Lionel Messi looking bemused while playing for PSG in Ligue 1 against FC Lorient, Paris, Parc des Princes, 3 April 2022.

Messi, Neymar, Mbappe & more glory in Ligue 1 – so why no joy at PSG?

On Saturday, PSG won the Ligue 1 title and no one seemed particularly happy.

There were celebrations, of course, muted amongst the players. Lionel Messi’s glorious goal was cancelled out by a late equaliser from Corentin Jean for ten-man Lens, which certainly added to the undertone of dissatisfaction.

The disconnect between the fans and the team was made clear by the images outside the stadium. Thousands of supporters left the Parc des Princes early to celebrate in the streets, the sky painted red by flares.

Inside the ground, there were some boos, but above all a pervasive quietness, a complete absence of joy.

It is partly, of course, because the league title is now expected of PSG. Winning it is, for the most part, viewed as an inevitability, particularly after the arrival of Messi to add to the enviable quality already in the squad.

There is a frustration, too, at PSG’s perceived underachievement in the Champions League. A quarter-final defeat to Real Madrid was not good enough for the ultras, the most demanding of the club’s fans.

The money invested in the team has been extraordinary, unprecedented even in football’s new age of hyper-capitalism. And it’s that capitalistic necessity for more, an endless pursuit of success, that has left fans with a feeling of emptiness.

A league title should never be taken for granted. But that is European football’s new dilemma: an era of dominance for the wealthy minority, who soon become an indifferent minority. This is how ideas like the European Super League are born.

In some ways, the disillusionment of PSG’s fans is understandable. Their club has become increasingly corporate and political, and the promised success – in the Champions League specifically – has not been delivered.

PSG players celebrate the title after beating RC Lens. Parc des Princes, Paris, France, April 23, 2022.

PSG players celebrate the title after the end of the Ligue 1 match between PSG and RC Lens. Parc des Princes, Paris, France, April 23, 2022.

It is easy, in such a scenario, to become overly existential. Jean-Paul Sartre might have had plenty to say about football in the French capital in 2022. What, really, does the Ligue 1 title mean to PSG in the current context?

For Mauricio Pochettino and his players, it means the achievement of a year-long goal, so the reaction would have left them feeling flat.

“That’s something I don’t understand,” Marco Verratti said of the fans’ early exit. “I know that they were disappointed about Madrid, but at some point you have to move on.”

Yet no one, it seems, has moved on. Not even the club’s owners.

“We need to talk to him [Pochettino],” said the club’s sporting director Leonardo. “He has a one-year contract with us. We have to see a little, in relation to everything. It’s not just the Pochettino issue.

“It is true that it was a heavy season, for everyone. We have to speak with players, not just with the coach to clarify situations, to decide on the strategy for the new season.

“It’s a general discourse and it concerns everyone.”

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Christopher Nkunku of PSG celebrating a goal vs FC Metz, Parc Des Princes, March 2018

READ: Seven wonderkids PSG let go too early: Nkunku, Coman, Diaby & more

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The general discourse seems almost certain to end with the sacking of Pochettino, a man judged almost solely by his failures in the Champions League.

But there is discontent, too, surrounding club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi. A statement from the Collectif Ultras Paris after the Real Madrid loss called for the Qatari businessman to be dismissed.

“The unacceptable and inevitable disillusion that we feared and foresaw has unfortunately been realised,” the statement read.

“How can you have this mindset that moves mountains when your season seems to begin in February and you play domestic competitions at a senatorial pace?

“How can you have a genuine game plan when your squad is nothing but a bunch of ‘stars’ who barely complement one another?

“How can a coach be the respected boss of the changing room when he is manifestly not the true decision-maker?

“How can you regenerate a squad when endless subs can happily see out their contracts with such comfortable salaries?

“How can you feel the immutable force of the history of your club when their colours alternate between black, fuchsia, pink, yellow…?”

Kylian Mbappe’s future, too, is in serious doubt as he continues to be linked with an exit to one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.

All of these are significant blows for PSG, a club with ambitions to be the dominant force in European football. At the moment, for all of the money spent and the influx of big names, they are surpassed by Real Madrid, by Liverpool, by Manchester City and Bayern Munich.

That leads to existentialism, disaffection, an impatience to achieve something that no amount of money can guarantee.

For PSG fans, Ligue 1 still matters. But their celebrations away from the Parc des Princes, away from the team many have come to resent, were a form of protest.

It’s clear that Al-Khelaifi and the other higher-ups at the club see domestic football as a secondary concern. That Lille wrestled away PSG’s hegemonic grasp over the league title last season was more because of the latter’s complacency and lack of real focus, particularly in the opening weeks of the 2020-21 campaign.

Meanwhile, Al-Khelaifi’s attention is on the Champions League, on ensuring that PSG are a global titan and reaping the financial and commercial rewards.

“The Super Bowl, and the US generally, have this mindset, creativity and entertainment,” he said after last month’s European Club Association General Assembly.

“That’s what I have suggested, to have an opening ceremony to the Champions League, to have one match on the opening night where the winners take on a big team – maybe it is not a good idea, but at least let’s challenge the status quo. Each match needs to be an event and entertainment.”

Al-Khelaifi’s motives are transparent and for plenty of PSG fans that rankles. They have seen their club transformed into little more than a corporate entity, emblematic of football’s inexorable march towards extreme commercialisation.

The soul of a club that had been around for over 40 years before being purchased by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011 has slowly been stripped away.

Plenty will argue, of course, that the influx of money has benefitted PSG and that the club are unquestionably in a better position. That is true, as it is for Manchester City, and as it will be for Newcastle.

But aside from the issues surrounding sportswashing and the often flagrant ignorance shown towards it, huge wealth can make successes that once seemed the height of achievement feel almost insignificant.

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PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates with David Beckham after scoring against Stade Brestois at Parc des Princes in Paris, France on May 18, 2013.

READ: Where are they now? PSG’s XI from David Beckham’s final appearance

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PSG once strived for a league title, desperate to make their mark on French football. Now it is little more than an irrelevance.

The obsession now is the Champions League, a dream the club will seemingly stop at nothing to bring to fruition.

But PSG have set a dangerous precedent. When domestic titles are scoffed at, when the vision is always to be bigger and better, to win more, to get richer and richer, more and more dominant, what, truly, is the point of it all? Will winning the Champions League satiate anyone?

More than likely, the same problems will persist. All that ever changes is a moving of the goalposts, a higher level of expectation, a desire for more titles and more glory. And with that comes the potential for more dissatisfaction.

For PSG, money hasn’t bought happiness. Instead, it has bought bitterness and frustration.

By Callum Rice-Coates

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