent survey 85 percent of players picked the same team to win Ligue 1 this season. In another poll 100 percent of the managers agreed. It is a one-horse race for the title in France this year and that horse, of course, is Paris Saint-Germain, the nouveau-riche team from the capital threatening to gatecrash the party of Europe’s elite clubs. It is a foregone conclusion throughout France that PSG will win the league, so the focus is whether they will mount a serious challenge on the Champions League.
I arrived at Parc des Princes at about 3:45 on Saturday afternoon to watch Paris Saint-Germain take on FC Barcelona. I took the 9 train from the Champs Elysées to Porte de St. Cloud and exited the station with a compilation of '80s music pumping through my headphones. When I reached street level I bought a scalped ticket for four times the face value and began a nostalgic walk to the stadium. It had been ten years since I last visited Parc des Princes. In those days I was a study abroad student at Sciences Po and PSG was a blip on the European football radar. But today I arrived four hours before kickoff because something new is in the air in Paris. PSG has spent more money than anyone in Europe this summer and since Qatar Sports Investment bought the team last season they have laid out over $250 million on transfer fees, with the majority of it — about $220 million — purchasing players from the Italian Serie A league. This summer alone, PSG bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti, and Ezequiel Lavezzi. It’s these kinds of arrivals that inspired PSG fans to surround team Director Leonardo’s car on his way to the stadium Saturday chanting “merci Leo” and causing him to miss much of the pregame pomp and circumstance.
Andrei Arshavin came to my attention at Euro 2008 the same way a man might find a beautiful woman in a dimly lit bar shortly after a breakup. Back then he got my mind off all that was wrong with Arsenal and offered the promise of something better. And as I watched him on Tuesday, in Russia’s 1-1 draw against Poland, I was reminded of why I once fell for him and why we simply can never be.