History

Cause célèbre

Heard the one about the forward-thinking fashion designer and his glamorous entourage who turned a floundering French club into a Parisian powerhouse? On the occasion of Paris Saint-Germain’s 50th anniversary, find out how a mid-1970s sliding-doors moment was the making of this capital culture club

WORDS Chris Burke

It’s a remarkable moment. One of those privileged glimpses of football life in a bygone era, captured like a time capsule in vivid colour. It’s Just Fontaine – yes, that Just Fontaine – speaking to his Paris Saint-Germain players on a lumpy training pitch ahead of the biggest game in the club’s history.

We are back in 1974 and the young side must defeat Valenciennes to earn promotion to the first division. “The problem is simple,” growls the legendary scorer of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup. “If we go up, it’s the Parc des Princes and 45,000 people. If we don’t, it’ll be Saint-Germain and 400 people. It’s up to you to see the problem.”

The problem was even more severe than that. This being Paris, backroom machinations had ramped up the pressure, leaving the future of the club itself on the line. But before we get on to that, it’s worth pausing to recall another blunt communicator from the club’s past. Zlatan Ibrahimović achieved many great things in France, yet there was much choking on baguettes across the capital when he rewrote history in 2016. “With all due respect for what went before at PSG, I think the club was born the day the Qataris arrived,” he said.  

With all due respect to the Swede, that’s nonsense. Yes, the story of Paris Saint-Germain appears more like a novella compared to the weighty tomes of clubs founded at the end of the 19th century. But, as the French giants celebrate their 50th anniversary, they have packed enough highs and lows into their existence to produce a serious page-turner. There are chapters galore, each dripping with compelling characters and intriguing plotlines. And the truth is that Ibrahimović would likely never have been in Paris to begin with had Fontaine’s players lost to Valenciennes on 4 June 1974.

That epic turning point needs a little context. Just two years after their foundation in 1970, the club were in turmoil. Paris Saint-Germain had just ended their maiden top-flight season by staving off relegation and were drowning in debt. The city authorities offered to help but with one fateful proviso: they had to change their name to Paris Football Club.

It was an ultimatum too rich for many, the team having been created as a merger between new entity Paris FC and Stade Saint-Germain, who formed in 1904. As a result the club split, with Paris FC reverting to their original name, retaining first-division status and keeping the professional squad; Paris Saint-Germain were relegated to the third tier, with most of the staff who previously worked for Stade Saint-Germain, and were left to tough it out with an amateur contingent.

The outlook, needless to say, was not good. There was a huge thirst in the capital to fill the void left by faded force Racing Club de Paris, the city’s last French champions in 1936. The opening of the Parc des Princes in 1972 had offered a platform for a powerful new team to become the local standard-bearers – and Paris FC were in pole position. Particularly as they were now the Parc’s permanent residents, with Paris Saint-Germain exiled to the tiny Stade Georges Lefèvre (save for a few high-profile fixtures).

Paris FC seemingly had it made. However, they missed an open goal when approached by a rich and ambitious young fashion designer angling to become their new president. Passionate about football, this was prêt-à-porter pioneer Daniel Hechter – and he had a vision.

“He went to see the Paris FC officials and they thought he was a bit of a charlatan,” says Michel Kollar, author of the Official Dictionary of Paris Saint-Germain and the club’s in-house historian. “He was very angry. He didn’t like being treated as someone who wasn’t serious.” So instead, in 1973, Hechter invested in Paris Saint-Germain, by now in the second tier. He took control of the management committee under president Henri Patrelle – a power struggle Hechter would win by snaring the top job the following year. Of the various people claiming to have created Paris Saint-Germain, he arguably has the most solid argument.

Forward Moderchai Spiegler (above); Just Fontaine is joined by Daniel Hetcher on the bench earlier in the season (top right); Paris Saint-Germain investor and film star Jean-Paul Belmondo with Raquel Welch for company (right)

“Daniel was a very creative personality,” says Mordechai Spiegler, still the only Israeli international to have scored a World Cup goal. The forward signed from Paris FC halfway through the 1973/74 campaign – and it was Hechter who asked him to join. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m not a couturier!’ Of course, I was joking with him. And I think I made the right move. Daniel was very involved; together with Fontaine and other people, he was very active. Some games, he used to sit on the bench. I don’t see [current president] Nasser Al-Khelaifi sitting on the bench!”

Hechter reimagined the club kit as well (see panel). Moreover he brought glamour, which is now a central strain of the club’s DNA. His group of investors included cinema icon Jean-Paul Belmondo, advertising heavyweight Francis Borelli and Charles Talar, a producer of musicals. “When Hechter presented the people around him, one journalist called them the ‘pink-shirt gang’ because they were very fashionable,” says Kollar. “They represented what Paris Saint-Germain is now: a brand, a club and above all a city known throughout the world. They kind of invented that way of speaking about PSG.”

Today, actors and musicians lineup to be photographed at the Parc des Princes, but the buzz began with Hechter and Belmondo, star of French New Wave classics including À Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou. “I saw Belmondo a lot; he was there for every game, every party, every meeting,” says Spiegler. “It was like it was more than a game – it was the creative creation of a club. A football team is not yet a ‘club’. A great club, a traditional club, can have a bad season and recover. But without the tradition of a club, if you have a bad season you disappear.”

