Only one player escaped the ire of the Parc des Princes. Paris St.-Germain’s fans whistled and jeered every time Lionel Messi touched the ball. They howled and crowed at the sight of a wayward shot from Neymar. There was no allowance in their anger for reputation, no discrimination by status. It encompassed mortal and immortal alike.
The lone exception, during last weekend’s routine win against Bordeaux, was Kylian Mbappé. There was no romance behind his pardon. He was not excused because he is a boy from the French capital’s banlieues, an identifiably Parisian superstar, a local kid made good. All of those terms — except perhaps superstar — apply to the defender Presnel Kimpembe, too, but the fans deemed him as guilty as everyone else.
Nor was it related to performance. Mbappé, almost alone, had emerged with credit from P.S.G.’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid. He had scored once, and seen two goals ruled out for offside. He had gleamed under the bright lights of the Santiago Bernabéu. He had almost single-handedly carried Mauricio Pochettino’s team to the quarterfinals. His brilliance, though, has not stopped P.S.G.’s ultras targeting him before.
It was, instead, a rather more cynical calculation that ensured Mbappé’s reprieve. The 23-year-old forward’s contract at P.S.G. expires at the end of the season. Though it has long been assumed he would move to Madrid this summer, P.S.G. has not yet given up hope of changing his mind. Reports have suggested that it might be willing to pay him as much as $28 million a year to stay.
P.S.G.’s ultras, as a statement on their protests explained, might despair of the way their club is run. They might believe its executives are more concerned with releasing special-edition jerseys and gathering superstars to sell them than building a coherent team. They might abhor the way the team seems to regard Ligue 1 as little more than a training exercise.
But they are no fools. They might, in fact, have a rather better idea of how to construct a squad than the people charged with running their club. They understand that Mbappé is the sort of generational talent that should be at the very center of P.S.G.’s planning, rather than an afterthought to the apparently arbitrary acquisition of icons. They had no intention whatsoever of accelerating his departure.
It is likely, of course, to prove futile. If Mbappé could not be convinced to sign a new contract before the last couple of weeks, nothing that has happened since then to make the idea of extending his stay more appealing.
The defeat to Real Madrid — the one which, once again, effectively ensured that the last meaningful game of his season took place in March — was bad enough, but the sight and the sound of the Parc des Princes in open mutiny against P.S.G.’s Qatari backers may well have been worse.
The protest itself, of course, was nothing especially remarkable. There is an inherent tension scored into P.S.G.’s very being: the schism between what the club is to its hierarchy and to its fans existed long before the arrival, a little more than a decade ago, of Qatar Sports Investments.
Almost from the moment of its founding, P.S.G. has played a dual role. To its owners and executives, it was always an expression of the city’s identity as they saw it. The haute couture designer Daniel Hechter was one of its early presidents; he introduced the famous blue, red and white jersey that the club seems absolutely determined to wear as little as possible. To them, P.S.G. was a fashion brand, an extension of the theater and the cinema and the discothèque.
For its fans, it was an expression of the city’s identity, too, but as they knew it. Drawn not so much from the exclusive arrondissements inside the périphérique but the sprawling suburbs beyond, they saw in P.S.G. something far grittier, far weightier, far more reflective of their lives.
That tension is now no longer unique — if it ever was — to P.S.G. Countless clubs across Europe are reckoning with the same rift, the sense of alienation that has settled on fans as their clubs have been bought out and taken over and turned into something they do not quite recognize.
It is, in many ways, the defining theme of modern soccer. The most egregious examples, of course, are the clubs that have been co-opted by forces that have only a tangential interest in sport: not just P.S.G., but Manchester City and Newcastle United and, most chaotically of all, Chelsea. Venerable and beloved teams that have been appropriated by states and oligarchs and princelings for their own ends.
