As Paris Saint-Germain prepare for their Champions League last-16 first leg against Manchester United on Tuesday night, a lower-profile club in another corner of Paris continue to map out their smartly-planned journey towards Ligue 1.
It’s 29 years since Paris had two clubs in France’s top flight, yet Paris FC are making the sort of progress under president Pierre Ferracci that suggests the days of the French capital being seen as a one-team city will soon be over.
Paris FC won their latest Ligue 2 match 1-0 at Troyes last Friday night thanks to a Goal of the Season contender by Silas Wamangituka, their highly-regarded 19-year-old striker. Fourth in the table, they stand a genuine chance of winning promotion either directly, by finishing in one of the top two positions, or via the play-offs for the teams finishing third, fourth and fifth.
The longer-term work being done by Ferracci and his staff, however, deserves more focus. Last year Paris FC moved into a new training ground in Orly in the south of the city. Their new home has provided the platform for the club to take greater steps forward than at any other time in their history.
“We’ve invested five million euros in it and have another two million to go,” Ferracci, 67, told The Indepefndent last week. “We had arguably the worst infrastructure of any Ligue 2 club; now it’s among the best. I genuinely think in the next four to five years our training ground will be one of the best in France, full stop.
“We’ve got four high-quality pitches, including a hybrid, heated one; you don’t get many of those in Ligue 1. There are great changing rooms and fitness rooms and a place where everybody can live together. Finally we have the normal surroundings you’d expect for a professional club.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, but our working conditions are already better. Orly has added so much energy and vitality to the club.”
The training ground gained professional accreditation from the French FA (FFF) last summer. This is far more than a cosmetic stamp of approval. Being accredited means Paris FC can make far better contractual offers to young players, dramatically improving their chances of holding on to their better prospects.
As the Ile-de-France region in which Paris sits is one of the richest sources of talent on earth, the prospect of retaining their best players and the longer-term impact this might have on their first-team is all the more compelling.
Ferracci explained: “In the 10 years I’ve been here, 15 to 20 youngsters between the ages of 11 and 19 have left the club every year. Without a professional academy, there was little we could do to stop that. We couldn’t offer professional contracts before the age of 20, and we lost players at a younger age, too.
“Take [France U21 defender] Nordi Mukiele, for example. He left Montpellier for Red Bull Leipzig for €15 million last summer. He was at Montpellier for two years, and before that at Laval in Ligue 2 for three years. But he was with us for nine years – aged seven to 16. We made some money from his move to Germany, but not much.
“Mamadou Sakho was with us from six or seven years old to 13. Then he joined PSG, who benefitted from having him far more than we did. Now there’s young Hannibal Mejbri, only 16, at Monaco, who may be on his way to Manchester [United], according to the papers. Before Monaco, he was with us.
“I ate with Arsene Wenger after an Arsenal vs Chelsea match seven or eight years ago. I remember what he said to me: if you ever establish a second club in Paris, the youth academy has to be central to it, because Paris has the best talent pool in the world, along with Sao Paulo in Brazil.
“I’m not saying that 100% of our first-team players in the future will be from the Ile-de-France region, but our team will have a strong francilien (local) spine. You can’t have as much talent as we have in this part of France and let your players go and play elsewhere. Some will still leave, of course, but now we can finally compete.”
In 2017 Paris FC took ownership of women’s team FCF Juvisy, now run professionally as Paris FC in the first division. This addition has proved a massive selling point for the club.
“We extended our partnership with [main sponsors] Vinci because of the women’s team. Orange have come on board as a sponsor because of the women’s team. Other investors are arriving solely because of our women’s team. We’re also benefitting from the Women’s World Cup, which will be held in France later this year.”
Back in the men’s sector, the fact that PSG now almost float above French football on an international stage has opened up a fantastic branding opportunity for the smaller neighbours. Paris FC’s meagre fanbase is a concern – their average Ligue 2 attendance is 3,339 this season – but Ferracci believes the club’s popularity can be truly judged only when they are in Ligue 1.
“For me, in order to succeed in Paris, you absolutely have to be in Ligue 1. This will be the determining factor. We now have more than 120,000 followers on Facebook, which is more than three or four Ligue 1 clubs. Stadiums in France are a little less full than in England and Germany. But the construction of a solid, loyal and larger fanbase will come with all the things we’re putting in place.
“You can sense a desire to create a different type of club in this city. With the enormous resources PSG have had since 2011, some fans identify less with them. We can see the gap in the market. And, as a brand, you can’t get any better than ‘Paris FC’. For the English, American and Chinese investors that are starting to circle the club, the brand is as attractive as the sporting project, and they know in Ligue 1 it would really take on value.”
Ferracci says relations with PSG are “good”, while admitting the Champions League challengers are “on another planet.” He’s diplomatic on the matter of whether Qatari investment in PSG has been good for the French game.
“There’s the thesis put forward by [Lyon president] Jean-Michel Aulas, which says that PSG have weakened French football, that they’re an example of unfair competition. Others argue that by signing the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe PSG are raising standards and increasing the figures that television rights are sold for. I can understand both points of view. In another sector of the economy, it’s unlikely a state would be allowed to invest in the same manner, such as in the car industry, for example, causing competition for Renault. But in football, it happens.”
It’s a sign of where Paris FC have come from that they were promoted to Ligue 2 in 2015 after spending most of their existence in the semi-professional and amateur ranks. They lasted just one season but returned in 2017 when Bastia went into administration and a place in the division became available. Under manager Fabien Mercadal Paris FC took full advantage of that stroke of luck by finishing eighth last season and are on course to do even better this time.
After Mercadal left for Ligue 1 Caen last summer the experienced Mecha Bazdarevic was appointed. Bazdarevic, 58, has an excellent track record at this level, having led Istres and Grenoble to promotion from Ligue 2 in 2004 and 2008 respectively. He and general manager Pierre Dreossi, who held similar posts at Ligue 1 Lille and Rennes, have built a hard-working side with the division’s best defensive record.
There are some off-field issues yet to be resolved. Stade Charlety, the municipal venue where Paris FC play their home games, has a running track and the fans are a long way from the pitch. Ferracci would like it to be renovated before the club are promoted but reconfiguring the venue could prove a long and complicated process. Nevertheless, he’s optimistic about where the club are heading in their 50th anniversary year.
“We have to be patient. For me, being in Ligue 2 for a few seasons in a row would be fine; the important thing is to have a project that means we’re moving forward. But when I say that we’ll get into Ligue 1 in the next four years, people are starting to believe me.”