I’m standing atop a skyscraper, watching five of the greatest soccer players in the world pose against the billowing smoke and ash from local wildfires that’ve transformed the L.A. sky into an eschatological deathscape, when I realize we’re not alone—a whirring octocopter drone has flown, uninvited, 53 stories in the air just to get a glimpse. No one besides me (who’s perpetually ready for the coming robocalpyse) seems perturbed. For the players—five men from five different countries—the cameras are always on. They play for Paris Saint-Germain—’PSG,’—a soccer club from Paris, and they’re here in America during their pre-season to play a couple of exhibition games and cement their brand as one of the world’s biggest soccer teams.
There’s Kevin Trapp—the gangly German goalkeeper who won a smooch from Rihanna this year after saving a penalty kick against bitter rivals, Olympique de Marseille. There’s Marco Verratti, called “il gufetto”—the little owl—partly for his tremendous vision from the back of the midfield, where he hits sweeping, field-length parabolic passes, and partly for his strigine brow line and deep-set, clarion-blue eyes.
Edinson Cavani, a Uruguayan nicknamed ‘El Matador’ is a fierce, hard-running forward with flowing Fabio-esque locks and sharp cheekbones. The French-Tunisian Hatem Ben Arfa is, as the saying goes, a scorer of great goals, but not a great scorer of goals. Yet his mazy, improvisational runs (do yourself a favor and YouTube: Ben Arfa Blackburn) were enough to convince PSG to give him another chance.
Then there’s the captain, Thiago Silva. After the Brazilian central defender left AC Milan to join PSG, his teammate Alessandro Nesta bemoaned, “You can’t say ‘I’ll sell Silva and buy a similar player.’ There are no similar players around, only worse ones.”
After gawking at the view and snapping some selfies, the players leave to return for interviews with the French media. The team has a new coach and just lost their talismanic center forward Zlatan Ibrahimović and everyone’s looking for a juicy quote. While the players are genial, they stick to saying all the right things. Team Instagram photos might make the tour look like a vacation, but this is a business trip.
And it’s an expensive business at that—to understand soccer today, you need to understand its relationship to money—these five players alone cost PSG roughly $142 million. For roughly
a century, teams across Europe and South America were run as civic institutions. In the mid ‘90s two separate events changed everything: the invention of satellite television and a European Court of Justice ruling that allowed players to move freely between clubs.
It created a new paradigm: a few super-clubs at the top, flush with television money, commercial sponsorships, and outside investment, who could buy up their rivals’ best players with impunity.
In soccer, there is a statistical correlation between the total wages a team pays its players and what place that team finishes in the standings. It is a ruthless calculus, even if the vagaries of sport do sometimes still throw up wildcards like the Leicester City’s 5000:1 odds win of the 2015-16 English Premier League.
PSG is a club built out of ambition. Established in 1970, it’s the brainchild of a group of Parisian businessmen who saw opportunity in Paris—the last great European city without a major team. 46 years old is neonatal in soccer terms; the lineages of most major clubs, like FC Barcelona, Manchester United, and Juventus F.C. date to the 19th century. PSG struggled to establish themselves until 2011, when the club was sold to QSI—an investment group owned by the Qatari royal family. With QSI came lots of money. And with lots of money came lots of expectations.
By most measures, PSG has flourished under the ownership of QSI. The richest team in France by a vast margin, they’ve won three consecutive league titles and all four French competitions in 2015-16. But to the world’s eyes, the French league is a backwater compared to England, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
The proof of this is France and PSG’s regular failure in the Champions League, the biggest prize in club soccer: a pan-European competition between the best teams on the continent, where they’ve consistently underperformed. [Used to dominating poorer teams in their smaller league, PSG will only get regular practice facing top talent if a major rival with significant financial backing emerges in the French league.]
This whole tour to America is a calculated effort. With no great league here, but a diverse, burgeoning generation of soccer fans, America is fertile ground for teams like PSG looking to expand their fanbase. “We are a young team,” says Fabien Allegre, a PSG executive, “And so we need to disrupt. We want to bring in the youth with culture, with art.”
And while the strength of their brand is partly a function of the aesthetically pleasing way the team plays and the iconic players on the roster, it’s also, you know, Paris. Kevin Trapp, the goalkeeper, gushes, “The city is incredible. It’s not just one center, there are so many different kinds of spots.” And just as it’s easier to convince a player—and his wife or girlfriend—to move to Paris than to Donetsk or Istanbul, it’s not hard to see the appeal of adopting the City of Lights as a fan.
America used to be terra incognita for soccer, the last bastion of invisibility for a global superstar. But the times are changing. Shouts of recognition greet the players as they walk into the street. And later in the week, as I sit in a bar at LAX, watching PSG play a game against the English champions, Leicester City, a businessman sitting next to me mutters “Fucking Cavani” in a Southern drawl after a missed shot. There’s nowhere to hide anymore.
Photographer: Ian Morrison for Opus Reps.
Stylist: Monty Jackson for The Wall Group.
Groomer: Paul Desmarre for Exclusive Artists Management.
Director: Alyn Horton
Director of Photography: Shawn Butcher
Editor/FX: Michael Frost
Location: AT&T Center Helipad.
Special thanks to Hugo Boss for providing looks from their FW16 collection, see the lookbook here.