The transfer fee was eye-catching, the salary eye-watering and the impact jaw-dropping. It seemed to be the move and the moment that signalled a power shift, a change in soccer’s established order. One of the brightest South American talents of his generation, heralded as the next best player in the world, moving to a rising force in Paris, drawn by money and glamour to a club long on cash and short on patience.
Thirty years later, Neymar would have much the same effect, the Brazilian turned into the most expensive player on the planet by the untrammelled ambition of Paris Saint-Germain. But he was not the first to follow that path.
Six years before Neymar was born, in the summer of 1986, Enzo Francescoli, the Uruguayan forward known as El Principe, blazed the trail when he was snared by another club that believed it could combine the allure of Paris with apparently bottomless wealth to create, almost from scratch, a team of superstars. Before Neymar, before P S G, there was Matra Racing de Paris.
It would be too simple to present the grand project — fuelled by Qatari money — at P S G as simply a repeat of Racing’s boom and bust in the 1980s. The differences are too pronounced for the parallel to hold.
Racing’s benefactor, the industrialist Jean-Luc Lagardère, saw soccer as a way to win personal glory and commercial advantage; P S G’s owners have turned the club into a pawn in a geopolitical game.
Lagardère’s ambitions were strictly domestic. The chairman of the Matra conglomerate — which made everything from magazines to missiles — he dreamed of restoring Racing, one of the oldest clubs in France, to its 1930s heyday, when it was crowned national champion and had a reputation for impossible luxury. The modern P.S.G. is not concerned with Ligue 1. Instead, it gauges its strength on a higher stage. Its season will not be defined by a mere parochial triumph, but by whether it can overcome Real Madrid to earn a place in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
And the sums and salaries Qatar Sports Investment, P S G’s financial engine, has lavished on the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé over the last seven years dwarf anything Lagardère ever spent: When Francescoli joined, just before the 1986 World Cup, he was paid 700,000 francs a month, given a house in Montmartre and presented with a Peugeot 205. Neymar, presumably, drives something a little more impressive.
But there is an inescapable echo of Racing’s story in the very modern revolution at a club with which it once shared a stadium. If it is not a parallel, then perhaps it serves as a parable, an example from which P S G might learn. After all, it is not just deploying the same methods Racing used three decades ago; it is under the same pressures, running the same risks. “Patience does not exist in Paris,” said Alain De Martigny, once Lagardère’s coach at Racing. “We are much more in the spotlight than elsewhere in France. It has always been like that. A team in Paris cannot be average.”
A grand experiment
Lagardère’s grand experiment began in 1982. He had already enjoyed considerable success in auto and horse racing when he turned his attentions to soccer, hoping to merge Racing and another Paris club, Paris F.C., to create a rival for the still relatively young P S G His initial plan was rejected; in the end, he had to make do with buying Paris F.C. and simply renaming it Racing, before the formal merger went through a year later.
The new team started life in France’s second division, but Lagardère had no time to waste. He set about building a team capable of winning promotion. “The recruitment was impressive for a second-tier team,” the midfielder Fathi Chebel said. “Our team was first-division quality, and De Martigny was one of the most valued coaches in France.”
Lagardère’s first coup came in 1983, when he managed to persuade Rabah Madjer, an Algerian striker of considerable promise, to join his club, then still in the second division. “He was a spectacular player,” De Martigny said. “His transfer was like Neymar’s to P S G”
Chebel has “splendid memories” of that period, culminating in promotion in 1984; he describes a team where many of the players were friends, all living in the same areas: Colombes, near Racing’s atmospheric old stadium — Lagardère would install the team in P S G’s Parc des Princes not long after taking charge — and Maisons-Laffitte.
Six of his teammates lived in the same apartment block as him. “Once a week, a player had to organise something and we would all go out together to a restaurant or a concert,” he said. Lagardère encouraged the bonhomie, but also treated his players to lavish dinners. His wife, Chebel said, often brought gifts for the players’ partners.
But when Racing was relegated after a single season in France’s top flight, Lagardère changed tack. “He was a success story, his name means success,” De Martigny said. “We could not fail.” He was fired. When Racing was promptly promoted again in 1986, Lagardère “must have thought it was time to get another dimension.”
