Buidling Dreams Together


Big Brother Series: AC Milan and PSG

Two clubs, now the new face of a rivarly between two cities going back centuries

cultural capitals and emerging rivals 

Louis XIV sat on his throne thinking. 

The King of France was in the process of turning the location of his father’s old hunting lodge into what was to be a symbol epitomising French culture and high art. The Palace of Versailles was to be more than an architectural indulgenge, it was to exist as an object that symbolised his legitimacy to the very throne he was plumped on following numerous internal conflicts to ascend to it. 

There was only one problem, in order to celebrate the very best of France they would need goods of the highest quality. Unfortunately France were not yet capable of producing them and thus, the products would need to be imported from the fashion capitals of the world Madrid, Venice and Milan. 

A fairly demanding individual who changed French fashion.

Not an ideal way to display what France had to offer, Louis decided that the Kingdom would produce its own materials and works worthy of the world’s attention. Inspired by the growth of its rival cities, heavy investments were made in textiles and industry, going as far as to limit imports and increase exports to promote growth or, Mercantilism for short. The creation of the first fashion magazines following, reviewing all the latest trends at the King’s court. 

Lace had been one of the most popular fabrics for nobility, used as part of the frontage, a tall headdress. Yet it had long been imported from Milan, the forerunner in its production. The capital of Lombardy was such a renowned place for high-end goods that the word ‘milaner’ emerged in 16th century England to describe luxury items in clothing, hats and jewellery. 

Now, France would take what the city had done and do it themselves as finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert introduced schools and ateliers where lace could finally be produced at home. 

Guilds were organised to ensure quality and a mandate required new textiles to appear seasonally, twice a year, to ensure creativity. It would lead to what we know today as winter and summer fashion. By the 1680s, a third of Parisian workers were employed by the fashion industry such was the extent of growth. 

Sure enough, foreign powers could now not get enough of their goods as jewellery, furniture and fine wines saw Parisian fashion and culture emerge from the shadow of its Italian neighbour and become the envy of the world. It would continue do so in the centuries that followed as royalty supported creatives like Charles Frederick Worth, the man credited with creating the modern fashion world. 

Long after his death, the world famous names of Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior Yves Saint-Laurent and Givenchy continue to thrive to this day, having grown from foundations the King of France had ordered in place.

Paris had seen what the world was doing and thought it could do better, taking something old, something borrowed and making something new. Some 350 years after the construction of Versailles began, history would repeat itself. 

 ici c’est Paris, mais le foot c’est là-bas

For perhaps the first time in its history, there had been a part of Paris that didn’t really have anything going on. If anything, relative to the rest of the city, the football in the capital was so uninspiring that many of its populace had turned their back on it. 

In the UK and US, celebrity association with a sports team had been a part of the culture with references ranging from Drake’s reference to Lebron James in ‘Nonstop’ to Stranraer and Hibernian by the Proclaimers in ‘Cap in Hand’. In Paris however, legendary figures were embarrassed to be associated with the club, chastising the sport as something vulgar and backwards.

Only the ultras cared about PSG back then, but as a tidal wave of foreign money and influence came over Europe, Paris could not help but be submerged. 

Show me the money

Qatar, like a few of its Middle Eastern neighbours, found themselves in a fortunate position. Beneath their feet was enough oil to fill tens of billions of barrels. Oil could bring you huge financial benefits, but it could also grant a country with a population not even half the size of London’s, influence and favour. However, Qatar did not want to spend for the sake of it, instead it looked to become part of the very conversations that it had not been privy to which had altered the fabric of the world they lived in. 

Now though things were different and all the big players wanted to be their friends. As Simon Kuper put it, its diplomacy became about turning money into friendship. French President Nicholas Sarkozy was one of those more than comfortable cosying up to the nouveau riche, courting their wealth for potential investment and supporting the nation’s attempts at legitimacy or ‘sportswashing’ in the form of World Cup bids as well as the purchase of a club in France. 

Paris became its target and it was obvious to see why. Despite a flailing side that had failed to win the league since 1994 when leagues on the continent often have their capitals at the forefront of a title race (Germany notwithstanding), the potential was there. The Qataris, fronted by Nasser Al-Khelafi, were buying THE club in a one club city. More importantly however, they were buying control of the ‘Paris brand’ in football. Nowhere else in Europe could a club claim dominance over a city the way PSG did. 