Having a charismatic coach helped too. Fontaine joined shortly after Hechter arrived, though previous coach Robert Vicot stayed on in a less frontline role. “They were good friends but everyone knew who was number one,” says Spiegler, who raised Fontaine’s brow by cheekily describing himself and the boss as the World Cup’s two greatest marksmen, ‘Justo’ with his 13 goals and Spiegler proud of his historic strike at Mexico 1970.

“He had an aura and he did not hide it,” says Spiegler. “He was a very proud character and it was good to have a leader like him, very natural. He was not a big-headed star; he was human, nice and humble. The charisma was always there – and he used his charisma – but tactics were important too, because it must be a combination.”

Tactics were key, in fact, because Fontaine took over a squad containing just three professional players. The leading light of that select group was captain and playmaker Jean-Pierre Dogliani, who paid the last year of his contract with Monaco to join in 1973. “That just shows how much he wanted to be with Just Fontaine,” says Kollar. “Dogliani was passionate about attacking football. You can’t really compare them, but to an extent he was the Johan Cruyff of the team. He was a tall No10 who always wanted to attack. He was a lovely player to watch. When you think of the club’s No10s, you think of Ronaldinho, Raí, Neymar. He’s symbolic because of that.”

“He was a real captain,” adds Spiegler. “He was a tactical player and a hard worker and he was always aware of others. He used to talk, he used to help. He used to be there. Sometimes he was a noisy leader; at the same time he had a big sense of humour. I remember, after training, that Justo, he and the others were like a family. A very good relationship. And then, on the pitch, serious.”

‘Family’ is a word that dominates Spiegler’s recollections. He stayed only six months (later playing alongside Pelé at New York Cosmos) but still feels a deep connection to that side – despite having also spent a year and a half with city rivals Paris FC. “PSG was more than a club,” he says. “There were always people coming to training. It was more a family than at Paris FC. There we used to train at open grounds – sometimes in Colombes, sometimes Saint-Germain. We had no real home. To this day, when I go to Paris, I’m welcomed and this is my club.”

For all that, Spiegler’s debut could hardly have gone worse. Starting against Le Havre in a French Cup game on 6 January 1974, with fans eager to see what he could offer, he was rapidly thwarted. “I got injured after 35 seconds,” he says. “I had a cartilage injury. I limped out and all the people on the committee looked at Daniel Hechter, with their eyes like, ‘You brought us a dead horse.’ Then after two weeks I came back and played against Ajaccio – and in the last minute I scored. Daniel Hechter became the king of the family again.”

Better was to come when Spiegler plundered a six-minute hat-trick away to Avignon in March of that year, still a club benchmark. “I have to meet Mbappé and Neymar to give them my blessing to break my record,” he says, laughing. Alas, the result of that game is remembered less fondly. “In the 60th minute I felt a little bit injured, so I asked Justo to replace me,” says Spiegler. “I went into the dressing room and had a shower; when I came out, it was 3-3. I told them, ‘Lucky I didn’t have a bath.’”  

“We prepared the stage for Neymar and MBappé. I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy”

Still, such setbacks were a rarity as Fontaine’s charges tussled with Red Star at the top of the Division 2 Group B standings, bolstered by Spiegler and fellow new signing François M’Pelé, a pacy Congolese goal machine who became the club’s first African success story. The team had camaraderie on their side, helped by the senior players gelling seamlessly with the youngsters. “We had experienced players and a balanced team,” says Spiegler. “It wasn’t football to put in a museum but we’d find a collective solution to win. And the atmosphere was that we had to win.”

How vital that would soon prove. Triumphant in their last six games of the regular season, Paris Saint-Germain ultimately finished second behind Red Star, setting up a play-off with Group A runners-up Valenciennes. They lost the first leg 2-1 in northern France, at which point Hechter must have been sweating beneath his chic suit. That’s because, unbeknown to the squad, he had taken a massive gamble on the club’s future; failure to win promotion could well have proven fatal. Spiegler and M’Pelé had been excellent acquisitions but the money to sign them had come via a loan – and a very precarious one at that.

“What most people don’t know is that six months before the end of the season, Hechter wasn’t sure PSG would get promoted,” says Kollar. “So he went to radio station RTL and said he wanted to buy two players: ‘Lend me the money and you’ll become sponsors if PSG get promoted.’ But if PSG weren’t promoted, Hechter had to pay back the loan. So that match was very, very important. He’d signed a contract nobody knew about. He’d made a bet. If they’d lost, it would’ve been tough to repay the money.”

Imagine, then, how Hechter felt when Paris slipped 2-1 behind after 48 minutes of the second leg at the Parcdes Princes, leaving them needing three goals. He was sitting on the bench with Fontaine, whose words didn’t provide much comfort: “If we don’t score in the next five minutes, we’re toast.” The players, who had all attended defender Éric Renaut’s wedding in the four days between the games, were blissfully unaware of the broader stakes – but that spirit of togetherness would prove the difference.

