Wednesday 26 April 2017

How PSG plan to conquer the football world

As they prepare to welcome Barcelona, Jason Burt is given unique access at Paris St-Germain - and finds a club who will spare no expense in becoming the biggest on the planet

Edinson Cavani is one of the on-field symbols of the new PSG brand Picture: Getty
Edinson Cavani is one of the on-field symbols of the new PSG brand Picture: Getty

Jason Burt

It is Tuesday night at the Parc des Princes and Paris St-Germain have secured the injury-time win that has kept them in the French league title race. Edinson Cavani pushes aside the huge, vertical blind that separates the playing arena from the tunnel, clutching one of his young children in his arms, his face wreathed in a smile of relief.

In the opposing dressing room the howls of frustration can be heard from the Lille goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. It is football at its rawest and most emotional, at odds with this immaculate 48,000-capacity stadium.

Tonight, a week after that game, Barcelona come calling in the last 16 of the Champions League, but PSG's aspirations extend far beyond simply booking a quarter-final spot. One of the club's slogans is 'Rêvons Plus Grand' and, certainly, no one dreams bigger.

In the build-up to Barca's visit, we were given behind-the-scenes access as PSG seek - in the words of Jean-Claude Blanc, the deputy chief executive - to become "the biggest sports franchise in the world".

Skybars, shoeshines - and success

Tucked next to the tunnel area at the Parc des Princes is a private staircase that winds up to Le Carré and the VIP salons and lounges at the stadium, where the movers and shakers of Paris gather. The inside has been gutted and remodelled as part of a 34-month, £64m refurbishment.

It has the look of a luxury hotel; indeed, the designers used - Patrick Jouin and Jean-Philippe Nuel - are more commonly associated with elite boutiques, brasseries and first-class airport lounges. There are DJs and shoe-shines, champagne flows freely and premium brands pockmark the internal Avenue du Parc.

There is even a 'skybar' running across the top of the stadium, a concept taken from the United States, where fans can stand and watch the match and eat and drink.

Every one of the 47,929 seats in the stadium has been replaced. On their smartphones fans are given directions from their home to their seat, with different travel options - and they can call up a taxi to meet them outside after the game.

Head to the top of the short flight of stairs and turn left and you are greeted by the directors' box, where Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the PSG president, usually sits.

"We had our opportunities coming to us from Premier League clubs but the 'one city/one club' profile of Paris St-Germain and the great potential we saw to build a global sports franchise in Paris was always our first choice," he says later, when asked why he targeted PSG. "We wanted to be here."

Al-Khelaifi is also chairman of Qatar Sports Investments which in June 2011, acquired PSG from the French arm of the American investment firm Colony Capital for around €70m. The club are now valued at more than €950m, with revenues of €550m a year - up from €95m. They are sixth and rising in Deloitte's list of richest clubs.

PSG have Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United in their sights; beyond football, the LA Lakers, Ferrari and the New York Yankees also have reason to feel twitchy.

One of Al-Khelaifi's first decisions after his takeover was to host a dinner with past PSG presidents to ask them what mistakes they would not repeat. Colony Capital said it should have invested more in the first two years to, as Blanc puts it, "jump-start" the club.

Al-Khelaifi did just that. Big fees were spent, big wages paid, big players signed, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic and PSG were on the map. But Al-Khelaifi also insists they are underpinned by an "efficient business model to sustain our ambition. In the next five years, we must continue to grow our revenues and remain at the highest competitive level to enable us to win the Champions League".

Achieving that is, he suggests, "essential. It would ensure Paris St-Germain a seat into the clubs' elite. It is a key milestone.

"If you compare the value of our club five years ago and nowadays you can see that we have increased it 10 times. We can re-evaluate again in another five years and you will continue to see a lot of growth. I know that our investment over time will be a very good one."

'More than a club'

"How can PSG become a global brand? The brand is strong because the brand is Paris and the smartest idea was to change the logo," says Fabien Allègre, PSG's merchandising and brand diversification director

We have moved to PSG's headquarters, just south west of Paris. His office is a treasure trove of marketing ideas and merchandise, but it is the stark PSG logo that dominates the walls.

It was Al-Khelaifi's initiative to change that logo, emphasising the Eiffel Tower, making the lettering for Paris bigger and for Saint-Germain smaller.

It is a sound strategy. This after all is a city of 12 million people with just one professional football club jostling for attention. Compare that to the tallies in London (13), Madrid (three), Rome, Lisbon and Berlin (two each) and you begin to understand why the club are a marketing man's dream: PSG is Paris.

"The DNA of the club is obviously sport and we have something unique," says Frédéric Longuépée, PSG general manager in charge of business activities.

"We are the only club in the most watched sport in the world in one of the most iconic cities in the world. We have very rapidly found that Paris represents something unique and strong. PSG is more than a football club. It's a brand. Everything about it is aesthetic, elegant, fashionable."

So, alongside the usual replica shirts and bumper stickers, there are €55 t-shirts from Maison Labiche, a small but trendy Paris fashion house, embroidered with Il Gufetto (The owl), the nickname of star player Marco Verratti.

There are Primitive skateboards, Beats headphones and when PSG players are measured up for their Hugo Boss club suits, Paris Match magazine is invited for a fashion shoot.

"When people go to New York they buy a hat - It has 'NY' on it and they don't realise it is a New York Yankees hat," Longuépée adds. "It is a brand. New York Yankees equals New York. It is part of the culture and the lifestyle and so it will be the same for Paris and PSG."

Of course many elite clubs are doing similar things, but not with PSG's drive and focus. There is even a 'brand book' to define the club and "reveal the broad outline of the Paris-St Germain project". 'Digital' is the biggest buzz word. Before the club's takeover, they had 500,000 fans on Facebook; now they have 27 million, 90pc of whom are outside France.

Their most rapidly expanding fan bases are in Indonesia and Brazil.

Ultra crackdown

It may lay the club open to accusations that the brand, the business, is more important than the sport but this is emphatically rejected. The club point to the star names arriving on the pitch such as Verratti, Adrien Rabiot, Marquinhos and Julian Draxler, who turned down offers from the Premier League to join last month for €40m from Wolfsburg, and their plans for a €200m training ground at Poissy.

That will boast a 5,000-capacity stadium and 14 pitches, while there will also be investment in 'Red and Blue' schools run by the club as part of a vast community project. There is also a growing network of academies - some of which are outside France.

"The Paris region is second after Sao Paulo in terms of origin of professional players in the world," Al-Khelaifi explains. "This is why also we have just acquired 150 acres of land to build one of the most advanced training centres and academy in the world. Another one of my objectives is to find and grow the future French football star in our youth academy."

And then there is the Parc des Princes stadium itself. PSG are a young club, founded in 1970. They were also an unloved club. Six years ago, inside the périphérique, the ring road that defines the city, you hardly ever saw anyone in a PSG shirt and it was once a hooligan bastion built around two opposing groups: one at the 'Boulogne' end; the other the 'Auteuil'.

The ultras, around 600 hard-core fans, were expelled and only brought back this season, with tickets priced at just €17 behind the goals. "We had a very clear discussion: you put back the atmosphere. We can give you megaphones, flags, you pay for your tickets. But if you cause a problem you are out," Blanc says.

"Fans had to get legally organised into associations and this came through an agreement with the Minister of Sport. When you get the agreement you are allowed as a club to sign a contract with them to define their duties."

The atmosphere is certainly better, and the notion of a strong, self-confident fan base appeals in a city where confidence is still brittle following recent terror attacks. "We want to be a club that respects its core fans," Al-Khelaifi adds. "While we build extra VIP seating we make sure that we keep very affordable seating for these core fans."

Barcelona will be the latest to experience the new, formidable PSG tonight, and while the Catalans will start the tie as favourites, the long-term project would not be derailed even by defeat.

As one executive put it: the rocket has already taken off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Paris St-Germain v Barcelona, Live TV3 & BT Sport 2, 7.45

Telegraph.co.uk

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