Kylian Mbappé could say “Paris, c’est moi” (Paris is me) and get away with it. Because he kind of is Paris. Mbappé was born and raised on the city’s jagged edge. He’s a Fifa World Cup champion for France, of Cameroonian and Algerian descent – a typically triangular identity in a city rich in hyphenated souls. And then, of course, he happens to play football for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG).
As a son of the banlieues – the vast postwar flatlands that encircle the city’s medieval limits – he bestows street cred as well as stardust on his Qatar-funded employers. But the “Parisitude” of Mbappé goes beyond his club shirt and his birth certificate. Even his work on the pitch seems to channel the city’s warring soul – its ever-recurring showdown between delicacy and brutality, order and revolution.
(In December, the capital had been enjoying its annual semi-controlled uprising, with thousands of provincial gilet jaunes, or yellow vests, shutting down the city in protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s green petrol tax.)
And Mbappé is a one-man insurrection. When you see him bolting into that predatory, wide-gauge stride from a standing start, you feel like rushing down to the barricades to join the nearest riot.
But that anarchic torque is harnessed by an imperious touch. When he flicks the ball in three different directions in a heartbeat, you feel like promenading down to the Pompidou to check out some Cubist masterpieces. Mbappé wields a fine brush and a guillotine. He is all style, no mercy.
I’m not claiming that he is technically any more brutal than Neymar or Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – yet. In time he may become so. But it’s his presence, both at ease and in motion, that says “En garde!” (Warning!) as much as his performance stats do. Mbappé has a sharper whiff of cordite about him than any current footballer. A glow of danger seems to strobe through his blood.
Mbappé is the figurehead of a golden generation of Parisian footballers. The city is officially the biggest urban talent pool in the world, measured by the number of its children that play at the highest level. Forget São Paulo or Buenos Aires. If you want a new superstar fast, you’re advised to prowl the teeming amateur youth leagues of the banlieues.
And now, at last, Paris has a gilded team worthy of its glittering grassroots. (Let’s briefly ignore the brazen financial doping that created this mighty PSG.) The long-suffering fans of PSG have been waiting for this ascent for decades and they, too, have always deserved a better side. You will have seen them at work when Liverpool came to the Parc des Princes in a Uefa Champions League tie and lost 2-1. The Paris ultras showed their visiting counterparts from Anfield, of all people, how to electrify a stadium.
Like Manchester City and Chelsea before them, the nouveau-riche PSG are pulling a lot more new fans than they used to. But the PSG ultras remain the heartbeat of the fan base and they have a vexed and complex history.
In the PSG glory days of the 1990s, there was a long showdown between two wings of the ultras base: the Boulogne Boys and the Virage Auteuil.
The Boulogne Boys, which have occupied the Boulogne stand of the Parc des Princes since the 1980s, were mostly white, largely right wing and took their cues from 1970s and 1980s Liverpool fans, whose virulent devotion made a big impression in Paris during their European visits. The Boulogne Boys modelled their vibe on the Kop, with sheer vocal volume and scarf-waving as the chief medium for self-expression.
Borrowing from Italian fan culture
The Virage Auteuil stand was racially mixed, largely left wing and antiracist. These supporters tended to take their cues from Italian fan culture, with high expertise in fireworks, massive banners and general visual spectacle.
But even in the 1990s, the team on the pitch never quite matched the feverish standard of the team in the stands. For years, the club’s acronym was wrily annotated as “Pas Sûr de Gagner” (Not Sure of Winning). Various marquee players came and went – Rai, George Weah, Javier Pastore, Jay-Jay Okocha – but PSG weren’t a credible force in Europe and domestic rivals, notably Olympique de Marseilles and Olympique Lyonnais, regularly outmuscled them.
The ultras themselves had issues. They dabbled in internecine and bigoted violence. When a group of 250 menacing ultras cornered a Maccabi Haifa fan in a bar in 2006, a police officer stepped in to defend the fan and shot dead one of the hooligans.
In 2010 another killing, of a fan in an intergroup fracas, led to the banning of all 1 200 known ultras from the Parc des Prince. This measure was widely accepted as it was targeted and spared most of the fans in the Boulogne and Virage Auteuil stands, who were not violent hooligans but ordinary, committed punters who had the cheapest season ticket seats. But since the arrival of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) as owners of PSG, the policing and excluding of alleged ultras has stepped up a level, with thousands more fans blacklisted. Dissident fans are censored on club social media platforms.
Club president Nasser Al-Khelaîfi recognises only one supporters group, the Collectif Ultras Paris, a supine bunch who do not criticise the owners or Qatar’s political actions. Needless to say, the banned ultras believe the QSI strategy is to clear seats for richer fans who will pay the high season ticket prices. So the plutocratic radiation of the club is steadily domesticating and/or excising the wilder fringes of the PSG fan base.
Even so, many of those ultras or proto-ultras who remain are spectacularly loud and tough. Their power is significant, as Neymar knows. When Liverpool came to town, the Brazilian was so busy exhorting the Virage Auteuil to greater heights that at one point he forgot to watch the ball and a promising pass from Marco Verratti trickled straight past him.
The ultras of PSG are not cafe-dwelling, Gitanes-puffing flâneurs. They are bad motherfuckers from the wrong side of the super-périphérique. Like Mbappé, they are Paris. And suddenly, spectacularly, Paris has a team.