Secret meetings, burning ambition, and almost a quarter billion dollars. That was the formula to accomplish the largest money deal in football history. So for Paris Saint-Germain, it became imperative to create a celebration worthy of such an occasion. Reports early in the week of Neymar Jr.’s signing suggested that PSG planned to present him to the public in front of the Eiffel Tower, the same place where five years earlier Zlatan Ibrahimovic stood when he became the first icon of the Qatar Sports Investments-era. For security reasons, those plans fell through, which meant that Les Parisiens would have to scale down its gaudy celebration plans.
The news of Neymar’s signing first broke on Twitter with professionally edited videos. Then the press release. Then the press conference. Then the publicity photos. Standard stuff for all incoming top stars. Except that before the Ligue 1 opener against Amiens SC, the new star was presented at the Parc des Princes to the Parisian faithful. In typical PSG fashion, this event had plenty of pyrptechnics, plenty of hype, and plenty of comical sentimentalism.
First out of the tunnel was Nasser Al-Khelaifi in all of his glory, then came Neymar with artificial smoke billowing out from behind him. The Brazilian took the mic and said some words, posed with Al-Khelaifi in front of the firework display, and did some silly ball tricks. This was all nice and cool and fun to look at but like many moments during the QSI-era, had a bit of cognitive dissidence.
When the club was purchased by QSI, some claimed that Paris Saint-Germain lost a bit of it’s French identity. No longer did the club belong to Paris but it was now a major conglomerate with aspirations of European (and world) domination. This is not a bad ambition to have as long as you remember the very core of your identity.
Back to Neymar’s introduction to the Parc, after the 25-year-old hyped the crowd with a few “Ici, c’est Paris” and “Paris est magique,” he began a procession around the stadium with several young children. The former FC Barcelona man kicked balls into the crowd as he waved to his adoring supporters and the ceremony appeared to hit its crescendo. Many watching around the world must have thought the major moment had taken place on the podium with the fireworks and some may have even turned off their televisions or went on to do something else before the match started. However, true fans of PSG knew what was coming. It had been building since Neymar first stepped onto the stand in the middle of the pitch. He would have to walk by the Ultras.
For those unfamiliar with PSG’s Ultras here is a brief history: For a stretch of time, the Ultras were some of the most boisterous in all of Europe, with the Parc being one of the most intimidating places to play in all of Europe. While this writer was not a fan for most of that era, the stories and images speak for themselves. Some of this intimidation came from their passion for the club, while some came from the fact that some of these supporter groups were actually sincerely violent. This violence had been sparked by a group called the Boulogne Boys (located in the Boulogne-end of the stadium), a far-right hooligan group that supported PSG from the early 1980s into the 21st century. Essentially, their actions created division among PSG support groups based on race and ethnicity with the multi-cultural supporters groups congregating in the Auteuil-end. These supporter groups would fight among themselves and with opposing fans. This created an unsafe environment around the Parc for many years. The Ultras were not the bourgeois of Paris by any stretch. They were the working class that populates most of the arrondissement of the city, a true representation of Parisian diversity.
The names Julien Quemener and Yann Lorence may be foreign to newer PSG fans but the older ones will know where this is going. In 2006 and 2011 respectively, these two young men died in separate incidents directly caused by PSG supporter hooliganism. Their death’s led to something called Plan Leproux, which in 2010, banned all Ultras from the Parc des Princes. When QSI took over the team, they kept this policy in tact. And while Paris tried everything to inject life and verve into the historic venue, the environment seemed sterile and dry. However, while damaging to the atmosphere, this step was necessary to restore the clubs image and bury a history of racism and violence that had followed the club.
So as the years passed, the Ultras watched and regrouped and weeded the prejudice and hatred out of their ranks. In 2016 they got the opportunity to slowly integrate themselves back and earn the trust of the club back. With very little incidents last season, the Ultras were given the opportunity to buy season tickets in the Auteuil-end for the 2017 season. The stage had been set.
All of this backstory and history was about to collide. Neymar walked the outside of the pitch to greet the fans and rarely stopped long enough to take a breath. However, when Neymar got to the Auteuil, he stopped and watched.
This was the moment, where for everyone involved, it finally became real. The moment where PSG reached elite status. The moment where Neymar finally became ruler of his own kingdom. The moment where the Ultras rewarded the club for giving them a second chance.
Before the ceremony was over, in an unscripted moment before Neymar walked back into the tunnel, he broke away from security. He ran back to the Auteuil, took off his jersey and threw it to the Ultras, in a moment of pure electricity where PSG, its new star, and the city became one. All united by the magical feeling that comes when the impossible is finally achieved…when dreams come true.