“Everyone had to think with a lot of responsibility,” says Spiegler. “I don’t think any of us lost the ball in the second half. We put them under pressure and all of us went in one direction. We thought only one thing: ‘We must win.’ Not, ‘We can win.’ We must. And we made the night shine.”

That they did, with Dogliani quickly equalising and Michel Marella putting them ahead, before Dogliani capped a thrilling 4-2 victory with 15 minutes left. It was a lovely finish: the Marseille native shimmied left – to send the goalkeeper sprawling – then shifted to the right to score. Yet there was a collective holding of breath among the crowd of 20,000 spectators: they feared the linesman’s flag. “I asked Dogliani if that goal was offside or not,” says Kollar. “He said, ‘No, it wasn’t offside because the referee didn’t blow his whistle.’”

Paris held on to secure promotion but the drama wasn’t over. As celebrations erupted after full time, Fontaine suffered a minor heart attack and collapsed on the pitch. “Everyone was around him,” says Spiegler. “The doctor, everyone. There was a moment when we were worried, but he was so excited and so glad that he let himself go. He knew nobody would let him get out of the celebrations. After coming back from two goals behind, you don’t leave your team behind with any heart problems. No, no. He recovered quickly.”

What made victory all the sweeter was Paris FC’s relegation from the top division that same season; they returned to Ligue 1 for one campaign four years later but haven’t been back since. Paris Saint-Germain claimed back the Parc des Princes as their home and started to become the capital powerhouse that the locals craved.

After the game, having gathered strength following his brush with mortality, Fontaine summed up the challenge ahead. “We’ve done the hard part but now it’s going to be even harder, because supporters in Paris expect us to build a great team,” he told the television cameras from the dressing-room bath. “We’ll try to give them emotions – but not as many as tonight because I nearly passed away.”

All the titles that Paris Saint-Germain have racked up over the past half-century, all the emotions they have stirred –good, bad and occasionally health-threatening – were made possible by that one game, a stirring comeback success with a World Cup legend at the helm and a band of friends united in purpose. “We prepared the stage for Neymar and Mbappé, and Zlatan,” says Spiegler. “I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy. It’s a fantastic feeling to know you were there in the very first days – when the baby was born – and now, years after, they have become a huge club. We made it possible. It was like a tank going forward.”

Fashion
Winning in Style

The abbreviation BBRBB might read like the mysterious code from some Cold War thriller, but to fans of Paris Saint-Germain it means history, heritage and identity. It stands for bleu-blanc-rouge-blanc-bleu (blue-white-red-white-blue), the colour bands of the iconic Hechter shirt introduced in 1973/74.

Paris began life playing in red shirts, but leading fashion designer Daniel Hechter changed all that when he began investing in 1973. “I saw a Ford Mustang that had a band on its bonnet, which continued on the roof, and I transposed that,” said Hechter, whose own version combined Paris’s traditional red and blue with the royal white of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

“In 1975, that shirt was voted in Italy as the most beautiful in the world,” says club historian Michel Kollar. “It’s the shirt that represents Paris Saint-Germain the most, so it’s the one that fans love. It’s also the shirt they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in [in 1996]. For younger fans, it’s not because of Hechter, but because of the trophies PSG have won with it.”

“The shirt was very comfortable and very light,” remembers Mordechai Spiegler, a forward in that 1973/74 season. “You felt like a model.” The club have riffed on the design ever since and sometimes abandoned it completely, but fan pressure usually brings them around – and the classic pattern is set to return in 2020/21, as Paris Saint-Germain celebrate their 50th anniversary.

It’s a remarkable moment. One of those privileged glimpses of football life in a bygone era, captured like a time capsule in vivid colour. It’s Just Fontaine – yes, that Just Fontaine – speaking to his Paris Saint-Germain players on a lumpy training pitch ahead of the biggest game in the club’s history.

We are back in 1974 and the young side must defeat Valenciennes to earn promotion to the first division. “The problem is simple,” growls the legendary scorer of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup. “If we go up, it’s the Parc des Princes and 45,000 people. If we don’t, it’ll be Saint-Germain and 400 people. It’s up to you to see the problem.”

The problem was even more severe than that. This being Paris, backroom machinations had ramped up the pressure, leaving the future of the club itself on the line. But before we get on to that, it’s worth pausing to recall another blunt communicator from the club’s past. Zlatan Ibrahimović achieved many great things in France, yet there was much choking on baguettes across the capital when he rewrote history in 2016. “With all due respect for what went before at PSG, I think the club was born the day the Qataris arrived,” he said.  

With all due respect to the Swede, that’s nonsense. Yes, the story of Paris Saint-Germain appears more like a novella compared to the weighty tomes of clubs founded at the end of the 19th century. But, as the French giants celebrate their 50th anniversary, they have packed enough highs and lows into their existence to produce a serious page-turner. There are chapters galore, each dripping with compelling characters and intriguing plotlines. And the truth is that Ibrahimović would likely never have been in Paris to begin with had Fontaine’s players lost to Valenciennes on 4 June 1974.

