Red Star, Paris St-Germain and the contrasting global brands of Parisian football

Red Star fans celebrate
Red Star players celebrate with fans at Bauer Stadium

If Paris St-Germain is a Hollywood blockbuster, says David Bellion, then Red Star is an independent film directed by Ken Loach or Michel Gondry – one about the oldest and arguably trendiest football club in the world. French capital.

Making connections between football and the arts comes naturally to Bellion, the former Manchester United and Sunderland forward who is now the creative director of Red Star, a cult French third-division team that, like PSG, has a brand that resonates. to fans around the world, but for different reasons.

Founded in 1897, they are located in the heart of Saint-Ouen, a diverse working-class suburb north of Paris, and were formed by Jules Rimet, the longest-serving FIFA president whose name shines on the original Cup trophy. of the world.

Absent from the top flight since 1974-75, they were in the sixth tier in 2005 and their aging home, Stade Bauer, opened in 1909, needs improvement work to meet Ligue 2 standards.

Meanwhile, just seven miles southwest of the city is the Parc des Princes and its glamorous tenants PSG.

Ambitious owners have followed one another since their formation in 1970, but it was only after the arrival of the Qatar Investment Authority ten years ago that the club began to dominate French football, winning seven of the last nine titles. .

This support means that PSG operate in a very different financial world and serve a widely contrasted audience with Red Star, as well as the city’s third professional team, Paris FC, who finished fifth in Ligue 2 last season and are starting a new chapter in their own sequel. recent investment by the Kingdom of Bahrain.

So far so different. But PSG and Red Star both seek the same fashion appeal and ultra-cool Parisian energy, and their unique brands have sparked worldwide interest; The PSG for the pomp and the galacticos, Red Star as an underground melting pot of culture, diversity and social conscience.

“What interests me in football is the creative direction, how to build an image and also tell the club’s story to the world,” Bellion told BBC Sport.

“Red Star has such a beautiful and strong story that it deserves to be heard by people.

“It’s always been visionary. Rimet built it around the idea of ​​non-status, as a sports and literary association – it wasn’t just football, it was to promote a balance between social classes.”

These values ​​remain. This year’s Red Star shirt features customizable Velcro badges, including one with a message that says ‘Refugees Welcome’ and is sponsored by LinkedOut, a project helping homeless and disadvantaged adults find work.

Last season, the jersey served as an educational tool as well, with a design featuring important historical monuments celebrating the multiculturalism of the region and including an image of Rino Della Negra, the Red Star player and Communist resistance fighter. who was executed under Nazi occupation during WWII. Bellion says the stadium was used as a weapons stash.

“We have developed ideas which are very good because we are not afraid of the way it is interpreted, what we want is just to be sincere,” added the 38-year-old.

“It’s really deep, we don’t pretend. We don’t buy culture, because we can’t afford it, but we love to create culture. That’s why we do things differently.”

David Bellion looks on and the Bauer Stadium home from the Red Star
Bellion looks left and the Red Star’s Bauer Stadium from the air

Bellion in 2016 ended his playing career at Bauer Stadium, a pitch he compares to Fulham’s Craven Cottage, and found film producer and Red Star president Patrice Haddad a man after his own heart.

Haddad took over in 2008 with the fourth-division club and saw them climb twice in Ligue 2. They were relegated in 2019 and must return this season on pain of losing their professional status under French regulations.

In recent years, Red Star’s global fan base has grown organically through their unique philosophies, trendy and unconventional merchandise and a true identity deeply rooted within the club – they have been compared and have worked before. with St Pauli in Germany.

“One day I was in Tokyo, we played soccer there, and I saw a guy with an orange Red Star jersey,” Bellion said. “We only produced 20 for Colette, a store in Paris!

“It doesn’t make us rich, but when you look at it and think about the love and passion that we put around the club, of course you get a feeling of happiness just to say that it works, that some people are affected by this story. “

Bellion enjoys collaborating with artists, musicians and photographers and has a penchant for British pop culture – the historic jersey was created by London-based design studio AcidFC – but educating young players and forming “well-built citizens” is his real passion.

“The history of the club, and I totally believed in it even when I was a player, is that it’s not just about performance,” he said.

“Of course it’s important to perform and try to get promoted, but we have maybe 500 kids at the club, under 6s on the reserves, so it’s also important to develop the culture and the education in their life.

