Mbappé and the City of the Fight

The ul­tras re­main the heart­beat of the PSG fan base and they have a vexed and com­plex his­tory

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Car­los Am­ato

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 he hap­pens to play foot­ball for Paris Saint­ger­main (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 semi­con­trolled upris­ing, with thou­sands of pro­vin­cial gilet jaunes, or yel­low vests, shut­ting down the city in protest against Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s green petrol tax.)

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.

He’s not 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, who 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.

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, huge 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 wryly 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 1200 known ul­tras from the Parc des Prince. This mea­sure was widely ac­cepted be­cause it was tar­geted and spared most of the fans in the Boulogne and Vi­rage Au­teuil stands, who were not vi­o­lent hooli­gans, but 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, andt­hou­sands more fans have been 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. 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 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 caféd­welling, Gi­tanes-puff­ing flâneurs (loafers). They are bad moth­er­fuck­ers from the wrong side of the su­per­pé­riphérique. Like Mbappé, they are Paris. And sud­denly, spec­tac­u­larly, Paris has a team.

This is an edited ver­sion of an ar­ti­cle that was first pub­lished on

When you see him bolt­ing into that preda­tory stride, you feel like rush­ing down to the bar­ri­cades to join the near­est riot

En garde! Paris Saint­ger­main’s for­ward, Kylian Mbappé, has a cer­tain style, and has the mak­ings of a ruth­less Messi or Ron­aldo. Photo: Franck Fife/afp/getty Im­ages

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