That epic turning point needs a little context. Just two years after their foundation in 1970, the club were in turmoil. Paris Saint-Germain had just ended their maiden top-flight season by staving off relegation and were drowning in debt. The city authorities offered to help but with one fateful proviso: they had to change their name to Paris Football Club.

It was an ultimatum too rich for many, the team having been created as a merger between new entity Paris FC and Stade Saint-Germain, who formed in 1904. As a result the club split, with Paris FC reverting to their original name, retaining first-division status and keeping the professional squad; Paris Saint-Germain were relegated to the third tier, with most of the staff who previously worked for Stade Saint-Germain, and were left to tough it out with an amateur contingent.

The outlook, needless to say, was not good. There was a huge thirst in the capital to fill the void left by faded force Racing Club de Paris, the city’s last French champions in 1936. The opening of the Parc des Princes in 1972 had offered a platform for a powerful new team to become the local standard-bearers – and Paris FC were in pole position. Particularly as they were now the Parc’s permanent residents, with Paris Saint-Germain exiled to the tiny Stade Georges Lefèvre (save for a few high-profile fixtures).

Paris FC seemingly had it made. However, they missed an open goal when approached by a rich and ambitious young fashion designer angling to become their new president. Passionate about football, this was prêt-à-porter pioneer Daniel Hechter – and he had a vision.

“He went to see the Paris FC officials and they thought he was a bit of a charlatan,” says Michel Kollar, author of the Official Dictionary of Paris Saint-Germain and the club’s in-house historian. “He was very angry. He didn’t like being treated as someone who wasn’t serious.” So instead, in 1973, Hechter invested in Paris Saint-Germain, by now in the second tier. He took control of the management committee under president Henri Patrelle – a power struggle Hechter would win by snaring the top job the following year. Of the various people claiming to have created Paris Saint-Germain, he arguably has the most solid argument.

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Forward Moderchai Spiegler (above); Just Fontaine is joined by Daniel Hetcher on the bench earlier in the season (top right); Paris Saint-Germain investor and film star Jean-Paul Belmondo with Raquel Welch for company (right)

“Daniel was a very creative personality,” says Mordechai Spiegler, still the only Israeli international to have scored a World Cup goal. The forward signed from Paris FC halfway through the 1973/74 campaign – and it was Hechter who asked him to join. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m not a couturier!’ Of course, I was joking with him. And I think I made the right move. Daniel was very involved; together with Fontaine and other people, he was very active. Some games, he used to sit on the bench. I don’t see [current president] Nasser Al-Khelaifi sitting on the bench!”

Hechter reimagined the club kit as well (see panel). Moreover he brought glamour, which is now a central strain of the club’s DNA. His group of investors included cinema icon Jean-Paul Belmondo, advertising heavyweight Francis Borelli and Charles Talar, a producer of musicals. “When Hechter presented the people around him, one journalist called them the ‘pink-shirt gang’ because they were very fashionable,” says Kollar. “They represented what Paris Saint-Germain is now: a brand, a club and above all a city known throughout the world. They kind of invented that way of speaking about PSG.”

Today, actors and musicians lineup to be photographed at the Parc des Princes, but the buzz began with Hechter and Belmondo, star of French New Wave classics including À Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou. “I saw Belmondo a lot; he was there for every game, every party, every meeting,” says Spiegler. “It was like it was more than a game – it was the creative creation of a club. A football team is not yet a ‘club’. A great club, a traditional club, can have a bad season and recover. But without the tradition of a club, if you have a bad season you disappear.”

Having a charismatic coach helped too. Fontaine joined shortly after Hechter arrived, though previous coach Robert Vicot stayed on in a less frontline role. “They were good friends but everyone knew who was number one,” says Spiegler, who raised Fontaine’s brow by cheekily describing himself and the boss as the World Cup’s two greatest marksmen, ‘Justo’ with his 13 goals and Spiegler proud of his historic strike at Mexico 1970.

“He had an aura and he did not hide it,” says Spiegler. “He was a very proud character and it was good to have a leader like him, very natural. He was not a big-headed star; he was human, nice and humble. The charisma was always there – and he used his charisma – but tactics were important too, because it must be a combination.”

Tactics were key, in fact, because Fontaine took over a squad containing just three professional players. The leading light of that select group was captain and playmaker Jean-Pierre Dogliani, who paid the last year of his contract with Monaco to join in 1973. “That just shows how much he wanted to be with Just Fontaine,” says Kollar. “Dogliani was passionate about attacking football. You can’t really compare them, but to an extent he was the Johan Cruyff of the team. He was a tall No10 who always wanted to attack. He was a lovely player to watch. When you think of the club’s No10s, you think of Ronaldinho, Raí, Neymar. He’s symbolic because of that.”

“He was a real captain,” adds Spiegler. “He was a tactical player and a hard worker and he was always aware of others. He used to talk, he used to help. He used to be there. Sometimes he was a noisy leader; at the same time he had a big sense of humour. I remember, after training, that Justo, he and the others were like a family. A very good relationship. And then, on the pitch, serious.”