But it holds true elsewhere. It is the root of the sickness that has come to afflict Manchester United, another team playing the role of final landing spot for an idol resisting the dying of the light. The priorities of the Glazer family, the club’s owners, are effectively unrelated to the demands of the fans: performance on the field matters only so much as it affects performance off it. As long as the money keeps rolling, first and fourth in the Premier League look much the same.
It is the problem that has beset Barcelona, where successive presidential regimes have focused not on maintaining the philosophy that made the club the defining team of an era, but on exploiting its brand, and Real Madrid, where the defining rationale behind any decision is the perpetuation of Florentino Pérez’s power. It is the issue that allows a host of teams to be happy to survive in the Premier League, greedily consuming the lucrative installments from the division’s television deals rather than, you know, trying to win something.
That, alone, would not be enough to convince Mbappé to leave. No matter where he plays, he is likely to spend his career at a club where the interests of the owners and the fans markedly diverge. That, sadly, is the reality of modern soccer.
Far more significant, in all likelihood, was the precise content of the ultras’complaints. Had Mbappé read the statement issued to explain the protests, he would doubtless have agreed with the gist of it. P.S.G. is a fundamentally unserious sporting project. Its team is unbalanced, ill-conceived, undisciplined. Its season does tend to rest on a handful of games, two at the fewest, seven at the most, in the Champions League.
And that leaves him, ultimately, with no choice. To fulfill his talent, Mbappé has to leave. He has already won a World Cup, and a suite of French championships. The sheer mass of money available to P.S.G. means the club will, at some point, inevitably win the Champions League.
But while he might be able to win all of the trophies he desires in Paris, a career spent trying to impose some logic on a squad that possesses none of it would leave Mbappé ignorant to what he might have been, to what he might have become at a club with a clear vision, and playing for a coach, as the ultras put it, who is the final decision maker.
That is not the only consideration. There is a more commercial factor, too. Ligue 1 does not warrant its reputation as a “farmer’s league” — other than in the sense that it is home to the sport’s most fertile crop of talent — but Mbappé needs only to look at Messi for proof of the effect it has on a player’s profile.
Messi has not entirely disappeared from view since moving to Paris last summer. His performances are still picked over; the few highlights he has offered in Ligue 1 continue to flood social media. But most weekends, far fewer people watch him play than they did while he was at Barcelona. There are no clásicosthat can be considered appointment viewing; there are only his excursions in the Champions League.
At 34, that is tolerable for Messi. He is already more famous than almost anyone else on the planet. His legacy — for all the pointless squabbling about whether the anticlimax of his time in Paris is greater than that of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford — is secure.
Mbappé does not, yet, have that privilege. He cannot afford to float into soccer’s consciousness half a dozen times a year. He deserves more than to be an occasional visitor to the sport’s top table. That is all he can be at P.S.G., at a club where the season — to the casual viewer — only begins in February.
In Spain, in England, he would not be front and center a few times a year. He would be the main event almost every week. That is not something P.S.G. can offer, no matter how much it can pay him.
Last weekend, as the bile rained down on the Parc des Princes, Mbappé alone was excused. Even in their rage, the club’s fans recognized that he did not warrant that treatment. Mbappé, they know, deserves better. That silence will not make him stay. If anything, it proves that he has to leave.
Three times in the course of a single week, searching questions over the human rights record of Saudi Arabia have been directed at the rather unlikely figure of Eddie Howe, a 44-year-old London Times reader from Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
On the face of it, of course, this is slightly absurd. Eddie Howe is not a respected authority on Saudi domestic policy. He has no particular insight into the kingdom’s judicial system. There is no more reason to ask him about the execution of 81 people in a single day than there is to seek out the thoughts of Jon Bon Jovi, or Clifford The Big Red Dog.
