A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Before all greetings cards became a 1950s setting of domestic bliss juxtaposed with a lewd speech bubble, the greetings written inside were sweet and innocent, wishing you all the best with unbridled optimism. One nauseatingly hopeful message became a cliche in its own right: ‘Life begins at 40’.
So when Paris Saint-Germain hit the Big Four-Oh this year, even France Football felt compelled to ask: "Can it be the start of a different story?" Of course, such an open and ambiguous question is a catch-all loaded with meaning, as it not only hints at a new dawn and today being the first day of the rest of your life, but also that a page needs turning and that it’s time the past was put to one side.
Mid-life crisis doesn’t even begin to describe the situation at PSG in the last few years. "It’s a club where things have happened in 40 years that don’t happen to others in 400," wrote L’Equipe. Indeed, celebrations marking the anniversary of PSG’s inception on August 27, 1970 had at their centre the ambition of becoming a national power again – an ambition, pundits mockingly add, that the club appears to have every summer.
It’s certainly no exaggeration to suggest that last season was a rollercoaster both on and off the pitch. PSG were second after four games, only to finish in 13th place. Sebastien Bazin, the club’s majority shareholder, was so angry that he stormed into the dressing room after a 2-2 draw against Valenciennes in May and raged: "I don’t think you understand the financial consequences of our final position in the championship."
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
PSG didn’t win any of their last six games of the campaign, their slide down the table costing an estimated €3m in prize money. So it’s really little wonder that Bazin was still doing the rounds as recently as this week, calling for players’ wages to be reduced and more emphasis to be put on performance related bonuses.
To borrow a headline from L’Equipe, PSG did at least manage to save their season with another victory in the French Cup, their third triumph this decade also booking a place in Europe. But even that achievement had to be taken with a pinch of salt as they met just two Ligue 1 teams in six rounds, beating such domestic minnows as Aubervilliers, Evian, Vesoul and Quevilly en route to the final.
Speaking in July, PSG’s coach Antoine Kombouare – a living relic of the club’s 1990s glory days when his ‘golden helmet’ helped complete one of the greatest comebacks in the history of European club football – was under no illusion as to the scale of the task ahead of him. "I’ve had pressure since the very start," he said. "But I know that having the same season this year is not allowed."
It was an aberration off the pitch, too. Nike and PSG were on trial for allegedly hiding payments between 1998 and 2005 to attract top players like Nicolas Anelka and Gabriel Heinze to the Parc des Princes. But the nadir came in February when a second PSG supporter in three and a half years was killed, this time before the Clasico against Marseille in violent fratricidal clashes between the Boulogne Kop with its racist element and the Auteuil stand with its ethnic minorities.
"Once again it’s the club’s image which suffers," the goalkeeper Gregory Coupet said. "At a sporting level, we feel strongly responsible because if there had been good results there maybe wouldn’t have been all these problems and this rise in violence. It’s also a reflection on society. People fear police less and less and that creates riots."
So PSG’s 40th year was also Year Zero – time to go and take a good hard look in the mirror and reassess everything. Club president Robin Leproux implemented a courageous plan called ‘Everyone PSG’ whereby 13,000 season tickets in the Boulogne and Auteuil ends were prevented from being renewed to root out the hooligans and pacify the Parc, while families were welcomed to sit in the lower tier behind the goal with an attractive ticketing operation.
"If we don’t take these measures," he said. "The club’s future is in danger." But as Coupet had said, the team itself had a role to play – winning games would help alleviate the tension. Marseille midfielder Edouard Cisse, whose decade at PSG was punctuated with loan spells at Rennes, West Ham and Monaco, indicated as much only last month, joking that: "When things go bad in Paris, they go really bad. But when things go well, they go really well."
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Mindful that PSG’s very credibility was at stake after just two top-five finishes in 10 years - the most recent coming in 2004 - and that sponsors or potential investors were also beginning to shy away from the club, its much-maligned owners Colony Capital were wary of investing any more money in the playing staff. The purse strings were prised open just enough to sign three players at a cost of £7.9m.
The most important was Nene - the lithe playmaker brought in from Monaco - whose ability to play on the left-hand side resolved a problem PSG have been wrestling with since they fell out with Jerome Rothen. The Brazilian’s arrival brought balance to the side, as it allowed Kombouare to move Stephane Sessegnon back to his preferred position on the right.
It sounds simple, but PSG were no longer putting square pegs in round holes, as they now had four specialists in four offensive positions – a lefty, a righty and a big-man/little-man partnership up front in Guillaume Hoarau and Mevlut Erdinc.
But Nene was immediately cast as the difference-maker, the heir to PSG’s other great Brazilians like Valdo, Leonardo and of course Rai, the protagonist of their last league title in 1994 and the club’s back-to-back appearances in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. Nene scored 14 goals last season, and laid on four assists.
Yet his ability from set-pieces perhaps showed that PSG were following the path to success trodden by Bordeaux and Marseille who based their recent title triumphs on being dangerous from corners and free-kicks via Yoann Gourcuff and Lucho Gonzalez.
"Nene gets us out of bad situations," said fellow summer signing Mathieu Bodmer. "He always scores a lot of goals, but he also draws many fouls and gets a number of free-kicks. Two defenders concentrate on him, which leaves more space for the others."
The initial indications were good too, as PSG beat Marseille on penalties to win the French equivalent of the Charity Shield in Tunisia and then opened their league campaign with a 3-1 win against Saint-Etienne in front of just 22,689 spectators, the lowest crowd for that fixture at the Parc des Princes for 10 years, a clear by-product of the new security measures. The atmosphere may have suffered, but the intentions were good and the results improving.
After starting the season with a three-match unbeaten run, true to form PSG lost three on the bounce. History was repeating itself. "We have to find out how PSG will cope with the crisis periods," Auxerre coach Jean Fernandez opined. Kombouare then did something inspired. Rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, he merely reshuffled his pack, striking upon a winning formula.
OUT OF ADVERSITY
The 4-4-2 was retained, but Siaka Tiene, the last of PSG’s summer signings, was thrown in at the deep end – or more precisely at left-back, where he replaced Sylvain Armand, whom Kombouare asked to move into the middle to partner the club’s 20-year-old academy product Mamadou Sakho.
PSG captain Claude Makelele had postponed his plans to retire in the summer to play one final season and wasn’t about to let it go south so soon. The former Chelsea man revealed how he told Sakho: "I've played with defenders who made strikers scared. You must become like them!"
A goalkeeping change was also in the offing with Apoula Edel coming in for Coupet. The 24-year-old occasional Armenia international from Cameroon looked shaky when called upon last season, especially after his former coach made the stunning allegation in December that he is actually 29 and someone else altogether, namely Ambroise Beyamena. But he has proven to be one of Ligue 1’s best shot stoppers this year.
Kombouare’s tinkering also saw two players who had been told they could leave in the summer surprisingly welcomed back into the fold. For a time it looked like Ludovic Giuly’s only highlights of the season would be an impromptu strip in a Parisian bar, but he has since ousted Sessegnon on the right and faintly resembles the player who won a Champions League winners’ medal with Barcelona.
Meanwhile Clement Chantome, the archetypal modern midfielder who ironically looked like yesterday’s news, took advantage of Bodmer’s injury problems to revive his career and earn a call-up to the France squad.
What happened next was a distinctly un-PSG revival, or at least one that hasn’t been seen since Vahid Halihodzic made very similar changes in the 2003-04 campaign: club aficionados should read Gabi Heinze for Tiene, Frederic Dehu for Armand and Jerome for Edel. That team went on to finish second, something Kombouare no doubt hopes to replicate.
BACK IN THE BIG TIME
Immediately after the changes, his side kept seven straight clean-sheets and got back on the podium. When PSG beat Marseille 2-1 in Ligue 1 for the first time in six years at the Parc des Princes on November 7, L’Equipe’s headline screamed "Paris are candidates". They had dominated the champions, Nene’s assist for Hoarau being put forward as Exhibit A in the case for the club to be considered a serious title contender. PSG had made the jump in quality. After all, they had only recently knocked Lyon out of the League Cup.
So naturally the question everyone is asking is: are PSG for real? The party line is that a top-five finish remains the club’s objective. But Kombouare’s ability to dig deep into his squad and find the answers to turn things around suggests that PSG have greater depth than in recent years, although it’s no secret that the manager would still like to sign an orthodox centre-back like his former Valenciennes protege Milan Bisevac.
As of yet, PSG have shown they can cope relatively well on three fronts – despite losing three times after midweek commitments in the Europa League, in which they have beaten Sevilla and held Borussia Dortmund at home and away already this season.
The chief concern has lain up front. Before the Clasico, Hoarau and Erdinc had scored just twice in the same match together. Indeed, despite their apparent compatibility on paper – the former being tall and good in the air, the latter being short and full of running – Hoarau and Erdinc only exchanged four passes against Marseille and have seven goals between them in Ligue 1. The chemistry is lacking.
The pair’s confidence was in pieces at the start of the month. PSG supporters whistled Erdinc against Dortmund while just a few days later Hoarau was even seen crying after being substituted away to Montpellier. (In case you're wondering, Nene is the team’s top scorer.)
But in some respects Hoarau and Erdinc are exactly why PSG are unbeaten in their last six matches, because though they rarely make the team win, they both ensure the side is difficult to beat, the Frenchman’s height coming in handy at defensive set-pieces and the Turk’s stamina proving invaluable for pressing.
For now, it seems PSG are finally a team again. Side is definitively put before self. Sunday’s 90th-minute equaliser at Lorient showed the spirit within the camp, indicating that the psychological barrier has been crossed. The hate that had once so insidiously enveloped the club now appears to have been channeled in a positive way: "It’s the hate of defeat," says Kombouare with a wry smile.
Today PSG lie fourth in the standings, but with just eight points separating first and 19th place in Ligue 1, crisis is never far away in the tightest title race in Europe.
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