‘Family’ is a word that dominates Spiegler’s recollections. He stayed only six months (later playing alongside Pelé at New York Cosmos) but still feels a deep connection to that side – despite having also spent a year and a half with city rivals Paris FC. “PSG was more than a club,” he says. “There were always people coming to training. It was more a family than at Paris FC. There we used to train at open grounds – sometimes in Colombes, sometimes Saint-Germain. We had no real home. To this day, when I go to Paris, I’m welcomed and this is my club.”

For all that, Spiegler’s debut could hardly have gone worse. Starting against Le Havre in a French Cup game on 6 January 1974, with fans eager to see what he could offer, he was rapidly thwarted. “I got injured after 35 seconds,” he says. “I had a cartilage injury. I limped out and all the people on the committee looked at Daniel Hechter, with their eyes like, ‘You brought us a dead horse.’ Then after two weeks I came back and played against Ajaccio – and in the last minute I scored. Daniel Hechter became the king of the family again.”

Better was to come when Spiegler plundered a six-minute hat-trick away to Avignon in March of that year, still a club benchmark. “I have to meet Mbappé and Neymar to give them my blessing to break my record,” he says, laughing. Alas, the result of that game is remembered less fondly. “In the 60th minute I felt a little bit injured, so I asked Justo to replace me,” says Spiegler. “I went into the dressing room and had a shower; when I came out, it was 3-3. I told them, ‘Lucky I didn’t have a bath.’”  

“We prepared the stage for Neymar and MBappé. I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy”

Still, such setbacks were a rarity as Fontaine’s charges tussled with Red Star at the top of the Division 2 Group B standings, bolstered by Spiegler and fellow new signing François M’Pelé, a pacy Congolese goal machine who became the club’s first African success story. The team had camaraderie on their side, helped by the senior players gelling seamlessly with the youngsters. “We had experienced players and a balanced team,” says Spiegler. “It wasn’t football to put in a museum but we’d find a collective solution to win. And the atmosphere was that we had to win.”

How vital that would soon prove. Triumphant in their last six games of the regular season, Paris Saint-Germain ultimately finished second behind Red Star, setting up a play-off with Group A runners-up Valenciennes. They lost the first leg 2-1 in northern France, at which point Hechter must have been sweating beneath his chic suit. That’s because, unbeknown to the squad, he had taken a massive gamble on the club’s future; failure to win promotion could well have proven fatal. Spiegler and M’Pelé had been excellent acquisitions but the money to sign them had come via a loan – and a very precarious one at that.

“What most people don’t know is that six months before the end of the season, Hechter wasn’t sure PSG would get promoted,” says Kollar. “So he went to radio station RTL and said he wanted to buy two players: ‘Lend me the money and you’ll become sponsors if PSG get promoted.’ But if PSG weren’t promoted, Hechter had to pay back the loan. So that match was very, very important. He’d signed a contract nobody knew about. He’d made a bet. If they’d lost, it would’ve been tough to repay the money.”

Imagine, then, how Hechter felt when Paris slipped 2-1 behind after 48 minutes of the second leg at the Parcdes Princes, leaving them needing three goals. He was sitting on the bench with Fontaine, whose words didn’t provide much comfort: “If we don’t score in the next five minutes, we’re toast.” The players, who had all attended defender Éric Renaut’s wedding in the four days between the games, were blissfully unaware of the broader stakes – but that spirit of togetherness would prove the difference.

“Everyone had to think with a lot of responsibility,” says Spiegler. “I don’t think any of us lost the ball in the second half. We put them under pressure and all of us went in one direction. We thought only one thing: ‘We must win.’ Not, ‘We can win.’ We must. And we made the night shine.”

That they did, with Dogliani quickly equalising and Michel Marella putting them ahead, before Dogliani capped a thrilling 4-2 victory with 15 minutes left. It was a lovely finish: the Marseille native shimmied left – to send the goalkeeper sprawling – then shifted to the right to score. Yet there was a collective holding of breath among the crowd of 20,000 spectators: they feared the linesman’s flag. “I asked Dogliani if that goal was offside or not,” says Kollar. “He said, ‘No, it wasn’t offside because the referee didn’t blow his whistle.’”

Paris held on to secure promotion but the drama wasn’t over. As celebrations erupted after full time, Fontaine suffered a minor heart attack and collapsed on the pitch. “Everyone was around him,” says Spiegler. “The doctor, everyone. There was a moment when we were worried, but he was so excited and so glad that he let himself go. He knew nobody would let him get out of the celebrations. After coming back from two goals behind, you don’t leave your team behind with any heart problems. No, no. He recovered quickly.”

What made victory all the sweeter was Paris FC’s relegation from the top division that same season; they returned to Ligue 1 for one campaign four years later but haven’t been back since. Paris Saint-Germain claimed back the Parc des Princes as their home and started to become the capital powerhouse that the locals craved.

After the game, having gathered strength following his brush with mortality, Fontaine summed up the challenge ahead. “We’ve done the hard part but now it’s going to be even harder, because supporters in Paris expect us to build a great team,” he told the television cameras from the dressing-room bath. “We’ll try to give them emotions – but not as many as tonight because I nearly passed away.”

