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26 August 2020

Bayern Munich won the Champions League – but Paris Saint-Germain are building an empire

How PSG, a Qatari soft-power project, were transformed from one of French football’s perennial underachievers into a powerhouse of the game.

By Jonathan Liew

It was, in many ways, the Champions League final that 2020 deserved: Paris Saint-Germain vs Bayern Munich, the Qatari soft-power project against the German corporate giant, in a game sponsored by the Russian partially state-owned energy supplier Gazprom, in an eerily empty stadium with no fans present. Welcome to Lisbon. The global coronavirus death toll stands at more than 809,000. Your referee is a Mr Orsato from Italy. Let’s play!

But then, the beauty and the horror of football has always been its ability to make you forget. To bury your earthbound concerns in fresh snowfalls of athleticism and wonder. To shout down the stories it doesn’t want to tell with the stories it does. As Bayern lifted the trophy after their 1-0 win, the eye was inescapably drawn to their left-back Alphonso Davies, the brilliant Canadian teenager born in a Ghanaian refugee camp to parents fleeing Liberia’s civil war, now scaling the peak of European football at the age of 19.

Meanwhile, among the beaten finalists was PSG’s star centre-back Presnel Kimpembe. He is not a product of a jaw-dropping nine-figure transfer fee, but a Paris native who had joined the club’s youth academy at the age of ten, long before the club was bought by the Qatari state, lavished with unthinkable investment and reimagined as a state propaganda vehicle.

The point here is that ultimately you see whatever you want to see. The reverse, of course, is also true. The old money/new money dialectic that many sought to impose on the final ignores the fact that Bayern also benefit handsomely from Qatari investment via a sponsorship deal with the country’s state airline. The narrative of Bayern’s big-game pedigree trumping PSG’s big-game naivety also falls down when you consider that each of the starting XIs could boast five Champions League winners’ medals.

Besides, it’s always possible to read too much into a single game of football, even one as important as this. It was, after all, a fairly even contest, one that could legitimately have tipped either way. Had either Neymar or Kylian Mbappé put away their clear-cut chances in the first half, PSG would probably have won. “You can’t control the result,” their German manager Thomas Tuchel philosophically observed afterwards.

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You get the feeling PSG’s owners will keep trying regardless. After all, control has been the defining theme of Qatar’s stewardship since it purchased the club in 2011, ushering in an unprecedented era of success. And in many ways the broader theme of this season’s Champions League final was already in place: PSG’s measured but inexorable progress towards its ultimate goal of global pre-eminence, an end to which a tight 1-0 defeat is really only a minor inconvenience, a bump in the road.

PSG have already essentially anaesthetised their own league as a meaningful contest. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, PSG have won 24 of the 28 available domestic trophies. The only time they were pipped to the Ligue 1 title, by Monaco in 2017, PSG responded by forking out £160m for Mbappé, Monaco’s best player. On the European stage, they have gone from a solitary semi-final in four decades to reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League eight seasons running. How will they make the final leap? It may – and I’m speculating here – simply involve getting out the chequebook.

It was instructive to hear Tuchel speaking, in the minutes after their defeat in Lisbon, of the need for further reinforcements at a club that has already spent north of £1bn on transfer fees alone in the past decade. “We need to use the transfer window…” he insisted. “We need to build a strong, strong squad.” And the recent history of the Qatari state suggests that there are few problems that its swollen coffers have been unable to overcome.

This goes well beyond its investment in players such as Neymar, Mbappé, Ángel di María and Mauro Icardi, or the new training ground in Poissy that is scheduled to open in 2022. For example, around the same time Qatar bought PSG, its state owned broadcaster Al Jazeera bought broadcast rights to Ligue 1, which it continues to hold. French football is thus in the invidious position of owing much of its financial solvency to the same state that owns its biggest club. As ever, Qatari spending is irrevocably bound up not just in product, but in control.

Meanwhile, in a transfer market first overheated by Qatari capital and now contracted by coronavirus and the impending global recession, PSG is uniquely placed to cement its advantage still further. Even the traditional giants such as Real Madrid and Barcelona are unlikely to be able to compete with them on wages or transfer fees in the short term. “He would be very welcome here,” Tuchel said impishly in response to the bubbling speculation that even the great Lionel Messi – currently disgruntled at Barcelona and reportedly considering his options – might be tempted by a move.

PSG probably won’t sign Messi. And no matter how much they spend, they’ll probably never attain the same dominance in European football that they have managed in France. But then again, a decade ago it would have felt equally unlikely that a tiny Gulf state would end up hosting a World Cup. That it would transform one of French football’s most perennial underachievers into one of the powerhouses of the game through a combination of luxury rebranding and financial shock and awe.

And moreover, that it would be allowed to do so largely unimpeded, despite its human rights abuses, its geopolitical sabre-rattling, the migrant workers dying in untold numbers on its construction sites. But as ever in football, you see whatever you want to see. 

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