Even with Messi, Mbappé and Neymar, PSG are a Champions League also-ran once again. Is buying local the way forward?
Kylian Mbappe, meanwhile, came across so phlegmatic that he seemed almost detached, as if the whole thing had happened only in the abstract. He had promised that PSG would do the best it could in the Champions League, he said. So it must logically follow that being eliminated by Bayern Munich in the round of 16 was the best it could do. “That is our maximum,” Mbappe said.
Certainly, there was none of the fury or frustration that has typically greeted PSG’s shortfalls in this competition over the last decade. None of the club’s executives tried to barge into the referees’ room to complain about a decision. There was no boiling indignation or bubbling sense of injustice. Just as it had on the field, PSG slipped from view without rage or rancor.
It would be easy to attribute that meekness to familiarity. After all, failing in the last 16 of the Champions League is kind of what PSG does: Writing in L’Equipe, Vincent Duluc referred to it as the club’s “culture.” It has lost at this stage in eight of the last 10 seasons. It still hurts, of course, but it does not hurt as much, not when you are steeled for the blow.
There is, though, a kinder diagnosis. After a decade in which they have spent an obscene amount of state-supplied money putting together one of the most expensive, star-spangled squads ever conceived – gathering immense, unchecked political power and dangerously distorting the financial landscape of European soccer in the process – the power brokers at PSG have, belatedly, started to wonder if they are doing this whole thing wrong.
The club’s Qatari leaders have realized that what they would call their “squad-building model” has left the club with an unbalanced, ill-fitting sort of a team, one that any manager would struggle to forge into a cogent unit.
They have heard the long, consistent complaints from the club’s fans that they cannot identify with a motley collection of superstars, picked up and plucked down with little apparent rhyme or reason beyond how many followers they have on Instagram. And they have, at last, decided to do something about it. There is, within the club, a desire to repurpose the squad this summer so that it has not just a more French flavor, but a more distinctly Parisian one. The French capital has, after all, been the most fertile proving ground in world soccer for years. It has long been absurd that it has had only the dimmest reflection in the city’s only top-flight team, not least because a team stocked with local talent is effectively a shortcut to a genuine identity, one that fans appreciate and cherish.
That will mean, as the plan runs, more opportunities for players from the club’s youth system. It was telling that PSG finished Wednesday’s game with two teenage prospects on the field in Munich: defender El Chadaille Bitshiabu and midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery, neither of whom is old enough to rent a car.
But that kind of reconstruction will also require the club to repatriate some of the prospects who eluded its grasp in the recent past, the players whose successes elsewhere effectively function as an ongoing rebuke of PSG’s failure to make the most of the talent on its doorstep.
That will not be a cheap endeavor. Marcus Thuram, the Borussia Monchengladbach forward, may be out of contract this summer, but his club teammate Manu Kone is not. Neither is Randal Kolo Muani, the France international currently with Eintracht Frankfurt. Kone and Kolo Muani have been identified as prospective recruits for this new-look PSG. The club cannot expect a discount for buying local.
That is not the only point at which the theory – logically sound though it may be – collides with an unhelpful reality. It is not really possible to “overhaul” a squad, not in the way that the news media presents it, fans understand it and executives tend to mean it.
It is all very well that PSG wants to add more Parisian players to its ranks, but what does that mean for the squad that is currently in situ, the one made up of highly decorated internationals on generous, legally enforceable contracts?
While it is vaguely feasible that Lionel Messi will take one decision, at least, out of PSG’s hands by electing to move back to Barcelona, or back to Argentina, or by deciding to fill the only gap on his glistening resume and spend a couple of years being taught the finer points of the game by Phil Neville in Miami. (The fact that PSG would ideally like both to rip up its squad and start again and extend Messi’s contract is an irony the club appears not to have noticed.)
But while Messi, like Neymar, draws much of the focus, they are not really the problem. Far more complex are their teammates, the ones earning PSG money and playing Champions League soccer who would have to be persuaded to forgo at least one of those things to allow the club to accommodate the reinforcements.
How many teams are there, for example, who would both be willing and able to match Marco Verratti’s salary? And how many of those clubs would Marco Verratti actually want to join? Or would PSG find itself with a squad caught between two eras: half-stocked with young Parisian players, restored to the hometown club that scorned them, and half-filled with the remnants of its flawed, futile past?
That is the issue, of course, with trying to impose an identity on a team, rather than allowing one to develop organically. And regardless of the provenance of the players, that is precisely what PSG would be trying to do: turn the club, overnight, into a sort of high-status Athletic Bilbao, just as it has spent a decade trying to craft an image of Barcelona-en-Seine.
It would not be authentic, not in any real sense. It would simply be an identity that can be assumed for a while and then discarded whenever it is convenient, just as all the others have been. It would, effectively, be nothing but a rebranding. And it is difficult to believe that it would lead to any other destination to the one that PSG knows so well: the one where the disappointment is so familiar that it no longer hurts the way it once did, where defeat is borne not with anger but weary resignation, where everything has to change but nothing really will.
Two bad options
Corinne Diacre can take pride, really, in lasting this long. She was, eventually, dismissed from her post as coach of the French women’s team on Thursday. But her position had been untenable for the better part of a year, if not more.
Senior players had complained about her methods, her managerial style, her selection choices, her approach to communications – basically anything and everything you could possibly think of – before last summer’s European Championship. An ever-growing number of her squad had publicly refused to represent their country as long as she was in charge.
In the end, then, the only surprise was that the French soccer federation, the FFF, waited so long. “I was confronted by an unease that had already existed for several years,” said Philippe Diallo, the federation’s interim president. “It is up to me to decide it, but I did so by choosing between two bad options.”
In speaking to the players, he said, he had been told of “a difficulty between the coach and a certain number” of the squad. He decided he had no choice but to “follow their recommendation,” not least because there is a World Cup in a few months and France would, presumably, want to have most of its best players available to play in it.
But while the strength of the players’ feeling is not in doubt, what lies at the root of it is less clear. Diacre is known to be cold, brusque even. She gives the air, certainly, of being an unforgiving, vaguely old-school sort of a coach. She is not, in the words of one colleague, a “natural communicator.”
Those are all flaws, of course, but flaws are not the same as fireable offenses. (There has never been a suggestion of anything more untoward at the heart of the French players’ complaints.) It is not necessarily the coach’s job, after all, to be liked by the players. It is not necessarily in the interests of the federation that the players feel empowered to remove any coach that they do not agree with professionally.
Diallo, clearly, felt he had no choice but to remove Diacre in the hope of ending the impasse. He is probably right to worry, though, that the precedent is not an encouraging one.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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