All the titles that Paris Saint-Germain have racked up over the past half-century, all the emotions they have stirred –good, bad and occasionally health-threatening – were made possible by that one game, a stirring comeback success with a World Cup legend at the helm and a band of friends united in purpose. “We prepared the stage for Neymar and Mbappé, and Zlatan,” says Spiegler. “I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy. It’s a fantastic feeling to know you were there in the very first days – when the baby was born – and now, years after, they have become a huge club. We made it possible. It was like a tank going forward.”

Fashion
Winning in Style

The abbreviation BBRBB might read like the mysterious code from some Cold War thriller, but to fans of Paris Saint-Germain it means history, heritage and identity. It stands for bleu-blanc-rouge-blanc-bleu (blue-white-red-white-blue), the colour bands of the iconic Hechter shirt introduced in 1973/74.

Paris began life playing in red shirts, but leading fashion designer Daniel Hechter changed all that when he began investing in 1973. “I saw a Ford Mustang that had a band on its bonnet, which continued on the roof, and I transposed that,” said Hechter, whose own version combined Paris’s traditional red and blue with the royal white of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

“In 1975, that shirt was voted in Italy as the most beautiful in the world,” says club historian Michel Kollar. “It’s the shirt that represents Paris Saint-Germain the most, so it’s the one that fans love. It’s also the shirt they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in [in 1996]. For younger fans, it’s not because of Hechter, but because of the trophies PSG have won with it.”

“The shirt was very comfortable and very light,” remembers Mordechai Spiegler, a forward in that 1973/74 season. “You felt like a model.” The club have riffed on the design ever since and sometimes abandoned it completely, but fan pressure usually brings them around – and the classic pattern is set to return in 2020/21, as Paris Saint-Germain celebrate their 50th anniversary.

It’s a remarkable moment. One of those privileged glimpses of football life in a bygone era, captured like a time capsule in vivid colour. It’s Just Fontaine – yes, that Just Fontaine – speaking to his Paris Saint-Germain players on a lumpy training pitch ahead of the biggest game in the club’s history.

We are back in 1974 and the young side must defeat Valenciennes to earn promotion to the first division. “The problem is simple,” growls the legendary scorer of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup. “If we go up, it’s the Parc des Princes and 45,000 people. If we don’t, it’ll be Saint-Germain and 400 people. It’s up to you to see the problem.”

The problem was even more severe than that. This being Paris, backroom machinations had ramped up the pressure, leaving the future of the club itself on the line. But before we get on to that, it’s worth pausing to recall another blunt communicator from the club’s past. Zlatan Ibrahimović achieved many great things in France, yet there was much choking on baguettes across the capital when he rewrote history in 2016. “With all due respect for what went before at PSG, I think the club was born the day the Qataris arrived,” he said.  

With all due respect to the Swede, that’s nonsense. Yes, the story of Paris Saint-Germain appears more like a novella compared to the weighty tomes of clubs founded at the end of the 19th century. But, as the French giants celebrate their 50th anniversary, they have packed enough highs and lows into their existence to produce a serious page-turner. There are chapters galore, each dripping with compelling characters and intriguing plotlines. And the truth is that Ibrahimović would likely never have been in Paris to begin with had Fontaine’s players lost to Valenciennes on 4 June 1974.

That epic turning point needs a little context. Just two years after their foundation in 1970, the club were in turmoil. Paris Saint-Germain had just ended their maiden top-flight season by staving off relegation and were drowning in debt. The city authorities offered to help but with one fateful proviso: they had to change their name to Paris Football Club.

It was an ultimatum too rich for many, the team having been created as a merger between new entity Paris FC and Stade Saint-Germain, who formed in 1904. As a result the club split, with Paris FC reverting to their original name, retaining first-division status and keeping the professional squad; Paris Saint-Germain were relegated to the third tier, with most of the staff who previously worked for Stade Saint-Germain, and were left to tough it out with an amateur contingent.

The outlook, needless to say, was not good. There was a huge thirst in the capital to fill the void left by faded force Racing Club de Paris, the city’s last French champions in 1936. The opening of the Parc des Princes in 1972 had offered a platform for a powerful new team to become the local standard-bearers – and Paris FC were in pole position. Particularly as they were now the Parc’s permanent residents, with Paris Saint-Germain exiled to the tiny Stade Georges Lefèvre (save for a few high-profile fixtures).

Paris FC seemingly had it made. However, they missed an open goal when approached by a rich and ambitious young fashion designer angling to become their new president. Passionate about football, this was prêt-à-porter pioneer Daniel Hechter – and he had a vision.

“He went to see the Paris FC officials and they thought he was a bit of a charlatan,” says Michel Kollar, author of the Official Dictionary of Paris Saint-Germain and the club’s in-house historian. “He was very angry. He didn’t like being treated as someone who wasn’t serious.” So instead, in 1973, Hechter invested in Paris Saint-Germain, by now in the second tier. He took control of the management committee under president Henri Patrelle – a power struggle Hechter would win by snaring the top job the following year. Of the various people claiming to have created Paris Saint-Germain, he arguably has the most solid argument.