Thus when they bought the club in the summer of 2011, it was decided that the club’s image would be altered to match the suaveness of the city. The noncompliant ultras were pushed out, VIP seats were brought in, stadium upgrades made and it was to become a luxurious place for celebrities to be seen. 

The ownership knew they had something with huge promise on their hands, but they also realised that all the financial muscle in the world meant nothing if you didn’t know how to spend it. So just as Louis XIV had done centuries earlier, they looked around and saw exactly who they wanted to be. 

Su, vegnii senza paura: numm ve slongaremm la man
Tutt el mond l’è ’n gran paes, e semm d’accord
Ma Milan, l’è un gran Milan!

There is a song in Milan called O Mia Bela Madunina. It is an ode to the golden statue of Madonna at the top of the Duomo, but it is also about the greatness of the city and the hard workers who inhabit it. It ends with a rallying cry ‘ma Milan, l’è on gran Milan/ but Milan is a great Milan’, it is a symbol of the love the Milanese have for their home and encapsulates the passion that half a city holds for the home of one of the greatest clubs the world has ever known.

Seven time Champions League winners, AC Milan have their place secured in the pantheon of greats. Not only that, the club has etched itself into the minds of people all around the world as the red and black stripes of the Rossonneri are as iconic as any footballing colours in the world. 

Their notoriety has been fuelled by dominance across eras. Their first, powered by the Swedish trio Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedhol, affectionately referred to as ‘Gre-No-Li’, brought them fame in Italy winning and helped kickstart an era that brought nearly half the Scudetti available in the 1950s to red side of Milan.

Whilst they had fallen on hard times in the early 80s, under Berlusconi’s golden touch they re-emerged at a time when European football was the only thing worth watching for many people. Success under Sacchi, whose innovative streak had helped change football in the way Ajax and Barcelona had done before them, won two Champions League titles. Then, Fabio Capello took over and won one of his own with a 4–0 crushing of Barcelona’s Dream Team in a result so unexpected that it is said Cruyff had taken photos with the trophy before kick-off. The victory confirmed a new dawn in football and the face of it, AC Milan. 

Berlusconi and the Champions League, carried by a certain Ancelotti.

The likes of Van Basten, Rijkard, Gullit, Maldini and Costacurta drove a side in an unrelenting pursuit of trophies and, as football was more widely available to watch, with the likes of Channel 4’s covering the golden age of Serie A, their abilities and successes seeped into a kind of mystique that has become almost impossible to replicate. 

Perhaps even more impressive than having one dominant era, is having two. Berlusconi helped produce exactly that as Ancelotti was brought in to replace Fatih Terim in 2001. Maldini and Costacurta were still present but a new side was assembled over the years that included Pirlo, Seedorf, Kaka, Inzaghi, Shevshenko and Gattuso and would re-capture both the public’s imagination and the Champions League in 2003 and 2007, with the unforgettable Istanbul final defeat to Liverpool in between. 

Despite the successes of the clubs around them, it was their presence on the European stage that imbued them with a mythological status. It is difficult to imagine that in Ancelotti’s eight seasons, they only managed one Scudetto, yet still remain the best Italian side of that era in people’s minds. That kind of status is exactly what Paris wanted as they sought something grander than results on the pitch. 

So with the money behind them, Al-Khelaifi and his team attempted to implement the very blueprint that had made the Milanese club so revered around the world. 

old friends reunited

Leonardo Araújo is known primarily for two things, being AC Milan’s director and being PSG’s director. Perhaps that is a little insulting given that he not only played for both clubs, but also won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994. Perhaps it is also testament to the work he did at both clubs following his retirement. 

He had two spells in Milan as a player, the first of these saw him win the league 1999. However it was his return to the club during which he won the 2003 Coppa Italia that could be said to be the more significant of the two despite only playing 5 games (all in the Coppa Italia). It was during this time that he found himself coached by Carlo Ancelotti. Having played under him, they would then briefly work together as a technical director/manger duo before Araújo replaced the Italian in the dugout when he left for Chelsea in May 2009. 

It proved to be an underwhelming career on the touchline with brief stints for both Milan sides (albeit a Coppa Italia win with Inter in 2011). So when he was hired as director of football for PSG, Leonardo knew the ideal man to manage the side. 

Old chums.

