A view from Paris: Paris Saint Germain and the limits of Ligue 1

We visited Paris Saint Germain to take stock of how what they have built is now their biggest weakness.
Paris Saint Germain
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

It’s a cold Saturday in Paris, three days before Christmas, and there’s a certain irony as I arrive to watch one of the world’s wealthiest footballing clubs play whilst the city awaits to see if mass protests about high tax rates will continue. It’s a trip framed by economics. Matchday sees the resumption of all fixtures in Ligue 1 after the nationwide protests caused the suspension of most games over the past few weeks; this is PSG’s first league fixture in three weeks, and it was only confirmed 72 hours beforehand that the game was actually taking place. Yet, a longer term problem revolves around the league; with no competition for PSG, it has stifled the team’s ability to fulfil the words of their Qatari owners and bring the Champions League title, in many ways it has become a league of limitations for PSG. 

Project. Project. Project. If ever a word was to gain notoriety alongside a football club, it is Paris Saint Germain and the ‘’project’’ their Qatari investors have embarked on ever since buying the club in 2011 and boldly declaring they would bring the UEFA Champions League to the club for the first time in history. The project had been gradually building with the signings of players such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edison Cavani and Thiago Silva before taking it to an unprecedented level in the summer of 2017 by spending nearly £400m on strikers Neymar and Mbappe, fees that shocked even in a sport known for outrageous financial outgoings.  The signing of Mbappe was a double blow, as it also effectively hindered the chances of Monaco retaining the title they shockingly won in the 2016/17 season by taking away their star player.

Last season PSG coasted to the Ligue 1 title by 13 points, Cavani scored 28 goals and Neymar 19 as the team romped to 108 goals in the season.  However, domestic bliss has been coupled with a sense of frustration at the team being unable to topple the best in Europe. Losing 6-1 to Barcelona in 2017 as a 4-0 first leg lead was overturned was the sort of result that scars a club for a generation. Last season the side tamely fell to tournament masters Real Madrid in the last 16, and there were growing rumours that Neymar would leave PSG to join Madrid; an indicator at the growing sense that Ligue 1 domination alone is not matching the ambitions of players at the club. German coach Thomas Tuchel was hired in May 2018 with a mandate to succeed in Europe, a tough ask for a young coach with no proven track record of winning continental competitions. His first act as manager was to assure Neymar that the team will be built around the Brazilian’s exceptional talent and that has had a visible consequence; this season has been Neymar’s most productive at the club.

Today’s game sees PSG take on Nantes, who are relatively comfortable in mid-table. The trip to PSG’s stadium, Parc Des Princes, is a straightforward one aided by Paris’s exceptional metro system. The illuminated Christmas lights across the streets give this game an added jovial feel, and with it being holiday season, lots of families have come out together to see what should be a comfortable PSG win.

Parc Des Princes is a compact yet wonderfully bright stadium, and the atmosphere is friendly. The stadium feels smaller than it comes across on TV, and being situated just above the half-way line gives me a great view of the pitch.  The atmosphere feels more like a concert, there is little apprehension from the festive home fans before kick-off, a symbol for the domination PSG hold in the league, a group of friends seated next to me are wearing Nantes scarves, yet predict a 5-0 loss for their side. Then the music hits and the screen comes on and we are treated to a spectacle: a PA announcer screams the names of the players one by one, with Mbappe and Cavani in particular breaking the decibel scales. Neymar is injured and has returned to Brazil for treatment, so the game lacks its main star, but is still littered with world-class players, with Buffon and Di Maria also starting in Tuchel’s unorthodox 4-2-2-2 line-up.

Behind Buffon in goal there is a massive and wonderfully artistic banner which is held aloft by fans, while flares also go off in that area. This area is at a contrast to the rest of the stadium, with the fans jumping up and down while loudly singing, and the banner spells out ‘’Parais Cohortis’’, the name of an ultras group which coincidentally is celebrating its 5th anniversary of existence with this game I am told by a fan in front of me.

PSG are determined to become a global force in football both on the field and off it, yet the strangely subdued atmosphere reduces this from being a must-see experience, another knock-on effect of the club lacking a competitive rival in Ligue 1. Without competition, there are no nerves, no tension, no fear from fans and this was reflected in the atmosphere as I sat down to watch the game.

The game kicks off and Nantes, to quote Mr Mourinho, have decided to park the bus. They sit deep while PSG bombard their half. There is an eerie-like silence to the game as PSG dominate while fans admiringly watch, the team is playing like champions but the atmosphere doesn’t reflect the experience of watching a power-house football club. The unforeseen break of the past few weeks has seemingly affected PSG, as they are complacent and don’t look particularly sharp today; a glutton of chances are wasted, Nantes begin to test Buffon and we go into half-time with the slightly surprising score line of 0-0.

The Nantes fans seated next to me are more than happy with proceedings thus far; despite having very little of the ball, it would be fair to say that a draw would feel like a win for the away side; whilst PSG fans in the rows ahead start to become more animated talking to each other; this season they have not been used to hardships in the league and one feels that a Nantes goal in the second half would really add some much-needed spice to the game.

As it is, in the second half Julian Draxler thinks he has scored from an angled shot for the hosts before VAR is called into action (something you don’t see in the Premier League just yet) and the ball is deemed to have gone out of play in the build-up to the goal. Now the crowd is beginning to get nervous, spurned chances are met with angry shouts and there is a quietness around the stadium. Those fears are soothed not long after by the second most expensive player in the world, Kylian Mbappe, who scores from a corner in the 68th minute and calmly celebrates a goal that is second nature to him. The remaining 20 minutes bring little danger from Nantes and the game ends 1-0. The PSG fans go into Christmas happy; they are 13 points ahead in the league with two games in hand, while their haul of 47 points after 17 games is the most ever by a French club by Christmas. The Tuchel effect.

Off the field, Paris Saint Germain are a marketing behemoth, they have the rare status of being the only top-flight club in a major capital city such as Paris. Neymar is on advertisements across the city and the club store, located on the famous shopping street Champs-Elysees, had ques to get in when I visited, with people buying everything from home kits to PSG-themed Monopoly boards, which is suitable considering the monopoly PSG currently has on the French League.  

Bigger challenges are to come on the field, notably Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League; despite topping their group, PSG were efficient but not exceptional; losing 3-2 to Liverpool and drawing twice with Napoli along the way.  There are concerns that the lack of real challenges in the domestic league means the side cannot prepare for the tie with a real competitive test in the league. It therefore remains to be seen if Tuchel and his lavish squad can break through the limits of Ligue 1 and attain the coveted Champions League; the trophy which has come to symbolise the lofty and expensive ambitions of the Qatari project.  

In many ways my experience of watching Paris Saint Germain symbolised the current status of the club; it had a nice stadium, sell-out crowd, and a fantastic array of players on show. All the attributes of a world class club. Yet football is a game of two teams; and the fact that Nantes were never given a chance of competing in this game took away from the experience of creating a fantastic atmosphere amongst fans. This in a nutshell highlights the problem PSG faces; with a massive disparity between themselves and the rest of the league; they don’t have a chance to be pushed, develop, and create the experiences which define all great clubs. This aspect of the game is the one thing, ironically, that money can’t buy.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur