If you were to take a historical walking tour of Parisian soccer, there would be plenty to see.
FIFA, the sport's governing body, was founded at 229 Rue Saint Honoré, around the corner from the Place Vendôme and up the street from the Louvre.
The European Cup, the precursor to the unparalleled global cash cow that is the Champions League, was also dreamed up here, in the newsroom of a French magazine. A few miles away, in the suburb of Colombes, you'll find the stadium that hosted the 1938 World Cup final. That's where, if you suspend disbelief, Pelé scored his stellar overhead kick against the Germans before escaping to victory alongside Sylvester Stallone.
The problem with Parisian soccer is that this all happened 50 years ago—or, in the case of a 1981 film, never at all.
As a city, Paris played a disproportionate part in making the game what it is today. But since the mid-1960s, it has generally punched way below its weight. In fact, after the near-bankruptcy of Racing Club de Paris ended its professional team in 1966, the City of Light had no top-flight soccer for eight years.
That is, until Paris St. Germain was promoted to Ligue 1 in 1974.
PSG, born out of the merger of several amateur sides, was an attempt to bring big-time soccer to the French capital. Yet despite the efforts of some heavy hitters—from Daniel Hechter, the fashion guru who gave us prêt-à-porter, to French TV giant Canal+ and the Los Angeles private-equity firm Colony Capital, all of which owned the club at some point—PSG became synonymous with underachievement.
As European capitals go, its two league titles in the past 40 years are somewhat embarrassing, especially in light of the heavy spending and the wealth and size of its catchment area and fan base.
But on June 16, Qatar Sports Investment bought a controlling share from Colony and immediately set out to change all that.
Thanks to QSI and the gulf state's crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, PSG has spent some $120 million this summer, far exceeding the budget of any other European club. After Leonardo was brought in from Inter Milan as the team's general manager, he proceeded to secure Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore from Palermo for $61 million, a record for French soccer. He also signed Palermo goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, midfielders Jeremy Menez (Roma), Momo Sissoko (Juventus) and Blaise Matuidi (St. Etienne) and forward Kevin Gameiro (Lorient) to a club that finished fourth last year and already had a solid base of talent. No French team has ever gone on such a summer spending spree.
New-look PSG had a bumpy start, losing at home to Lorient in the opener before it tied at Rennes. Predictably, there have been calls for third-year manager Antoine Kombouare to be fired and perhaps replaced by a big-name boss. With all the new faces, Leonardo said, the team simply needs time to gel. That's still some ways away, judging by Sunday's 2-1 win over Valenciennes—a match in which PSG didn't play well but at least provided a win.
The Qatari investment in PSG seems to make sense. Le Championnat may not be Europe's glitziest league—attendance has fallen for five seasons, and it lags behind England, Spain, Germany and Italy in UEFA's rankings—but few cities can match Paris for glamour or potential. Twelve million people live in the Paris metropolitan area, while the closest Ligue 1 team is some 200 kilometers away.
What's more, with France hosting the 2016 European championships, new stadiums are being built up and down the country. There's bound to be an injection of enthusiasm and interest. France has been a net exporter of soccer talent in recent years. But with financial difficulties elsewhere, particularly Italy and Spain, that could change soon.
The flip side, as is the case with other gulf-owned clubs, is that it's no longer possible for teams to simply spend their way to success. UEFA's financial fair-play regulations limit the amount of losses for clubs that want to participate in the Champions League.
France also has its own rules. In many ways, they are stricter than UEFA's. PSG can spend like the Yankees, but financial chickens come home to roost, and the Qataris won't be allowed to plow money into the club to pave over losses.
That's what makes this season so important. Leonardo and Kombouare basically have one shot here. They either make it work with the pricey newcomers, or PSG will likely have to scale back in the coming seasons. Qualifying for the Champions League, which requires a top-three finish, is the absolute minimum result. Fans, media and the bean-counters will undoubtedly expect more.
The good news: For now, at least on paper, Parisians have the kind of team their city deserves.