There is a lot of excitement in France’s capital regarding the new owners at the Parc des Princes. PSG fan Robert Smithson wanted somewhere to air his concerns, FFW duly obliged.
The cynical football fan might say that there is no such thing as a bad time to have your club bought up by the richest people on Earth, but if such a time exists then, for Paris Saint-Germain, that time is now. Having lurched through crises in the boardroom, in the stands and on the pitch over the last few years, PSG were until the last few weeks showing signs of entering a phase of stability. Antoine Kombouaré, a former defender for the club who was appointed as coach in 2009, was sensibly allowed to keep his job after a relatively poor first season and has done much better this campaign, narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification and the French Cup.
Captain Claude Makelele has retired, but his midfield role will be taken by this season’s most improved player, Clement Chantôme. The captaincy itself will pass seamlessly to Mamadou Sakho, the inspirational centre back who made his debut aged 17 and has captained the side at every level. Chantôme and Sakho, as graduates from PSG’s youth system, have significance beyond their ability on the pitch.
The Qatari takeover may make funds unlimited in a literal sense, but PSG have long sat on, and been unable to profit from, a goldmine. They are the only major club in the Ile-de-France, a region that has produced top-level talent at a rate worthy of Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. You could fill whole squads, never mind teams, with international players who had their formative kickabouts in the capital and its suburbs.
The reasons why these players almost never made the PSG team would take a book to explain (they include a first team already packed with expensive ‘stars’, coaches unwilling to chance it with kids while under pressure from demanding and occasionally delusional supporters and media, and other youth academies grabbing the best prospects due to their better reputations and/or deeper pockets) but there are signs that this is changing.
This season both the under-17 and under-19 teams won their respective championships. Five of the former are in the France squad for the under-17 World Cup in Mexico this summer, and two of the latter, versatile forward Jean-Christophe Bahebeck and attacking midfielder Neeskens Kebano have impressed in PSG’s first team, particularly in a cup game against Le Mans in which both scored.
So PSG are steadily improving under the management of a well-liked former player, with players that are mostly happy to be in the capital, and finally seem to have in their ranks a generation of youngsters from arguably the premier talent hot-spot in Europe, who are just a season or two away from making the breakthrough. The Qatari takeover does not necessarily put all of this at risk, but an element of destabilisation seems inevitable.
The first two signings made by the Qataris, Kevin Gameiro and Leonardo (as sporting director) come across as very sensible people to bring in, and both have a connection to the club (Gameiro as a supporter, Leonardo as a former player). But rumours are already circulating that coach Kombouaré will be replaced (by Carlo Ancelotti) and that all sorts of players will soon be bought (an eclectic mix including Dimitar Berbatov and Ganso).
Countless clubs would love to have Leonardo as sporting director given his vast array of contacts. But if PSG want to properly exploit these new generations of talent at their disposal, buying in stars is not a particularly good way to go about it. They can buy in brilliant players and try to become the best club in France or they can develop the riches in their youth teams and try to become the best club in France.
However to marry the two would take an astute transfer policy, patience on the part of the directors and coaching staff (not to mention the fans), and a long period of stability. This is something almost unheard of at any football club, let alone PSG. In other words, it would take a miracle. So it is one or the other. The stars or the kids. The past or the future.
The ‘past’ in this context is PSG’s apogee, which came in the first half on Canal Plus’s ownership of the team. That era, roughly 1991-1998, was marked by fairly rapid turnover of (mostly excellent) players and consistent success on the pitch (reaching the semi-finals of all three European Club competitions, winning the Cup Winners Cup and topping UEFA’s club coefficient for the 1994-1998 period). But the same policy failed spectacularly in the years that followed the buying back of Nicholas Anelka for €33m being the most notorious example.
That constituted a regression to the norm, because big spenders rarely prosper in France: both Nantes and Monaco have suffered relegation partly as a consequence of neglecting their youth systems in favour of a more transfer-orientated approach. Rennes pursued a policy of (over)paying big money for players following their takeover by Francois Pinault and floundered. Unlike Nantes and Monaco, Rennes changed direction before it was too late and poured money into their academy, which is now rated as the best in the country.
The ‘future’ option is made up of the kids in the under-17 and under-19 teams. Clubs throughout France (Lille, Sochaux and Rennes) and Europe (Barcelona, Villarreal and Borussia Dortmund) are showing how beneficial faith in youth can be on both the way a club plays (which counts for an awful lot at the Parc des Princes) and the results it achieves.
Those examples, the greater risks attached to a policy of big spending and the fact that PSG are in the perfect place (geographically) to exploit a system geared towards developing their own players surely suggest that that would be the best direction to take. For possibly the first time in history, the fans can say “the children are our future” with a straight face. They can only hope that their club’s new owners are listening.