‘Project PSG’ has only ever been partially about soccer. The French club’s world-record signing of Neymar in 2017 saw one of the sport’s best players head to the Parc des Princes, but Paris Saint-Germain were just as interested in the Brazilian’s marketability as much as his ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
The sight of the ‘Jumpman’ icon on PSG’s jerseys, as the only club in soccer to be associated with Air Jordan, is another sign of how sport forms only a portion of the club’s strategy. But without success on the pitch, the strategy falls down. This is why the Champions League matters so much to PSG.
From the moment Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), the national fund for the Gulf state to invest in the sports and leisure industry around the world, took over at the Parc des Princes, the ambition to become European champions has been a guiding light. Everything done at PSG since 2011 has been geared towards winning the Champions League.
On Sunday, PSG will participate in the competition’s showpiece event for the first time, taking on Bayern Munich at the Estadio de Luz in Lisbon. The Champions League is a landmark event for any club, but for PSG it represents the culmination of something bigger. Something so big it can be easy to lose sight of why QSI bought the club in the first place.
‘Sportswashing,’ as it is dubbed, isn’t anything especially new, but the phenomenon has taken hold of European soccer over the last decade or so. In PSG, QSI saw an opportunity to use sport to improve their international image just as the Abu Dhabi royal family did with Manchester City a few years beforehand.
The effectiveness of such a ploy cannot be denied. When Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are discussed, some now think of scenes of sporting glory rather than accusations of human rights violations. It’s why, at a time of great global scrutiny, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia wanted to buy Newcastle United this year.
Soccer has long been the domain of the wealthy, but there has been a shift in the nature of the wealth at the elite level of the game. Gulf states and oligarchs now view soccer clubs as a way to improve international relations and shield themselves from accusations that would otherwise stain their reputation. It helps that soccer is so tribal. Buying a club tends to come with the acquisition of a fanbase willing to fight from your corner — see how many Manchester City supporters developed a siege mentality in light of recent Financial Fair Play (FFP) charges from UEFA.
That European soccer’s most prestigious fixture, the Champions League final, be an affirmation of such a murky model leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It matters that this is not normalised no matter how common it becomes. The sight of PSG’s players with the famous old trophy in hand this weekend would be a picture QSI has spent over $1 billion to paint.
In a footballing sense, if that can ever be separated from everything else, PSG are ready to become European champions. Their frontline of Mauro Icardi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar is among the most potent in the game at this moment in time, while Thomas Tuchel is the strong-minded, modern soccer thinker the French club needed to take them to the next level.
The quarter-final victory over Atalanta, which saw PSG score two late goals to fight back from behind and make the final four, was an exorcism of all the ghosts and demons that have haunted the club in recent years. From the collapse at Camp Nou to the shock defeat to Manchester United last season, it often felt like PSG were fated to be an image of tragic failure rather than the epitome of glorious achievement.
Against RB Leipzig in the semi-finals, PSG proved the extent to which that win over Atalanta emboldened them as a group, strolling to a comfortable 3-0 victory. The French side will need more than just confidence against Bayern Munich, a team that have scored 27 goals in their last six Champions League games, but they finally, at long last, appear to be in the right place mentally to conquer the continent. If they can do that, PSG will win a lot more than just a piece of silverware.