BY MARK GODFREY
Rue du Dr. Bauer in Saint Ouen – a small, largely residential suburb on the northern fringes of Paris – is an unremarkable avenue of five storey blocks of flats and sporadically open shops. Tightly parked cars line the street as locals shuffle dutifully past graffiti stained shutters on their way to places of work or pre-planned coffee rendezvous. The Stade de Paris – or the Stade Bauer as it is more commonly known – certainly does not dominate its surroundings either in size or importance, and barring the obviousness of the floodlights peering over the tin roof of the humble main stand, one could be forgiven for walking past and not knowing a football club of great historical standing ever existed there. Indeed, for most out-of-towners the area’s main draw is undoubtedly Paris’ famous flea market just a few blocks away.
This certainly isn’t one of the French capital’s most salubrious neighbourhoods. It’s more urban shabby than shabby chic, and is in stark contrast to the area around the Parc des Princes, home of the riche-est of the nouveau riche – Paris St. Germain – with its wide tree-lined avenues, plush apartments and unapologetically corporate brand signage. But in this outwardly insignificant commune resides – for the time being at least – Red Star, the football club founded in a small café in the 7th arrondissement of Paris over 120 years ago by 24-year-old Jules Rimet, FIFA’s longest serving president and the man in whose honour the original World Cup trophy was named.
There may only be 12 kilometres between the two stadia along the Boulevard Périphérique, but in both footballing and financial terms, that distance can be measured in metaphorical light years.
Since PSG’s formation in 1970, they have always had pretentions of grandeur. Occasionally during that relatively short history they’ve threatened to fulfil their potential as more than just a top-flight place holder for the haughty Parisian sporting establishment. Yet, until the Qatar Sports Investments money sluiced its way along the Seine in 2012 in a 21st century empire building exercise, PSG have often flattered to deceive. Since then, however, they have busted a gut to catapult themselves into football’s stratosphere alongside the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United; and how they’ve finally delivered. The blockbusting summer transfer of Neymar from Barcelona (and the likely permanent deal for Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé) has changed the game’s financial landscape forever and has guaranteed a position for a club from the city of Paris at world football’s top table that had eluded it for more than 100 years.
So, while PSG get on with the business of world domination, Red Star’s goal is entirely different. Rimet and his co-founders, which included his brother Modeste, envisaged a football club that would be entirely about the association in association football. Well over a century later, and as a counterbalance to the ravenous capitalist machine of PSG that still struggles to win the affections of people from the nearby affluent western districts of Paris, that social and communal philosophy not only remains strong at Red Star, but has taken on a whole new lease of life in recent times under their ambitious president, the film director Patrice Haddad.
To understand a bit more about the Red Star of today, one must skip through its past and take note of some of the most pivotal moments. The permanent move to Saint Ouen in 1910 meant that the club would always have to embrace the diversity bubbling up around it: Seine-Saint-Denis, the French département where Saint Ouen is located, has a long history of immigration from the former French colonies in the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, and today is the département with the highest proportion of immigrants in the country. Indeed, former president Francois Hollande – a Socialist and frequent attendee at Stade Bauer in his youth – has publicly celebrated Red Star’s significance within “a diverse and multicultural France”.
The club’s most successful period came in the inter-war years when they won the Coupe de France on four occasions (a fifth came in 1942 during the German occupation) and thrived in the era before professionalism and proper cohesive national organisation in French football. With their Red Star name and logo – supposedly inspired by Rimet’s English childhood governess, Miss Jenny – it was perhaps inevitable that a connection would be formed with the left-wing, working-class of the district. This bond would become even stronger after the execution of former player Rino Della Negra by the Nazis during the Second World War. Della Negra – a son of Italian immigrants who never actually appeared in an official game for Red Star – was wounded and captured by the Germans in 1944 during an attack by the French Resistance. A member of the highly active Manouchian Group – named after Missak Manouchian, a poet and communist activist – his final note to his brother contained the words, “hello and goodbye to Red Star.” His story of struggle and ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his communist principles has become hugely symbolic to the club’s firmly left-leaning fanbase.
Since those tumultuous days in the first half of the 20th century, Red Star’s fortunes have been decidedly mixed with far more downs than ups. Occasional promotions; frequent relegations; a brief stint in the top flight; financial meltdowns; and even a perplexing merger with Toulouse FC in 1967 (not the current club who were formed three years later) from the opposite end of the country. Red Star is simply a football club that will not die, because the people will not to allow it.
Since Haddad’s arrival in 2008, a mere five years after the club almost went to the wall and two years after they were languishing in the sixth tier of French football, a few of his ambitions have sometimes come into conflict with the wishes of Red Star’s vociferous support. His plan to build a new €200million stadium and entertainment development was rejected by the fans for whom the Stade Bauer represents the soul of the club. Sadly, the stadium is in serious need of revitalisation, and while it is a viable home for them in the third tier where they find themselves currently, its decrepit facilities were deemed unsuitable for use when Red Star achieved promotion to Ligue 2 in 2015. Consequently, they were forced to play their home games in Beauvais – 75 kilometres north of Paris – and then, for the 2016/17 campaign, in the Stade Jean-Bouin, ironically a renovated state-of-the-art arena that stands cheek by jowl with the Parc des Princes, home of moneybags PSG.