Ancelotti had just been on the receiving end of a somewhat ignominious sacking for someone of his calibre and achievements. An FA Cup and Premier League double (and the less heralded Community Shield) in his first season was no small feat, but a trophyless second year was enough for Roman Abramovich to point him towards the door with his p45 in hand. 

Meanwhile in Paris, despite being ahead in the league by 3 points and on course for their first league title in 17 years, PSG pressed on with the belief that the project was to be about more than results. By the time club legend Antoine Kombouaré was sacked and in December 2011, Ancelotti had been convinced to get involved. 

He was ideal for the role, ‘Don Carlo’ added a certain panache and class to the club. The man from Reggiolo had also managed some of the biggest names in football even before his arrival at Milan with Buffon, Cannavaro, Zidane, Crespo and Zola just a few of the stars he coached during his time with Parma and Juventus. With big players set to land in Paris, it was imperative to have a trainer who could handle them. 

Spending had begun in the summer prior to his arrival as Kevin Gameiro, Salvatore Sirigu and Javier Pastore were all brought in before Champions League winners Maxwell, Thiago Motta and Premier League winner with Chelsea Alex arrived in January to show the increasing calibre the club could attract. Despite the signings, the club gave up their lead and lost the title to Olivier Giroud’s Montpellier. 

Regardless, Ancelotti was starting to bring the desired improvements off the field. In-house catering was introduced and a chef hired to travel with the players for away matches. He had high standards and knew what made a winning squad, having a canteen allowed players to stick around the training ground and spend more time together. The Champions League winning players also found the club receptive to new ideas as they asked to improve the training pitches.

So, the club moved on from a slightly embarrassing opening season and in the summer of 2012, Carlo and Leonardo sat down and dusted off their Rolodex’s as they began tapping up the big guns from their Milan days. In order to go above and beyond winning and losing they would need players that could guarantee performances but were also a brand in their own right. In signing Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Beckham (on loan in January), they had got themselves arguably the world’s best centre-back and Maldini’s heir in Milan, a player with untapped brand potential and one the Rossoneri had brought in for the very same reputation enhancing purpose. 

Arguably the first of its kind, ‘Brand Beckham’ had changed the way footballers marketed themselves, existing far beyond the confines of the grass they played on. In joining Milan on loan from LA Galaxy not once but twice, in 2009 and 2010, Beckham had added a new facet to his profile, consumers would now associate Becks with the cool and class of Milan.Something that would come in handy when selling fragrances and whisky. PSG had hoped that their city could offer the same as a means of enticing him. 

Brand Beckham.

His arrival, regardless of performance, was also meant to generate discussion and interest in the club. It did exactly that as a video of a tearful, now elder statesman Beckham leaving the pitch during his last ever game was seen around the world. Just as hoped, the PSG logo was plastered on his chest as they became eternally tied to the moment. 

The main attractions were joined by Veratti, Lavezzi and Moura as they put the previous season’s disappointment behind them to win the title by an emphatic 12 points. Whilst they had been knocked out of the UCL by Barcelona, going out on away goals after 2–2 and 1–1 draws, people were beginning to take proper notice of the club. From there the real successes began to take shape as the class and elegance the desired individuals brought to the club began to help establish the brand that the nation state craved when the club was purchased.

They had transplanted the genes of Milan’s success and inserted it into their own DNA. But just as Paris had taken what Milan had done and run away with it, so too did Al-Khelaifi dream of more than being just a living relic. Ancelotti would leave for Madrid in 2009, but by then the wheels were already in motion.

In his absence PSG continued to steamroll their way to league and cup titles (with a few bumps along the way). Milan’s trajectory meanwhile was in the opposite direction. Once Silva and Ibrahimovic had gone, the final embers of the ‘Dream Team’ era died out as players began to decline and were not adequately replaced. 

Pato, Ronaldinho, Robinho and even an ageing Ronaldo were just some of the players Milan had kept for too long without planning for the future as the side began to look like a Legends team in a charity game. It showed too, only 2 Supercoppas (Italy’s Community Shield) were won in the following decade. What they had also failed to pick up on, was that both players and the club needed to be brands, constant agents in self-promotion, rather than being one that lived off the memories of days gone by. 

The Milanese had remained in stasis as the footballing landscape had been turned on its head and Paris had used the decade to become the sport’s capital of branding. 

victory is on the runway

As the 2020s began, AC had been well and truly eclipsed by its Parisian rival. For the French side, the buying and selling of players was not going to be their most important source of income. That strategy could be left to the likes of Brighton and any of those Red Bull teams. Neither was it to be TV deals, they were making less than Leicester. The money they coveted was to be made off the pitch. 