That summer, Racing shocked the world just as much as P.S.G. would in 2017. Just before that year’s World Cup, Francescoli, then a star at River Plate in Argentina, joined. His Uruguayan teammate, Ruben Paz, and the West Germany winger Pierre Littbarski followed. So, too, most impressively of all, did Luis Fernandez, a French international and, at the time, the captain of P.S.G.
“We had 13 international players, something like that,” Littbarski said. “It was an interesting idea, the chance to build something up from nothing.”
The recruitment drive continued the following year: Lagardère appointed Artur Jorge, fresh from winning the European Cup with Porto, as his new coach and, with the club now known as Matra Racing, he kept signing players.
David Ginola played against Racing as a teenager for his first club, Toulon, in 1987. “It was amazing to see so many famous names,” he said. He played well that day; the following year, Toulon’s president called him to say he had been sold to Matra. “I wouldn’t have believed it.” He remembers, on his first day, taking part in the official team photograph, and seeing enough high-caliber players to fill “two first-division teams.”
The same year, Lagardère made a bid to sign France’s other bright young thing, Eric Cantona, from Auxerre. He invited the player and his wife to dinner at his home; Cantona recalled seeing servants in “wigs and carrying halberds: It was like the Middle Ages.”
Anger and Aggression
While everything on the surface was just as glamourous as Lagardère had wanted it — just as glamorous as Paris demanded — beneath it, Racing was not a happy place.
“The setup was not professional,” Littbarski said. “When you think about what was invested, you would have been surprised when you saw our training facilities. We were still having to wash our kit ourselves, that sort of thing.”
Littbarski enjoyed his time in Paris off the field — “I was close to Paz, Francescoli, the South American players” — but on it, he said, he was deeply unhappy. After only one season, he returned to Cologne. He was so desperate to go that he paid his own transfer fee. “The Racing guys were quite cool about it,” he said. “And after a while Cologne got me some of my money back.”
His was hardly an isolated case. Francescoli stuck it out for three years, but reportedly did so in a state of considerable despair.
“The level of aggression in training was incredible,” Ginola said. “The atmosphere was really complicated. There were a lot of big-name players who were not playing in the first team, and they were not happy. It was difficult for the manager, and it was hard as a young player. The dressing room was awful.”
In public, things were not much better. Racing’s results were moderate, if not spectacular — finishing 13th in 1987 and 7th in 1988 — but the team struggled to attract fans. By the end of the 1988 season, it was averaging gates of only 7,000.
“I remember one game, to try to fill the Parc des Princes, Matra invited lots of kids for free,” Ginola said. “We were playing St. Etienne, one of the historic teams in France. I went out to warm up, and all the kids had come in green St. Etienne jerseys. It looked like an away game.”
In the face of a toxic club culture and widespread public apathy, Matra Racing imploded. It narrowly avoided relegation in 1989 — surviving only on goal difference — but by then Lagardère had had enough. Under pressure from Matra’s shareholders, he announced he was pulling out.
The club became Racing Paris once more, and was forced to sell off its stars. Ginola left for Brest, and Francescoli for Marseille, where he would win a league title, and inspire a young fan called Zinedine Zidane to such an extent that he would name his first child Enzo. The club disappeared back into oblivion. It has not returned. The whole escapade had cost Lagardère, and Matra, more than $300 million.
Such a fate is unlikely for P.S.G., of course. The stakes are far too high, the money invested far too great, for Qatar Sports Investment simply to walk away. But that is not to say there are not lessons to be learned, caution to be taken, from the rise and fall of Matra Racing.
“Paris is a very special place,” Littbarski said. “It is maybe the same as Madrid: The football has to be entertaining. The people like entertainment. That is the most difficult thing.”
Like Matra, like Lagardère, P.S.G. has tried to cater to that demand. It has brought the biggest stars it can find, all in the hope of “creating a football mentality in Paris,” as Littbarski said. But that carries with it a risk, as those who remember Racing know all too well.
“You can have all the talent in the world,” Ginola said. “But the main thing is to invest wisely, not just to buy a lot of talented players. The pieces all have to fit together.”