Many of Haddad’s initiatives have gone down well with the fans though, and the idea to exploit and build upon the club’s long and proud history has appealed not only to the ultras and hipster elements who populate the terraces, but also those who see the long-term value of reaching out and engaging with the local community, for it is they that will ultimately sustain Red Star for the coming decades in the face of PSG’s ever-expanding reach.
Probably the best example of this was the appointment of the former Manchester United and Sunderland striker David Bellion as the club’s Creative Director in the summer of 2016 when his own professional career wound down at Red Star. His is a unique position within French football.
“It was pure coincidence”, David explains. “Patrice Haddad and I we had a friend in common – Benjamin Eymere – who publishes the leading French fashion magazine, L’Officiel.
“Benjamin put us in contact with each other because he already knew I wanted to do something else in my life.
“As Creative Director, my goals are to build bridges between Red Star and the worlds of culture, art and lifestyle; whether that means music, fashion, photography, food, events…but with a totally new angle.”
Bellion believes offering these innovative ways to connect the fans and community of not only this vibrant outpost on the Paris ring road, but elsewhere in the city too, fits neatly with the threads of social inclusion that were fundamental to the club right back to the time of Jules Rimet et al.
“Red Star is an underground, romantic, popular football club where there is absolutely no social status. People love it because it still has that old school football vibe. The club was not built for just victory and winning. It is a very powerful symbol of freedom and creativity. For example, St. Pauli and Red Star have a similar ethos. But not a lot of clubs have that natural credibility.”
That last word – credibility – is important. I ask David if there is a deliberate aim to project an ‘alternative’ image in response to what is happening at PSG; “We absolutely don’t aim anything because we already are a unique club. Red Star is the oldest club in the Parisian territory.
“We don’t try to be alternative, we are just expressing who we are. I can tell you, with all honesty, that we don’t look at what other clubs are doing, but we really respect PSG because we’re a football club based on respect, love, humility, and diversity.”
David’s enthusiasm for his new role is infectious, and two particular projects within his remit are vital in making it as big a success as he obviously wants it to be. Firstly, Red Star have formed a partnership with the multinational multimedia company Vice. They will sponsor the club’s shirts in the 2017/18 season and in return will have access all areas so they can transmit the Red Star story across all their various platforms – from the day-to-day lives of the players to hanging out with the fans in the local bars of Saint Ouen, and everything in between.
That ‘in between’ includes the Red Star Lab, which is evidently the thing closest to Bellion’s heart; although, he is quick to give his chairman credit for its inception:
“Patrice, the boss, he is the brainchild of the Red Star Lab. He’s a creative genius; a visionary and one step ahead of the game.
“It is the most meaningful project of the club and is run by my brilliant colleague Christelle Quillévéré. Basically, it’s a workshop platform for all the kids that play for Red Star. During all school holidays and most Wednesdays, the kids have the possibility to play, learn and try different disciplines. It can be photography, street art, cookery, dancing. The next project we are working on for the kids will be fantastic. They are going to build the Red Star fanzine. We will have the help of many friends that are photographers, journalists, artists and anybody else that can help the children creatively. That’s how we can make our kids discover other passions. For example, there was a kid around 8 years ago that attended the Red Star Lab and did some street art workshops. They have since become a street artist. We have a kid called Matthias Ferreira that signed his first professional contract last month; he did this program many years ago. We have many stories like this. We want to educate our youth through culture so they can have different talents when they’re older. If football doesn’t work, then they may have some skills in other fields.”
David concludes by summarising his mission statement, although he is struggling to keep it brief simply because of the number of things going on around Red Star under his care:
“I want to show that Red Star is not only a football club but a way of life. We collaborated with a Parisian fashion studio called Racket Paris who designed our jerseys and we are now working with a collective of different designers taking care of our clothing and accessory lines . We are working with Hotel Radio Paris and Airplane Mode V1 who are taking care of the music in the stadium and for all our events. We have brought in an artistic director called Leo Marsal and an incredible photographer called Yann Levy. His photos have such beautiful social vision – he is the Ken Loach of the photography world. I am working on many other things for the supporters. It’s going to be interesting.”
Those Red Star fans are having their loyalty and support rewarded by a club that really does seem to understand that the ‘business’ of football can be about much more than revenue streams, TV contracts and eye-popping transfer deals. I push David on whether this makes them a magnet for the fickle hipsters and those who may see Red Star as a vehicle with which to push a particular political agenda over actually having an interest in what happens to the team on the pitch:
“We have the most unique supporters. They’re really socially engaged, helping people in difficulty. Yes, they are politically active – but to cultivate tolerance towards everyone. And they do sing and support the players no matter the score. That’s very unusual in France!”
Clearly, Red Star has a lot going on aside from just 11 men in green shirts kicking a ball around a field, and their past is not just one of literary men in cafes and resistance fighters. In more recent times they have produced players who have graced some of the top clubs and leagues in the world; Steve Marlet, Alex Song, Moussa Sissoko and Abou Diaby – to name but a few – all passed through the Stade Bauer at the beginning of their careers before finding fame elsewhere.
Red Star, Patrice Haddad and David Bellion still have big ambitions to leave the lower leagues behind and make a long overdue return to Ligue 1, where they have not been since 1975. And should they make it, it would be hard to argue that theirs is not the real success story of modern Parisian football.