Bonjour Beckham

Paris St-Germain want England's former captain to complete their transformation via Qatari cash but some fans fear losing the club's soul, writes John Lichfield in Paris

Click to follow
The Independent Football

You can trace David Beckham's changing priorities on the great football field of life by his postal addresses over two decades. Manchester, Madrid and Milan are great football cities. Los Angeles is not.

Beckham completed his fifth year in the US late on Sunday night with a well-scripted finale, helping create the goal that earned LA Galaxy victory in the MLS Cup final in front of a record crowd. Soccer stardust duly sprinkled, his contract in southern California ends this week and he will spend it considering an offer from the French league leaders, Paris St-Germain. The club's Brazilian director of football, Leonardo, believes that there is a "50-50" chance that Beckham will grace the Parc des Princes after the Ligue 1 winter break.

Paris is more of a football town than LA but it is hardly a great football city. The only professional football club in greater Paris has a passionate fan base, including the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. But the exploits and escapades of the city's club never dominate bar, taxi or playground conversations in Paris as they do in Lyons or Marseilles or Bordeaux.

To most Parisians, male and female, Leonardo is not a Brazilian midfielder turned football executive but a dead Italian painter. In the words of the American singer Tom Waits: "Not a man's town, Paris, not a man's town." And even in the football-mad, racially mixed banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris – one of the greatest breeding grounds of football talent in the world – PSG have never excited great passions. They are regarded by many, but not all, suburban kids as a "white" club, with a vociferous and violent minority of racist fans.

If Paris is David's next address, it would be Victoria's choice then? A lifestyle move, not a football move? Not necessarily. In 41 years of existence, PSG have always been a sort of French Manchester City: perennial underachievers stumbling from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. Now, just like City, they have struck oil.

In August PSG were taken over by Qatar Sport Investment, a joint venture of the Qatari Government and Qatari Olympic Committee. PSG, not City, could now reasonably claim to be the "richest club in the world". They are owned by the state of Qatar itself (annual GDP: $100bn), not just a single super-wealthy member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.

In the last transfer window, PSG came second only to City in the European spending league. They smashed the French transfer record to capture the elegant Argentinian midfielder Javier Pastore from Palermo for €42m (£36m). They spent another €36m to bring four French internationals from French and European clubs, Kévin Gameiro, Jérémy Ménez, Blaise Matuidi and Mohamed Sissoko.

Fourteen games into the Ligue 1 season, and despite losing 1-0 at home to Nancy on Sunday night, PSG are top of the league, on goal difference from unfancied Montpellier, and well clear of their likely title rivals, Lille, Lyons and Marseilles.

Leonardo, brought in from Internazionale by the Qataris as football director, says that PSG are now "playing with the big boys". France has exported its talent for decades, he says. PSG will "reverse that flow". The Qatari owners' ambition is not to overtake Lyons or Marseilles. It is to gatecrash the European elite and rival Barcelona or Milan or Manchester United.

Hence the importance of the negotiations with David Beckham, he says. The England ex-captain may look like a semi-retired has-been to British fans. To Leonardo, he is a glittering symbol of the club's new status. If he came to Paris, it would show that "we are in a new world", Leonardo said last week. "I hope to use it to build something big."

The new Qatari president of the club, Nasser al-Khelaifi said, more bluntly, that Beckham was "not just a footballer but a brand".

In other words, capturing Beckham is part of a dual strategy. He will help PSG to become a global merchandising power to reduce the need for Qatari oil money. He will help to spin a spurious, worldwide image of Qatar as a great footballing nation before it stages the 2022 World Cup.

An element of the package offered to Beckham is said to include a "consultant's" role with the Qatari-owned TV station, Al Jazeera. Some TV rights to French matches have already been sold to the Arabic and English network.

Manchester City fans have taken to their nouveau riche status with an aggressive sense of entitlement. One might presume that PSG fans are equally au dessus de la lune (over the moon).

Some are. Many others are not. They fear that the new owners are more interested in selling shirts than building success on the pitch. They do not like the formal, arm's-length relationship imposed on fans who once thought of PSG as "their" club. They don't like the US-style "official fun" imposed on match-days at the Parc, such as "pre-scheduled" Mexican waves.

There was deep anger this month when Leonardo was found to have had exploratory talks with the former Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti. The present PSG coach, Antoine Kombouaré, 48, is scarcely a household name in France, let alone Qatar. The suspicion – clumsily half-denied by Leonardo – is that the new owners regard him as plodding and not "sexy" enough. They want a big name. Kombouaré, a French Pacific islander appointed in 2009, is in roughly the same position that Mark Hughes found himself in at Manchester City two years ago.

There are two differences, however. Hughes was not a local hero on the blue side of Manchester. In the mid-1990s, Kombouaré was a much-loved PSG central defender with a knack of scoring last-minute headed goals in big matches. Nor did Hughes bring instant success. Under Kombouaré, partly thanks to the Qatari cash, PSG are winning matches. PSG fans were used to having an annual November crisis and ritual coach-sacking when the team was underperforming.

A self-appointed but eloquent spokeswoman for the middle-class, intellectual tribe of PSG support is the economist Violette Nahmias, a lecturer at the elite Parisian political college, Science-Po. She says in her blog that many PSG fans – far from glorying in their new found wealth – are beginning to feel pushed aside by Qatari ambitions.

"Not everyone agrees with me but many do," she told The Independent. "This new PSG doesn't seem to want local supporters at all. It wants global consumers. The team may be playing well but the fans, the traditional fans, feel that they have lost the club."

Nahmias may have a point. There is an evident discrepancy between the new owners' words and realisable ambitions. However many millions the Qataris throw at PSG, the club is unlikely to become a European giant. Ligue 1 is no preparation for the Champions League. The days have long gone when a perpetually dominant club from a weaker league – Celtic, Ajax or Benfica – could succeed at European level.

The bid for an ageing Beckham is not, as Leonardo claims, a symbol of PSG's new-found power. It is an admission of weakness. It betrays a desire to inject short-term glamour rather than build patient, long-term success.