Forward Moderchai Spiegler (above); Just Fontaine is joined by Daniel Hetcher on the bench earlier in the season (top right); Paris Saint-Germain investor and film star Jean-Paul Belmondo with Raquel Welch for company (right)

“Daniel was a very creative personality,” says Mordechai Spiegler, still the only Israeli international to have scored a World Cup goal. The forward signed from Paris FC halfway through the 1973/74 campaign – and it was Hechter who asked him to join. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I’m not a couturier!’ Of course, I was joking with him. And I think I made the right move. Daniel was very involved; together with Fontaine and other people, he was very active. Some games, he used to sit on the bench. I don’t see [current president] Nasser Al-Khelaifi sitting on the bench!”

Hechter reimagined the club kit as well (see panel). Moreover he brought glamour, which is now a central strain of the club’s DNA. His group of investors included cinema icon Jean-Paul Belmondo, advertising heavyweight Francis Borelli and Charles Talar, a producer of musicals. “When Hechter presented the people around him, one journalist called them the ‘pink-shirt gang’ because they were very fashionable,” says Kollar. “They represented what Paris Saint-Germain is now: a brand, a club and above all a city known throughout the world. They kind of invented that way of speaking about PSG.”

Today, actors and musicians lineup to be photographed at the Parc des Princes, but the buzz began with Hechter and Belmondo, star of French New Wave classics including À Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou. “I saw Belmondo a lot; he was there for every game, every party, every meeting,” says Spiegler. “It was like it was more than a game – it was the creative creation of a club. A football team is not yet a ‘club’. A great club, a traditional club, can have a bad season and recover. But without the tradition of a club, if you have a bad season you disappear.”

Having a charismatic coach helped too. Fontaine joined shortly after Hechter arrived, though previous coach Robert Vicot stayed on in a less frontline role. “They were good friends but everyone knew who was number one,” says Spiegler, who raised Fontaine’s brow by cheekily describing himself and the boss as the World Cup’s two greatest marksmen, ‘Justo’ with his 13 goals and Spiegler proud of his historic strike at Mexico 1970.

“He had an aura and he did not hide it,” says Spiegler. “He was a very proud character and it was good to have a leader like him, very natural. He was not a big-headed star; he was human, nice and humble. The charisma was always there – and he used his charisma – but tactics were important too, because it must be a combination.”

Tactics were key, in fact, because Fontaine took over a squad containing just three professional players. The leading light of that select group was captain and playmaker Jean-Pierre Dogliani, who paid the last year of his contract with Monaco to join in 1973. “That just shows how much he wanted to be with Just Fontaine,” says Kollar. “Dogliani was passionate about attacking football. You can’t really compare them, but to an extent he was the Johan Cruyff of the team. He was a tall No10 who always wanted to attack. He was a lovely player to watch. When you think of the club’s No10s, you think of Ronaldinho, Raí, Neymar. He’s symbolic because of that.”

“He was a real captain,” adds Spiegler. “He was a tactical player and a hard worker and he was always aware of others. He used to talk, he used to help. He used to be there. Sometimes he was a noisy leader; at the same time he had a big sense of humour. I remember, after training, that Justo, he and the others were like a family. A very good relationship. And then, on the pitch, serious.”

‘Family’ is a word that dominates Spiegler’s recollections. He stayed only six months (later playing alongside Pelé at New York Cosmos) but still feels a deep connection to that side – despite having also spent a year and a half with city rivals Paris FC. “PSG was more than a club,” he says. “There were always people coming to training. It was more a family than at Paris FC. There we used to train at open grounds – sometimes in Colombes, sometimes Saint-Germain. We had no real home. To this day, when I go to Paris, I’m welcomed and this is my club.”

For all that, Spiegler’s debut could hardly have gone worse. Starting against Le Havre in a French Cup game on 6 January 1974, with fans eager to see what he could offer, he was rapidly thwarted. “I got injured after 35 seconds,” he says. “I had a cartilage injury. I limped out and all the people on the committee looked at Daniel Hechter, with their eyes like, ‘You brought us a dead horse.’ Then after two weeks I came back and played against Ajaccio – and in the last minute I scored. Daniel Hechter became the king of the family again.”

Better was to come when Spiegler plundered a six-minute hat-trick away to Avignon in March of that year, still a club benchmark. “I have to meet Mbappé and Neymar to give them my blessing to break my record,” he says, laughing. Alas, the result of that game is remembered less fondly. “In the 60th minute I felt a little bit injured, so I asked Justo to replace me,” says Spiegler. “I went into the dressing room and had a shower; when I came out, it was 3-3. I told them, ‘Lucky I didn’t have a bath.’”  

“We prepared the stage for Neymar and MBappé. I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy”

Still, such setbacks were a rarity as Fontaine’s charges tussled with Red Star at the top of the Division 2 Group B standings, bolstered by Spiegler and fellow new signing François M’Pelé, a pacy Congolese goal machine who became the club’s first African success story. The team had camaraderie on their side, helped by the senior players gelling seamlessly with the youngsters. “We had experienced players and a balanced team,” says Spiegler. “It wasn’t football to put in a museum but we’d find a collective solution to win. And the atmosphere was that we had to win.”

