The 'Ultras' of Paris Saint Germain
Destruction, detriment and death is what derailed the once intimidating home of Paris Saint Germain (PSG), the Parc des Princes, into a ground filled with superstars yet lacking bravado.
In February of 2010 there was an implosion of volatility outside of the stadium after PSG were thumped 3-0 by bitter rivals Olympique de Marseille – a fan, Yann Lorence was pronounced clinically dead one month after a vicious encounter with fellow supporters.
After social uproar, ‘Plan Leproux’ was initiated where a collective initiative amongst authorities to dissolve ultra supporters groups and create a restrictive environment for those that remained was emphasized. Qatar Sports Investments became the majority shareholder of PSG in 2011 and agreed that the image of the club was being tarnished due to fan violence therefore agreed to the jurisdiction – until recently.
In late October, after years of discussion between Paris Ultras Collective (CUP), Police Nationale and the club, a phased re-entry of the majority of CUP groups was initiated. Why? – the club wanted to bring the swagger back and reinvigorate a disinterested fan base with energy and enthusiasm. Considering that the squad is the sixth most expensively assembled in the top-five European leagues, the need for a zealous fan base is a necessity.
I was in Paris over the holidays and had the opportunity to attend a PSG match. My expectation was that the aura would be tame due to the closeness to Christmas and the fact that the opposition, Lorient, were placed dead last in Ligue 1.
I met my mate, a British born Frenchman with Italian roots affectionately known as Mr. Pat, at Pte De St. Cloud train station where we proceeded to find the closest pub and began lining our stomachs with golden goodness. Regardless of my expectation of the match, I at least anticipated the pubs (or brasseries to be colloquially correct) to have a certain match day fervour to them but to my disappointment, they were as dead as Lorient’s hopes of staying in Ligue 1. Nonetheless, the beer tasted the same. We hopped around in search of a supporters club with hopes of lifting our sinking spirits but to no avail so we decided to indulge in a cheeky McDonald’s to ensure that we didn’t tip before kick-off.
On our way to the Parc I noticed extremely heightened security which you only tend to see when their is an inter-city derby or a major European match - this was neither. Paris has undergone a siege of terrorist infiltration in the recent past hence the increased surveillance within close vicinity to the stadium. We had to go through one check-point as soon as we were within a kilometre of the ground where our tickets and identification were checked. Once through the checkpoint, we noticed a ‘busier’ brasserie so we darted there with velocity. We had finally landed - a supporters bar right across from the stadium albeit nothing to write home about. In fact, as we stood on the patio drinking and mingling with some PSG supporters, I noticed that the opposing team’s ‘ultras’ were in the same spot. Now, if this were in the United Kingdom and you saw a rival supporter in a local's pub, they’d swiftly be shown the door in no uncertain terms – and action wouldn’t be taken with care and affection. It was all a bit too much for me to digest so we decided to go to the ground and take our ‘seats’. Two further check-points and we were in.
I must say, the Parc des Princes isn’t the Paris that you see on television – emblazoned with class and elegance. On the surface, it’s a dingy, concrete piece of infrastructure lacking the aesthetic appeal to lure the neutral fan. Upon entry you walk up a concrete stairwell to the main corridor and nothing is plastered on the walls to give you the feel that you are watching the mighty PSG – there was absolutely nought to get me excited about what was ahead. In fact, it was all quite the opposite – very depressing and demotivating. I began to wonder about how the players could ever become galvanized playing in such a dreary environment. We went to the concession to order a tea ….. ugh beer and to our utter disdain, were told that they only serve ‘non-alcoholic’ beer. At first voice, not serving alcohol in an arena of sport seems illegal in itself however, upon reflection, I now understand why they take this action which I will share later on.
Finally, we walked towards the last wall of security expecting to be directed to our comfortable, luxurious seats – afterall, PSG are owned by Qatar Sports Investments who have invested billions into the club therefore we at least anticipated the seats to be lush. I finally saw green grass and my mood began to bulge with excitement. Not only was the pitch pristine and magnificent but the atmosphere I immediately felt was electric. We weren’t directed to an aisle or any specific location but rather told to sit anywhere – we were smack in the middle of the ‘ultras’.
Ultras – A type of football fan renowned for ultra-fanatical support, occasionally to the point of violence and hateful chants and slogans.
Considering the reason for banning ultras in the first place, my initial feeling was that of mild apprehension. I had never sat amongst European ultras before and the reputation which I had witnessed on television and read about matched most of the definition above. The stadium was virtually empty considering we were still 45 minutes from kick-off but our section was filling up quickly and soft undertones were turning to vigorous verbal out-lashings of support.
Mr. Pat and I joined in coordinated singing as best we could – my French is sub-par at best but the ability to latch on to a chorus becomes innate after a few jars. The ground began to fill and just before kick-off there were only a smattering of empty seats. The next 90 minutes were a blur composed of singing, jumping, spinning and falling – not to mention 5 goals for the home side. The whole ultra operation was choreographed by one leader with a megaphone. I don't recall looking over and ever seeing him watching the match as he had one job: to coordinate militant-like support ensuring everyone was on-song and the passion was of elevated fury throughout. As I perused the supporters around me, the dedication to the shirt was evident amongst the ultras. They seemed as if to say that no matter what kind of shit we are enduring in our day to day lives outside of the stadium, for this 90 minutes we are amongst our football family to sing in unison and empower Les Parisiens to victory. We are all one in our bastion of comfort and our place of worship, the Parc des Princes. With that said, I observed that some supporters were on the edge to the point that one instigation could flip their volatility switch to raging anger.
Below are a few videos I took which express the desire, belief and comradery which this passionate fanbase embodies (see more videos by visiting my youtube channel below):
I’ve always felt that football breeds the greatest proponents in sport. Rather than an activity, football supporters consider following their club a religion - the cost of tickets is their tithing and their compatriots are all fellow worshippers. Ultras are the evangelicals of football whom spread the word with at times, overwhelming force. Ultimately, unlike religion where belief can meander, once one’s faith is firmly established in a football team support is unwavering.
There are times where violence becomes an over-arching theme in ultra culture – real-life examples of horror and carnage have been evident for all to witness. However, my evening at the Parc des Princes amongst the most passionate of PSG supporters was nothing short of spectacular. In no other European ground have I experienced the spirit and cordiality of fans which I did on December 21, 2016.
Considering that death had been an instigator to banning fanatical support, the hope is that the ultras maintain a disciplined approach to dogmatic enthusiasm and refrain from hate and violence. Evidently, this is the reason why alcohol is not served in the stadium - to avoid any possibility of turning ardent backing into a congregation of hostility.
If you've never had the opportunity to attend a European football match make every effort to do so at some point within your lifetime. The exhilaration that you feel cannot be matched within any other sporting venue and in most cases the comity amongst fellow supporters is almost familial. For every sports lover, this endeavour should be a bucket list item. With that said, caution should always be taken as there is a fine line between passion and peril.
Until next time – ICI C’EST PARIS!