“Plus tard, je serai président du PSG!” Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy became France’s most unpopular president in history at the end of his tenure but his nose for a political wind remains pretty keen. It was inevitable that, with French joblessness at record levels, the incumbent Socialists would lose out to his UMP party in municipal elections on Saturday. Cue a clamour for his return to the Elysée palace, which would have been shriller still had he not made clear last month: “Contrary to what is written daily, I have no desire to resume political life in our country today.”
That might very well be termed what the press often refer to in football as a come-and-get-me-plea. But even if he never stages a political comeback (and one renaissance has failed before) Sarko may one day become president of something else instead. Paris Saint-Germain, as the Financial Times writer Simon Kuper pointed out in a recent article, was a few years ago little more than a European football backwater, riven by internecine disputes within its own fanbase. The commencement on Wednesday night of a two-leg Champions League quarter-final fixture against Chelsea could seldom have been envisaged in PSG’s less-than-illustrious past.
Apart from their eight domestic cups, one European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy and three Ligue 1 titles there is not much to occupy PSG’s trophy cabinet. But since Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund took them over the landscape has changed. The club’s manager, Laurent Blanc, has described PSG as the “one sports property on earth to take over two and a half years ago”. His boss, the chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi, has expressed hopes of becoming Champions League winners and that the club’s brand will be worth €1 billion.
Khelaifi and Sarkozy have frequently been photographed together at PSG matches. Indeed, although Kuper describes Sarkozy’s self-proclamation of a future as PSG president as having “irritated the Qataris”, the former president of France is not a mere groupie. Despite Paris being won by the Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo this weekend, Sarkozy’s political sway in the city will be of value as the club goes through two phases of renovation and reconstruction in its municipally owned stadium, the Parc des Princes.
The municipal and national governments should help PSG in whatever way they can, since the benefits of the €100 million redevelopment will not reside with the club alone. In common with most modern urban stadiums, the plans are for a retail complex to be built around the stadium footprint. This, like so much more of Khelaifi’s plans for the club, can only be good for Paris and the French economy.
France will host Euro 2016 and its preparations in redeveloping host stadiums alone will cost the clubs, their local authorities, the state and private financiers close to €2 billion. Yet a globally significant PSG could in time bring equivalent benefit to France without anything like the input cost from the state.
A study conducted for New Economy, a strategy, research and policy body for the Greater Manchester region, by Sheffield Hallam University’s Sport Industry Research Centre and Cambridge Econometrics, an economics modelling firm, made some startling findings last year. It discovered: “Greater Manchester effectively hosts a large sporting event at least once a week during the football season, the equivalent of an Olympic and Paralympic Games every 4 seasons.”
This has tangible economic benefits, the study found. “The tourism generated by the presence of the professional football clubs in the conurbation (particularly Manchester United FC and Manchester City FC) is significant.
“Hotel occupancy rates in the Greater Manchester area are considerably higher than normal when the teams play (85% on match-days compared to 70% on non-match-days), while national studies suggest that substantial numbers of football tourists come to visit Old Trafford – around 15% of all international tourists that attend a football match during their visit to the UK do so at Old Trafford. The same studies also highlight that the average spend of football tourists is considerably higher (and over a shorter period) than the average tourist.”
Although PSG cannot on its own compete with income generated by the Manchester clubs United and City, along with the five other Football League clubs in the area – Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic, Bury, Oldham Athletic and Rochdale – it can make a significant difference to the local economy. In advertising alone, the Manchester study estimated, the “value of the clubs to Brand Manchester will increase further in the future; over the next 20 years this could be worth in excess of £2.5bn”. Paris has plenty of tourist attractions but, for all its gastronomie and haute couture, it has never really been able to count on football, which is becoming an incredibly important social phenomenon around the world, among its keywords before.
But as PSG get bigger Paris would also benefit from an important increase in international tourism. In 2003-4, a similar distance from its hosting of a major international football tournament with the 2006 World Cup, Germany’s top-flight Bundesliga had an average cumulative attendance of 337,311. Now it is 386,469, more than 14.5% higher than before. With Ligue 1 starting from a much lower base it could conceivably enjoy a commensurately bigger boost to its profile and attendances after Euro 2016.
History suggests France in particular would benefit from having PSG – or indeed any other single club – as its dominant force. Having enjoyed a significant growth impetus in the shape of the France 98 World Cup, attendances grew season-on-season with the rise of a pre-eminent Olympique Lyonnais. Then the eventual decline of that club coincided with waning interest in live football.
So what is good for PSG is good for French football on the whole, and for its Qatari sovereign owners, particularly as they also control the rights to live broadcast of Ligue 1 through beIN SPORTS, an Al-Jazeera network subsidiary that is also controlled by Qatar (and which operates from offices in the Parc des Princes). There is no question PSG needs a stronger base at home if Khelaifi’s ambitions are to be realised.
Although ranked by Deloitte as having the fifth-highest revenues of all European clubs with their €398.8 million turnover in the 2012-3 season, almost two-thirds of PSG’s income (€254.7 million / 63.9%) was from commercial sources. And a quick glance at who its main sponsors are suggests there could be issues arising from the related-parties clause in UEFA’s financial fair play rules. Among PSG’s highest-tier partners are Ooredoo, formerly the Qatar National Telephone Service, the Qatar National Bank and beIN SPORTS.
Still, barring a UEFA sanction, with backers like them it looks like the cash will keep on coming. According to reports in the UK’s Daily Telegraph this week it could even lead to a £90 million bid for Oscar and Eden Hazard, currently employed by none other than their Champions League opponents Chelsea.
At the very least PSG are attracting attention and as foreign eyes fall on them as the focal point of French football going forward they truly do appear capable of satisfying Sarko’s personal ambitions. Although having said that, as a man France’s former prime minister Laurent Fabius once accused of being the architect of the “ego presidency”, perhaps nothing will.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.