Before the Qataris: Remembering PSG’s European success in the 1990s

Much has been made of PSG’s anti-climactic exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid. The European media’s fairly accurate summary is that the oil-fired club from the French capital have little to show for an outlay close to €1 billion on transfer fees alone in the past five years.

Critics across the continent haven’t just unfavourably compared PSG to Madrid, but also to Juventus, Manchester City and other members of the European elite who look far better equipped to hold aloft the ‘cup with the big ears’, as the French call it, in Kiev on May 26.

It’s therefore been widely acknowledged that Unai Emery’s PSG aren’t the best team in Europe this season, but it’s largely gone unremarked that they’re not even the best PSG side of all time.

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From 1993 to 1997 PSG reached five consecutive European semi-finals. If you’re under the age of 30 and unaware of that, it’s probably because it seems to have been collectively decided that the club only became a meaningful entity when Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) took charge in 2011.

In 1993 PSG reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals, losing 3-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Juventus; in 1994 they reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals, losing 2-1 on aggregate to eventual winners Arsenal; in 1995 they reached the Champions League semi-finals, losing 3-0 on aggregate to Milan.

In 1996 they became only the second French club in history – after Marseille, who lifted the Champions League in 1993 – to win a European trophy, with future Bolton, Birmingham, Leicester and Hereford defender Bruno N’Gotty scoring the goal that saw them beat Rapid Vienna 1-0 to clinch the Cup Winners’ Cup; and in 1997 they returned to the final of the same, now-defunct competition, losing 1-0 to Barcelona thanks to a penalty converted by a 20-year-old Ronaldo.

That’s winners once, runners-up once and semi-finalists three times. In other words, 1990s PSG boast the sort of record that QSI-PSG, as we might call them, can only dream of. In the past five years PSG have been knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals three times and in the last 16 twice. There’s simply no debate to be had about which of the two versions was the more successful.

For some reason, however, PSG’s immense achievements two decades ago appear to have been wiped from common memory. One of the most common jibes aimed at PSG is that they’re a plastic club with no heritage who only exist because of the money QSI have poured in over recent seasons. The irony of frothy-mouthed fans complaining about the club’s supposed lack of history, while blissfully overlooking the club’s rich history cannot be overstated.

1990s PSG were by no means paupers – powerful satellite TV station Canal Plus were the owners back then – but they still punched above their financial weight in continental competition. A coherent, ambitious and well-run club, they were smart operators in the domestic and international transfer markets, and played highly entertaining and effective football. In today’s parlance, you’d say they successfully put in place the ‘project’ and ‘philosophy’ that QSI-PSG are still searching for.

Back then, PSG and arch-rivals Marseille essentially divided up the best Division 1 (as Ligue 1 was called) players between themselves, but PSG made a series of other canny moves, picking up well-known and less-established names with surprisingly little wastage. Goalkeeper Bernard Lama, defenders Antoine Kombouare and Alain Roche, and midfielders Daniel Bravo, Vincent Guerin and Paul Le Guen thrived, while a 20-something forward called David Ginola excelled alongside future Ballon d’Or winner George Weah.

Ricardo Gomes, Valdo and Rai were part of a rich tradition of Brazilian signings that was an influencing factor in the arrival of Dani Alves and Neymar in the French capital last summer. And N’Gotty – an unlikely match-winner on the big night in Brussels – was one of several unsung heroes who played a key part in the club’s impressively consistent European accomplishments.

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The criticism of PSG’s latest poor Champions League showing is justifiable, and widespread condemnation of the club’s habit of signing marquee individuals instead of nurturing a collective sense of purpose is entirely understandable. Even so, it’s a shame there isn’t greater recognition of the club’s considerable European pedigree. The 1990s isn’t that long ago, after all.

It would be even more welcome if PSG’s current owners took the lead and showed more respect for the club’s past. If QSI want to take the first steps towards becoming genuinely credible candidates for a place at the continent’s top table, they could do a lot worse than devoting more time and energy to acknowledging the club’s fantastic European history, rather than quietly ignoring it and hoping no one will notice.

“PSG were born the day the Qataris arrived,” said Zlatan Ibrahimovic in March 2016. You can forgive that sort of re-writing of the history  books from an egocentric striker whose primary interest is doing and saying whatever he feels necessary to excel in the moment. What’s less acceptable is QSI’s reluctance to even pay lip service to PSG’s glorious past, let alone cherish what happened in the 1990s (not to mention the 1980s, when PSG won their first French title). Celebrating successful chapters from the past comes naturally to European football’s genuinely great institutions such as Real Madrid and Barcelona; little wonder so few are willing to mention PSG in the same breath.

But then looking too deeply into the club’s history might be a painful lesson for QSI, given we can now unequivocally say 1990s PSG were more successful than the current iteration. Who knows – if QSI-PSG did look back to that golden decade, they might pick up a few pointers about where they’re going wrong today.

Before the Qataris: Remembering PSG’s European success in the 1990s
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