The hymns were still playing and the sermons were still being read, but the cathedral was in flames. The Parc des Princes, this monument to glory and desire, the place where you go to see your fantasies made flesh, was in revolt. They were watching Paris Saint-Germain, their team, rip Bordeaux to shreds with perhaps the most preposterously dazzling front three in the history of football. And they were furious about it.
Lionel Messi was booed, by many of the same fans who lined the streets to celebrate his arrival in August. Neymar was booed when he scored and cheered when he missed. It was profane and it was shocking and maybe that was the point. “We understand their disappointment, we understand their hatred,” the PSG centre-half Presnel Kimpembe said. “Now we must move forward in order to win Ligue 1.”
The immediate assumption was that this was a sort of acid reflux, an intestinal reaction to the Champions League defeat against Real Madrid in midweek. On social media, fans of other clubs brandished their tiny violins. Fifteen points clear in Ligue 1, close to an eighth title in 10 seasons and with a front-row seat to the greatest show in world football. Maybe, you know, grow up?
But Paris has been at war with itself for a while now, for reasons that go far deeper than one second-half capitulation. Last month, the fan group Collectif Ultras Paris organised a picket of the fixture against Rennes, denouncing the Qatari owners, the sporting director, Leonardo, and even the head of communications. There were demands to “respect the women’s team.” One banner even referenced the revolutionary reign of terror: “Too many useless heads! Robespierre, where are you?” And people say this club has no sense of history.
Watching from the directors’ box on Sunday was Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the club president who, since 2011, has spent more than £1bn in transfer fees and overseen the most successful era in PSG’s history. As the team he built was pilloried, it was possible to picture his puzzlement. Hang on. I bought you Messi, Neymar, Mbappé, Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Dani Alves. What more, exactly, do you want?
Of course, Paris fans have told Khelaifi exactly what they want. In a statement by the Collectif last week, they asked him: “How can you want to change everything for the people of Paris when you’re more often seen at Fashion Week than meeting with your own fans?” They demanded his resignation “in the greater interest of a club; not a brand, not a marketing product. Our club!”
Kimpembe may have claimed to understand the fans’ anger, but his Ligue 1 comment betrayed the fact he hadn’t a clue. Paris are 15 points clear of Marseille. Silverware isn’t the problem here. The ultras’ statement didn’t mention the Champions League at all. Rather, the barracking of Neymar and Messi felt like an expression of a more fundamental need: a longing that no quantity of star signings or precious metal can truly fulfil.
If Khelaifi reckons a Champions League crown will placate the restless natives, he should look at the competition’s past two winners. Bayern Munich are sauntering towards their 10th Bundesliga in a row, but at their most recent annual general meeting angry fans turned on the club president, Herbert Hainer, and the chief executive, Oliver Khan, for refusing to discuss the club’s controversial sponsorship deal with Qatar. “We are Bayern! You are not!” members shouted at club officials who condescendingly invited them to pursue their grievances in court.
Chelsea fans, meanwhile, have been forced to watch the dismemberment of their club in real time. Again, sympathy will be in short supply. Some clearly see themselves as the real victims of the war in Ukraine, continuing to serenade their sanctioned owner Roman Abramovich. But for the silent majority and dickhead minority alike, the common theme is a basic powerlessness, the sense that the thing they care about is simply a piece in somebody’s Monopoly game.
You could equally shift the focus to Manchester United or Tottenham, to Liverpool where an unconditional love for the team masks an underlying suspicion of the club’s ownership, or Manchester City where the fanbase seems to be on a permanent war footing, fixated on slights and enemies. These are fans of the world’s biggest clubs, home to its best players, reared on a diet of what 99% of the game would consider as unimaginable success. Why is nobody happy?
Perhaps the answer lies in a common realisation, sharpened by the Super League protests and subsequent events: that wins and new signings are no real substitute for a genuine stake. For decades all fans, but especially those of big clubs, have essentially been commodified, patronised, seen not as partners but as eyeballs, a resource to be tapped. Supporter groups demand a place on the board and a share in the future. Clubs respond with viral content, soaring ticket prices and fan tokens.
And so for the most part following a superclub has become a pursuit of ever-diminishing returns: a doomed search for lost meaning in an increasingly transactional relationship. “Our club,” the Paris ultras insisted. But it isn’t and Khelaifi has the documents to prove it. In a sense these protests feel like a natural end point: an overdue recognition these are no longer our clubs and this is no longer our game. You can’t bring down the church. But there comes a point where you may just stop believing.