How vital that would soon prove. Triumphant in their last six games of the regular season, Paris Saint-Germain ultimately finished second behind Red Star, setting up a play-off with Group A runners-up Valenciennes. They lost the first leg 2-1 in northern France, at which point Hechter must have been sweating beneath his chic suit. That’s because, unbeknown to the squad, he had taken a massive gamble on the club’s future; failure to win promotion could well have proven fatal. Spiegler and M’Pelé had been excellent acquisitions but the money to sign them had come via a loan – and a very precarious one at that.

“What most people don’t know is that six months before the end of the season, Hechter wasn’t sure PSG would get promoted,” says Kollar. “So he went to radio station RTL and said he wanted to buy two players: ‘Lend me the money and you’ll become sponsors if PSG get promoted.’ But if PSG weren’t promoted, Hechter had to pay back the loan. So that match was very, very important. He’d signed a contract nobody knew about. He’d made a bet. If they’d lost, it would’ve been tough to repay the money.”

Imagine, then, how Hechter felt when Paris slipped 2-1 behind after 48 minutes of the second leg at the Parcdes Princes, leaving them needing three goals. He was sitting on the bench with Fontaine, whose words didn’t provide much comfort: “If we don’t score in the next five minutes, we’re toast.” The players, who had all attended defender Éric Renaut’s wedding in the four days between the games, were blissfully unaware of the broader stakes – but that spirit of togetherness would prove the difference.

“Everyone had to think with a lot of responsibility,” says Spiegler. “I don’t think any of us lost the ball in the second half. We put them under pressure and all of us went in one direction. We thought only one thing: ‘We must win.’ Not, ‘We can win.’ We must. And we made the night shine.”

That they did, with Dogliani quickly equalising and Michel Marella putting them ahead, before Dogliani capped a thrilling 4-2 victory with 15 minutes left. It was a lovely finish: the Marseille native shimmied left – to send the goalkeeper sprawling – then shifted to the right to score. Yet there was a collective holding of breath among the crowd of 20,000 spectators: they feared the linesman’s flag. “I asked Dogliani if that goal was offside or not,” says Kollar. “He said, ‘No, it wasn’t offside because the referee didn’t blow his whistle.’”

Paris held on to secure promotion but the drama wasn’t over. As celebrations erupted after full time, Fontaine suffered a minor heart attack and collapsed on the pitch. “Everyone was around him,” says Spiegler. “The doctor, everyone. There was a moment when we were worried, but he was so excited and so glad that he let himself go. He knew nobody would let him get out of the celebrations. After coming back from two goals behind, you don’t leave your team behind with any heart problems. No, no. He recovered quickly.”

What made victory all the sweeter was Paris FC’s relegation from the top division that same season; they returned to Ligue 1 for one campaign four years later but haven’t been back since. Paris Saint-Germain claimed back the Parc des Princes as their home and started to become the capital powerhouse that the locals craved.

After the game, having gathered strength following his brush with mortality, Fontaine summed up the challenge ahead. “We’ve done the hard part but now it’s going to be even harder, because supporters in Paris expect us to build a great team,” he told the television cameras from the dressing-room bath. “We’ll try to give them emotions – but not as many as tonight because I nearly passed away.”

All the titles that Paris Saint-Germain have racked up over the past half-century, all the emotions they have stirred –good, bad and occasionally health-threatening – were made possible by that one game, a stirring comeback success with a World Cup legend at the helm and a band of friends united in purpose. “We prepared the stage for Neymar and Mbappé, and Zlatan,” says Spiegler. “I never imagined they would go so high, but every time it gets better I’m full of joy. It’s a fantastic feeling to know you were there in the very first days – when the baby was born – and now, years after, they have become a huge club. We made it possible. It was like a tank going forward.”

Fashion
Winning in Style

The abbreviation BBRBB might read like the mysterious code from some Cold War thriller, but to fans of Paris Saint-Germain it means history, heritage and identity. It stands for bleu-blanc-rouge-blanc-bleu (blue-white-red-white-blue), the colour bands of the iconic Hechter shirt introduced in 1973/74.

Paris began life playing in red shirts, but leading fashion designer Daniel Hechter changed all that when he began investing in 1973. “I saw a Ford Mustang that had a band on its bonnet, which continued on the roof, and I transposed that,” said Hechter, whose own version combined Paris’s traditional red and blue with the royal white of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

“In 1975, that shirt was voted in Italy as the most beautiful in the world,” says club historian Michel Kollar. “It’s the shirt that represents Paris Saint-Germain the most, so it’s the one that fans love. It’s also the shirt they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in [in 1996]. For younger fans, it’s not because of Hechter, but because of the trophies PSG have won with it.”

“The shirt was very comfortable and very light,” remembers Mordechai Spiegler, a forward in that 1973/74 season. “You felt like a model.” The club have riffed on the design ever since and sometimes abandoned it completely, but fan pressure usually brings them around – and the classic pattern is set to return in 2020/21, as Paris Saint-Germain celebrate their 50th anniversary.

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