He has made that point, several times, meeting the questions with a straight bat. His job, he has said, is to know about soccer. “It’s what I know,” he said. “As soon as I deviate from that into an area where I don’t feel qualified to have a huge opinion, I go into dangerous ground.” It is a sensible approach: There is no little merit in the maxim that it is better to maintain silence and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
It is not, though, enough, not for someone in Howe’s position. He is employed as manager of Newcastle United, a soccer team that is owned by an entity that is in no way linked, despite all of the links, to the Saudi state. He took that position willingly, knowing full well who his employers would be, and having had ample time to read up on them.
That he chose to take the post is up to him, of course — his own morality is his own business — but he can hardly be outraged that his decision is being scrutinized.
The noise you have heard in Britain, again and again, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the sound of scales falling precipitously from eyes. Lawmakers have made it clear that the suite of P.R. companies, law firms and so-called “reputation managers” in London who have grown rich and fat from fees from Russian oligarchs over the last 20 years are going to have to think long and hard about where their money comes from. Some, it has been suggested, could yet be the subject of sanctions.
There is absolutely no reason soccer should be any different. Whatever pretense there was about the “projects” at Chelsea, Newcastle and Manchester City now seems not just naïve but actively damaging. It is absolutely fine if people decide they want to be part of them anyway. But they should expect to be asked to show their work.
Champions League Draw
More than one person has been in touch over the last week to raise what is, I think, an important question. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have committed unimaginable horrors in Yemen,” Ramzi Kawar wrote. “When will Newcastle and Manchester City get the same treatment as Chelsea?”
Robert Campbell took a slightly different approach. In light of the sanctioning of Roman Abramovich and its subsequent impact at Chelsea, he asked, “Why are the no knock-on discussions of Manchester City, whose (state) owners have not uttered a critical peep about the Russian invasion and who are now happily and lucratively harboring Russian oligarchs and their super yachts?”
The easiest response to this is to point out that there has, over the last year, been a whole welter of negative coverage of Saudi Arabia’s investment in Newcastle, including multiple editions of this newsletter. It is true that the motivation behind Abu Dhabi’s transformation of Manchester City was, for a while, overlooked. But if you feel it is not mentioned enough these days, I can introduce you to a small but startlingly bellicose contingent of Manchester City fans who feel differently.
Both emails, though, hit upon an important point, and something that soccer will have to reckon with eventually. Where, precisely, do we draw the line? Abramovich has now been disqualified as a director of a club because of his apparent links to the Russian regime. Why does that not apply to Saudi Arabia, or to the U.A.E.?
That brings us to a question from Jon Phillips. “Of the 20 Premier League teams, whose owners are most pure of heart? Who isn’t backed somehow, somewhere, by an oligarch, a nation state, a less than savory character? Who would a neutral with a social, political and ethical conscience, support?”
This has been raised frequently in the last few weeks, largely in bad faith. It is wielded as a weapon by those who believe Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City and Newcastle are being picked on by an old and self-important elite that has infiltrated the news media. Everyone, the thinking goes, is — deep down — as bad as each other.
Believing that requires an impressive amount of equivocation. It relies on the assumption that donating to a political party is the same as being a government, or that a sponsor and the ownership of a team are the same thing, or that — as suggested in one British newspaper this week — making some crass, sexist comments in the 1990s or not investing enough in the playing squad is the moral equivalent of complicity in a brutal, murderous autocracy.
If you recognize that not all of those things are the same, that malignance can be measured in degrees, there are plenty of teams. Norwich City, owned by a beloved television chef, is the obvious answer, but there are many more whose benefactors are basically ethically neutral: Brentford and Brighton (if you don’t mind people being good at gambling), Leeds United, Aston Villa, Watford, Crystal Palace, possibly even Tottenham. Their owners may not be perfect, of course, but that is a very different bar.
That’s all for this week. Details of why all of those clubs are inherently evil are welcome at email@example.com. The aforementioned Manchester City fans will already be swarming to Twitter to decry this very obvious example of media bias. If you missed this week’s episode of European Nights, with me and Roger Bennett of Men In Blazers, you may enjoy it, even though you know all the scores.
Have a great weekend,