“We want to use the football club to send a message; we want them to be well-built citizens, we have to work the body and nourish the spirit.”

To do this, the club launched Red Star Lab, running workshops to help academy players learn and be inspired by vocations outside of football. One of Bellion’s favorites was seeing the teens handcraft their own football boots with local craftsman Rakhmi.

“We know that maybe one child in a generation will be successful as a professional, but what about the rest?” he asks. “We give them other passions to try – photography, fashion, music. It’s free, they watch, they learn.

“If 10 years later you see one of those kids saying I work at the BBC because I fell in love with the media, one says I work at Nike, one at StockX, one at the show in art is a bigger victory than winning a Champions League. “

PSG now have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on the front line
PSG have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on the front line

Even though PSG beat the Champions League finalists in 2020, President Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s investment has placed Les Parisiens among the European elite. The club’s coveted continental title is proving elusive, but there has already been huge commercial success off the pitch.

Three years ago, PSG entered into a partnership with Nike which would see them become the first football club to sport the Jumpman logo, famous with basketball legend Michael Jordan, selling the first exclusive collection of 40,000 items. In a week.

A Nike spokesperson told BBC Sport that the collaboration “marks two icons of partnership between sport and style to fuel the culture of the sporting lifestyle”, while Fabien Allegre, director of brand development at PSG , said it “aimed to bring sportswear and street fashion closer together.”

The club’s mandate, Allegre said in a Harvard Business School study, is to connect with cultures beyond football and to spread the brand in different directions. He highlighted partnerships with Justin Timberlake and rapper Travis Scott, and LeBron James wearing the club jersey before an NBA game.

When a fan wearing a Thiago Silva shirt, bob and checkered shorts was dragged onto stage to be celebrated during a performance by Dave the Rapper in 2019 at Glastonbury, it was confirmation that the PSG brand is successfully infiltrated youth culture.

PSG’s social media audience has also exploded, with Russell Stopford, chief digital officer, saying: “We are disrupting the world of football, on and off the pitch, in typical Parisian style – this is the story we want to tell. “

Club shirts featured in designs at Paris Fashion Week, while players appeared in promotional videos for Hollywood films. PSG even sold Rolling Stones inspired merchandise when the group performed in the city.

“It allowed us to reach fans who didn’t necessarily follow PSG as a football club but who thought that wearing an item from the collection was cool from a lifestyle point of view,” said Allegre.

In 2019, the club surpassed one million jersey sales and more than half of its Jordan collection went to customers outside of France. They have since opened stores in Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Following the takeover of the Qatar Investment Authority, trading revenues rose from £ 22 million to £ 310 million in eight years, according to the Harvard study. Al-Khelaifi believes that the club can still grow, to “a value well over 3 billion euros”. He wants PSG to be one of the top three sports brands in the world. He wants them to be synonymous with Paris as the Yankees are with New York.

The Red Star Lab in action and, to the right, works of art at the Bauer Stadium
The Red Star Lab in action and, to the right, works of art at the Bauer Stadium

The ambition is indisputable but the PSG is not without detractors; the club’s spending on superstars such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi have sparked accusations of sports washing and contempt for financial fair play, with La Liga boss Javier Tebas among the fiercest opponents.

Bellion has no problem with PSG. He jokes that Red Star are the Rolling Stones and Les Parisiens the Beatles, but says the clubs respect each other in the city and in the French football landscape. He’s glad his side has a “fantastic” story to tell.

“My son likes to watch Kylian Mbappe and Neymar and that’s okay – it’s entertainment to watch a big game, but it’s a blockbuster in terms of marketing,” he says.

“We can’t compare ourselves to Paris St-Germain. What they are doing is fantastic for their own audience and the Paris St-Germain audience is a successful audience.

“Even if we had that kind of money, we wouldn’t do it because we’re more drawn to independent things, but we work with Foot Locker, we work with Vice. We don’t see ourselves as snobs because we are deep in that kind of culture, it’s just what we love, it’s our vibe.

“We have another way of thinking, another way of communicating,” he adds.

“We draw the crowd that we love to attract and everyone is welcome except homophobes, fascists – if they do hate in our stadium they are not welcome, but that has not happened previously.

“For me the base is the youth, and I trust that we are doing a good job. It is important to be serious about football, but not to take yourself seriously. There are more important things. than just kicking a ball. “

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