This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 20, 2023 - March 26, 2023
If the 2022 Fifa World Cup, with its stunning stadiums and thrilling football, was peak sportswashing, could the latest embarrassing failure of Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) be when the process falls victim to oversudsing?
Too much detergent in a washing machine can cause the suds to spill over, leaving the clothes not properly washed. It can even damage the appliance. Over-egging the pudding is another way of putting it.
Either way, the mix has been too rich for PSG. Becoming a laughing stock was never part of Qatar’s carefully calibrated image cleansing project.
Unlike the World Cup, where the tiny gulf nation was content to play host, PSG is meant to win. Since Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) took over in 2011, the perennial under-achievers have been transformed, claiming no less than eight French league titles.
But the oil billions that poured in were intended to create more than a jaguh kampung. Especially when Ligue Un is known as the farmer’s league. Non, Qatar wanted nothing less than to become champions of Europe.
A-listers like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani raised the profile but not the performance. And then the team upped the ante by spending even more. But the more superstars they sign, the further they drift from the holy grail.
A meek surrender to Bayern Munich in the Champions League this month was the 11th time PSG has missed out on the club game’s top trophy since the shimmering dawn of QSI stewardship. It’s the fifth time in seven that they have bowed out among the hoi polloi of the last 16. After reaching the final and then semi-final in consecutive seasons, they have gone backwards.
In August 2020, this column was headlined “PSG may have lost but the Qataris had already won”. Victory on the field eluded them in the final that year but off it, Qatar was strutting the international stage as a soft-power heavyweight. And the fortifying spectacle of the World Cup was still to come.
But as slick as they were in delivering a tournament that helped launder a tarnished reputation, they are fumbling in epic fashion at club level. The initial premise of arousing a sleeping giant in a one-club city appeared sound, but the implementation has all the hallmarks of a lottery winner let loose on fantasy football.
Apart from front-loading the team with the two most expensive players in history in Neymar (£200 million) and Kylian Mbappé (£167 million), they added none other than Lionel Messi (on a free transfer) in 2021. It’s a potent mix and, all too predictably, the suds have been spilling out.
The perpetually lame party animal Neymar gives prima donnas a bad name; Mbappé plays only in bursts and Messi, for all his World Cup glory, is well past his prime. None of this fabled but flawed trio stoop to the dirty work of defending. Real Madrid could have told them that a team of “Galacticos” doesn’t work after drawing an expensive blank in the early 2000s. So could anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the game.
The Qataris are far from unique among wealthy owners in demanding a quick fix to the clubs they buy. But when the ultimate goal is a country’s reputation and not just a club’s standing, the process is at risk. Players bought to improve the brand rather than the team leave even the best managers struggling to create a cohesive unit, let alone a winning formula.
Even Roman Abramovich, who was not renowned for his patience as owner of Chelsea, prioritised an academy and loved nothing better than to see callow teens graduate to the first team.
Apart from opting for big names against the manager’s better judgement, PSG’s owners have taken 12 years to improve the training ground. But their most glaring error has been to ignore one of the world’s richest hotbeds of raw talent in their own backyard.
The banlieues in Paris’ outer suburbs are where the scions of immigrants from France’s former African colonies hone their skills on dusty streets and makeshift pitches. Many end up in France’s national squad, have become European and world champions, but via clubs all over the continent — even Bayern — but not PSG.
Mbappé was born and raised 10km from the Eiffel Tower, yet it cost a French record fee to bring him home from Monaco. Even those who were on their books come back to haunt. Kingsley Coman was sold to Bayern only to score the winner against them in the 2020 final. The splendidly named Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was allowed to follow him and, almost inevitably, bagged a pivotal goal in this month’s clash.
Former managers Carlo Ancelotti and Thomas Tuchel have also proved their worth at the highest level, both winning the Champions League with other clubs. They are among a long list who have fallen out with PSG’s directors of football who do the board’s bidding.
These many instances of poetic justice are celebrated around France where PSG’s wealth is resented by the other league clubs. Elsewhere, the Parisians are shunned as nouveau riche by the European football establishment
Like Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City, in their haste to catch up, they have incurred penalties from UEFA for infringing the laws of Financial Fair Play. However, in mitigation, PSG earned kudos for eschewing the Super League when others — including City — were tempted.
It was significant that after the latest Euro disaster, the word “project” was widely used to describe the Qatari era. Many pundits suggested it should be ripped up and the owners start all over again. Clearly, while the World Cup, with its transformative infrastructure in Doha, may be regarded as a nation-building triumph, beyond the French border, PSG has given precious little bang for its US$2 billion bucks.
A byword for mismanagement, the club attracts players who go there purely for the money: modern football mercenaries who don’t play as a team. Neymar is the prime example, purportedly having a contract that forbids hard tackling in training and allows him to fly home to Brazil almost on a whim.
The Qatari tenure has been a shining example of how not to run a club. After all, such a modus operandi can only damage the brand when the team keeps finding new ways to fail. Most clubs bow out of European competition in flames; PSG barely found a spark.
In 2022, almost five years to the day after surrendering a four-goal lead to Barcelona, PSG were in control against Real Madrid and led the tie 2-0. Yet, somehow, they contrived to let Karim Benzema bag a hat-trick out of nothing in 17 minutes and were out.
Manchester City have also found European success elusive despite being dominant domestically, but the owners at least allow the manager to manage. Since the Abu Dhabi takeover of 2008, City have had four managers while PSG have had seven since 2011.
Indeed, when Qatar expressed interest in buying Manchester United, excitement at the prospect of more generous owners was tempered by the QSI record at PSG.
Waiting for the annual PSG Champions League collapse has become a feature of the European season. It’s a joke and leaves a stain that sportswashing put there and cannot remove.
Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football
Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.
P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.