Michael Walker: There are legitimate concerns about PSG’s purpose as a club
Bobby Robson once told us what a football club should be and what it should mean
Bobby Robson’s idea of what a club should be does not reflect what clubs like PSG now represent. File photograph: Getty Images
In any case, he asked, what is a club? The question being rhetorical, he started on his answer, but not with what a club is, rather with what a club isn’t. It is not the buildings, he said, not the directors, not the get-out clauses in players’ contracts, the television deals or the executive boxes. He went on. You get the drift.
He came to what it is. And what it is, he said, is a feeling. It is a feeling of belonging. It is the noise inside a stadium and the passion of a support. It is even pride in your city. This emotional connection, this is what a club is or what a club comes to mean.
It was Bobby Robson doing the talking, reflecting on what Newcastle United meant to him and his father, Philip. The son said his miner father missed one shift in 51 years. He would go to work scrubbed white and return black. Both liked the symbolism.
It is a different kind of shift to go from these sentiments to modern-day Paris St Germain and a Champions League final. But PSG’s presence in Europe’s showpiece brings back Robson’s original question: what is a club?
Included in that question is another: what is a club’s purpose? In August 2020 as PSG prepare to face Bayern Munich, this has fresh relevance. PSG 2020 do not look or feel like a traditional football club, nor did the club they defeated in Tuesday’s semi-final, RB Leipzig. There are legitimate concerns about their purpose.
When Newcastle East End and West End became ‘Newcastle United’ in December 1892 at a meeting on Corporation Street, it was stated publicly that the “sole object was to bring together a team to hold their own against any team in any other part of the country.” The meeting’s chair said he was “sure that the shareholders did not look forward to any profit, their only object being to see the game played in Newcastle as it ought to be played.”
Here was the foundation of a major Football Club. Its purpose was football.
By 1905 Newcastle United were champions of England and again in 1907 and 1909. The club was fulfilling itself. It was also bringing Newcastle, the city, national recognition. Newcastle upon Tyne, like its neighbour Sunderland, became known for three things: coal, ships and football.
Meanwhile, in Paris a young man called Jules Rimet was helping found a club named Red Star, and then some. Rimet would change the world of football, but Paris, the city, had many other means of expression. Football was not a prominent piece of its identity.
Fast forward to the 1960s and the lack (relative) of Parisians attending football brought an economic crisis. The prominent club, Racing, were demoted and the French Football Federation fretted about football in its capital. It encouraged the idea of a new club and 20,000 locals donated. The new club played its first league game on Sunday, August 23rd 1970. It was called Paris St-Germain.
PSG were soon in trouble, however, and the city council offered a bail-out on the condition the club was re-named Paris FC. Someone in city hall understood the value of the city name.
PSG refused, were put down to the third division and it was 1983 before they won the French Cup and 1986 before they were champions of France.
Back in England, 1983 was also the year Tottenham Hotspur were allowed to shift from being a Football Club to being a Football Club in a holding company. That company was soon floated on the Stock Exchange causing Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw to walk out, saying: “There used to be a football club over there.”
Football was changing; the people within football were changing. In 1991 PSG were approaching bankruptcy again. Television company Canal Plus bought them. PSG had an additional purpose: satellite TV.
Well-established by 2006, Canal Plus sold PSG to an American-led business called Colony Capital for €41m. “It is up to us to make a profit from the situation,” said a Colony spokesman. In 2011 Colony did that, selling 70 per cent of the club to Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) for around €70m. The remaining 30 per cent followed.
QSI is a subsidiary of the Qatari government. It had become intrigued by football and the idea of soft power, as well as having seen the Abu Dhabi acquisition of Manchester City in 2008. In neither purchase, PSG’s or City’s, did it feel like the sole object was football.
Awarded the 2022 World Cup in 2010, Qatar via QSI was soon drilling unmatchable millions into PSG and others - in 2016 for example, Qatar airways began sponsoring Bayern Munich, replacing Lufthansa. With football an unstoppable global phenomenon, owning or sponsoring a club had become an international calling card.
Meanwhile, back in Newcastle - and Sunderland - the coal and ships had sailed and football was left.
Although Newcastle stopped winning league titles in 1927, fans continued to pledge allegiance through stadium turnstiles built on their ticket sales. Their stadium, though, was now used to display the retail business of their owner from 2007, Mike Ashley. As in Paris and Manchester - if on a different level - here too the sole object of the club was no longer to simply hold its own on the pitch.
Many lost the feeling. Some blamed Ashley, in fact most blamed Ashley, but they could also have blamed inflation on Abu Dhabi domestically or Qatar internationally. It was the Abu Dhabi version of City who spent €58 million on a left back, Benjamin Mendy; it was the Qatar version of PSG who spent €222 million on Neymar having just bought Kylian Mbappe for €180million.
This is not beating the opposition, this is crushing it. The term might have other applications.
And for what?
On a nervous planet, cash is exchanged for access and influence. Which is why, presumably, when Saudi Arabia bid for Newcastle United, they spoke of regional regeneration in the North-east, rather regional rivalry in the Middle East.
But is either role appropriate? The game in 2020 is so prominent and important - and self-important - some think it should be.
To an extent a football club was never just a feeling; as Robson said often at Newcastle, it was about investment. At its heart, though, the sporting idea the folk on Corporation Street believed in led to their sense of belonging and, from there, organic growth. Some of us still want to believe in that.
We can watch PSG and Bayern in the Champions League final and they should provide great club football. But it won’t be all we are looking at.