Under the guidance of Chief Brand Officer Fabian Allègre, one of the men who had helped capitalise on the city’s heritage as part of the club’s cultural identity, they became a ‘lifestyle brand’. Essentially, marketing spiel for ‘we want to be able to sell you everything with our name on it, from tootbrushes to paddle-boards’. Using multimedia content and fashion, they aimed to make their fortune from things that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with being a football club, nor is kicking a ball what wanted they wanted to be known for anyway. 

CBO Allègre.

They chose their collaborators carefully, Rolling Stones, Levi and Dior would help give them that ‘rock-star’ status and mass appeal. Meanwhile, working with those lesser known to the mainstream such as Koché, Manish Arora, Bape, Commune de Paris as well as Esteban Cortázar and JonOne for fashion and poster designs gave them a cultural capital. It gave them an edge. 

PSG x Koché

Suddenly, being seen in a PSG kit was no longer something to be frowned upon as it had been for decades in the city. The likes of Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner and Lebron James were all proudly sporting theirs (unpaid as PSG is quick to remind everyone) as if it were a Versace or Supreme tee. Everybody looked to be to be associated with the club as its VIP section expanded to take up to a tenth of the stadium. Stores opened in LA, New York, Tokyo, Seoul and Doha with people flocking to buy the chance to be seen in PSG apparel. 

But the crown jewel came in 2018 when Jordan announced its sponsorship of the club. The deal, estimated to be worth around £175m, (compared to the £157m they earned in broadcast revenue the following year) represented a seismic shift in both sports and fashion. Being the first football club chosen by the company was a significant landmark and it also helped that the Jordan logo fit so seamlessly as a replacement for the Eiffel Tower. The collaboration was everywhere from Justin Timberlake’s jacket at his ‘Man of the woods’ concert in Paris to Michael Jordan himself whilst attending a game at Parc des Princes. 

A club bought for £60m is now worth almost £4bn with the club topping Deloitte’s 21–22 revenue list despite their TV earnings being lower than most Premier League sides. Its overall social media following is 400 times what it was prior to the sale as the club has transcended football and seeped into modern culture in a way no other club had. The club and its players had been name-checked a fair few times in French rap but in 2016 the song Thiago Silva by UK rappers Dave and AJ Tracey was release, becoming immortalised at Glastonbury when a fan was invited on stage and performed the song in a PSG Silva shirt. 

Its logo featured at the Shenzhen fashion show in 2017 before being presented in designs by Koché at Paris Fashion Week. Despite what football ‘purists’ may think of the club, their place as a frontrunner is undeniable, even creating an e-sports team in 2016. 

There is just one hitch. An itch that continues to remain unscratched. A theme of jibes by rival fans that continues to rankle those in Paris. 

They have never won the Champions League. 

Al-Khelaifi’s statement ‘I promise we’re gonna win the Champions League’ in 2020 has since turned into winning the UCL ‘is not at all an obsession’, but the sacking of managers in spite of convincing league wins when they fell short in Europe very much supports the truth of the former statement rather than the latter. 

Despite over a decade of frontlines that have ranged from Ibra, Lavezzi, Cavani to Messi, Neymar, Mbappe to Mbappe, Dembele, Barcola, they have still been unable to clinch Big Ears. So when Manchester City claimed it for themselves as part of their treble winning season under the helm of the United Arab Emirates, a nation state exercising its own sportswashing, an even greater scrutiny fell on the project. 

Despite coming as close as a final in 2020, if the club are unable to go all the way this season, players will soon be reluctant to join a team of ‘nearly men’. All the brand power in the world can’t help you if the XI on the pitch are not producing the goods. With Mbappe seemingly giving up and joining the competition’s most famous ever side in the summer, under Luis Enrique, PSG are in the midst of preparing for life without their talisman and their regeneration could end up making or breaking them. 

down but not out

As the world’s requirements of fashion shifted away from haute couture and towards what became known as ready-to-wear, many believed Milan would be left behind, unable to cope in the new world. 

But if two World Wars could not kill the industry, then neither would this. Always looking forward, Italy’s ‘least Italian city’ was going to going to re-invent itself once again. 

