WORDS BY LIAM BAXTER
A far stretch from the ignominious wealth of Paris Saint Germain, a different kind of football club entices a different kind of football fan in the suburbs of the City of Love. Red Star Paris, or Red Star, is a club rooted in the belief that football should unite people and asserts itself as a club for all. While PSG and its Qatari backed millions have become the poster boy for modern football, Red Star and their beloved Stade Bauer have a far more grounded approach to the game - it is tangible and authentic.
Much like the city it calls home, the tale of Red Star is one of revolution and of breaking down barriers. Now residing in Saint-Ouen, a vibrant district of Paris, Red Star is a club aiming for a distinct cultural diversity that reflects the neighbourhood it calls home. Founded in 1897, at a small table in a small coffee shop by none other than inaugural FIFA president Jules Rimet, Red Star sports club was built upon a remit of disregarding the class system entirely and enriching its local community. The son of a grocer, Jules Rimet found it difficult to find a place to get involved with organised sport as a youth and so aged 24 set about building a club that allowed citizens of Paris to enjoy organised athletics, tennis, or a game of football no matter your class or cultural background. Red Star meant a chance to play, where the only entry criteria was a sincere interest and passion for the game.
Red Star Paris was not and is not a club for the rich. It was not and is not a club for the poor. It was not and is not a club for the bohemians or the tourists or the hipsters. Red Star Paris is wholeheartedly and unashamedly a club for everyone.
As founder Jules Rimet took on the mantle of FIFA President in the early 1920s, Red Star began a brief period of dominance over French football. Four Coupe de France victories in 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1928 coupled with regional championships in 1920, 1922 and 1924 provided a solid foundation on which to build success that would lead the club to becoming one of the founding members of the French Division 1.
The club’s ties with left-leaning politics and the working class were embedded early on in their history but emboldened further during the course of the Second World War, largely due to the efforts of another man with socialist ideals and the willingness to fight for them. A man who would play just once for the club: Rino Della Negra.
Rino Della Negra was born to two Italian parents who fled to Argenteuil in north western Paris during the rise of Mussolini in the early 1930s. Mussolini’s Italy was one of extremist, militant far-right politics, a far cry from the immigrant led, anti-fascist culture of Argenteuil where Della Negra would find himself in his formative years - a climate that would lead him to becoming a staunch communist.
A pacey right-winger - ironically - who could also deputise as a goalkeeper when needed, Della Negra combined his early footballing career with work in a nearby factory and during the Second World War he enlisted in the French resistance fighters where he would regularly inform local Jewish families of upcoming raids, derail German steam trains and ambush marching German soldiers.
In 1944, Rino Della Negra was injured via a bullet to the back during an attack, taken as a political prisoner by the Gestapo and eventually killed by firing squad. In a letter to his brother before his assassination he wrote the parting line “hello and goodbye to Red Star” highlighting his affinity for the club.
Della Negra’s is a story of struggle and sacrifice and has become hugely important among the French club’s left-leaning fanbase. In 2004 the club unveiled a plaque honouring the resistance fighter and his image can be seen week in week out on banners and tifos around the Stade Bauer - his ultimate sacrifice eventually led to a stand at the Stade Bauer named in his honour.
Rino Della Negra could just have easily stayed quiet during the war and made a decent living as a footballer. Instead, with just one appearance for Red Star in his locker, his name carries far more weight with the club than if he’d made 100 appearances in the top-flight. A man of principle, Della Negra paid the price for standing up for his beliefs with his life. It is because of the selfless efforts of Rino Della Negra that fans of Red Star today are quick to denounce racism while welcoming refugees onto its terraces with open arms.
Red Star enjoyed a brief stint in the French top flight in the 1970s, but have languished further down the pyramid ever since, bobbing between the second and third rungs of French football. Nowadays they are owned by French film producer Patrice Haddad and former Manchester United and Sunderland striker David Bellion has taken on the mantle of Creative Director.
Haddad’s ownership and his insistence of building upon the traditions of the club has gone down well with the fanbase – all except the proposed move to a €200million stadium complex nearby that was vetoed by a large proportion of the fanbase because of their belief that the Stade Bauer symbolises the tangible soul of the club. The club’s ability to successfully market itself has been seen as key in securing the stability of this once
financially unstable football club.
Between Haddad and Bellion, the duo has built bridges between the football club and the worlds of culture, arts and lifestyle. “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. Not a lot of clubs have that natural credibility.” said Bellion
in a 2018 interview for the Guardian.
Their continued efforts have led to a base of supporters engaged in social discourse and focussed on helping their communities in a programme known as ‘Citizen Football’. They are politically active, and this cultivates an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance - the Green Army can even be heard singing for the players no matter the score line for the full 90 minutes.
Perhaps the most valuable element of the football club is its Red Star Lab set up in 2016. A community project initiated to offer young people in the area the opportunity to learn life skill as well as helping them find their passions - be it in photography, cooking, music, drama or acting. The Red Star Lab harks back to the club’s initial roots in 1987 when President and Founder Jules Rimet set up the club with the objective of offering young people cultural training, not just by opening an inclusive sports club but installing a library within the stadium.
Red Star Paris is a football club showcasing all that is good about the sport. Football isn’t about winning trophies. If that was the case 90% of football fans would have given up years ago. Football is about bringing people together through a love of a shared experience and cultural enhancement and Red Star is a shining example of that. You don’t support Red Star to be a glory hunter, you support Red Star to appreciate football’s true values.