As Rome and Venice failed to adapt and fell away, Milan embraced the change thanks to the city’s infrastructure to travel on land or by air to regain its place as a fashion leader. Continuiting to be the hotbed of innovative brands, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace emerged and flourished as the city still managed to maintain its past allure with its artisanal traditions but taking inspiration from trends in Paris and adapting them for local taste. Finding a way to mesh the fabrics of the past with new creations for the future all whilst remaining true to the spirit of being a Milanese.

And so, just as football had thought Associazione Calcio Milan was a story of the past, a mid-table team stuck under an ownership that never got them going anywhere but backwards as football evolved without them, they called upon one of their favourite sons in their hour of need. 

Now under the control of the Elliott Management Corporation, the higher-ups at Milan had finally cottoned on to the fact that Zlatan, now on the brink of forty, was not just a deadly finisher or a lively character, he was a powerful brand. The Swede could not only help them succeed, but thrive on and off the pitch. Within a year, they had won their first title in eleven attempts and have played in the Champions League in every season since.

Significantly, they have also taken inspiration from Paris to propel themselves to new heights. With greater ambition under the new ownership, they began collaborating with the New York Yankees and streetwear brand Off-White, who became their official ‘Style Partner and Curator’. Their launch of an ‘exclusive collection’ with Paper Planes signalled that they had finally understood that the real income streams were not in the fans with lifelong connections to the club, but a younger generation with a love for fashion and cash to burn. 

When they played Napoli at the San Siro last year, they did so wearing a black kit that had been designed by Pleasures, an LA based streetwear brand. It was a limited edition piece available in ‘light’ and ‘dark’ versions and cost a pretty £145. 

Some things …

The kit’s design tapped into the the city itself with its Gothic architecture and hip-hop culture and when the launch went live, its sales beat the previous day’s by 70%. The club reported that most sales outside Italy were in the US (having one of the country’s best in Pulisic does no harm) and that over 60% of sales were to people under the age of 30. 

Just like the city which gave rise to some of the most famous works of da Vince and Verdi, i Rossoneri had always been innovators. In 1986 they had introduced ‘the lab’, a place of scientific study at the club that Seedorf, Costacurta and Maldini have all credited with extending their careers. As times changed, the lab became ‘The Studios’, a hub that produces multimedia content and has helped Milan become a leader in sports-entertainment, employing over 40 people.

Similarly to PSG, they established a partnership with an e-sports team of their own with Qlash or, AC Milan Qlash, as it became known, began to compete in 2020. 

All this has played its part in the club being named the fastest growing brand amongst the top 50 clubs in 2023 by Brand Finance. 

… never change

They are also continuing to look towards the future. If you inspect their content, you will notice that no one player dominates attention. This is for good reason according to Casper Stylsvig, AC Milan’s chief revenue officer, who says that the club does not want to make the mistake of hitching its trailer to any individual who could leave during the next window (say Mbappe for PSG for example). 

You might have noticed that Koché (who had been part of PSG’s fashion campaign) has made his way south to collaborate with Milan for a new range of outfits, some making their way to Paris’ own Fashion Week. Or perhaps you saw AC Milan’s new VIP seats, sat above the dugout for an ‘NBA experience’. The club’s shift in catering for the city’s famed locale is yet another way in which they have followed in Paris’ footsteps to conquer to new world. 

Now to 2022, RedBird Capital Partners, an investment firm with stakes in the Fenway Sports Group and Toulouse FC among others, bought the club for a report £1bn. About 17 times what 70% of PSG was bought for 11 years prior, the fee represented a huge rise in value for both clubs in recent years and showed the extent to which efforts off the pitch contribute to a side’s financial status. It seems to be that brand visibility and potential will be the deciding factor in determining the price a club is bought at in future that, even those which some of us have never even heard of. 

So when PSG welcomed Milan to the Parc des Princes in this year’s UCL group stages, they faced a side risen from the dead, mutated into a beast now looking eerily similar to themselves. Although the final exchanges left the sides with one win a piece, the real contest was, and continues to be, far from the stadiums in which they play. 

As the decades have rolled by, history has continued to repeat itself as an envious Paris sought to improve what was happening in Milan, ever understanding of how the world was changing and being at the forefront of change in it. Milan for its part, with each passing century never fails to inspire and, despite constantly being weighed by the grandiosity of its past, always seems to carve out a place for itself at the top. Paris may have the upper hand these days ma Milan, l’è on gran Milan