Spending spree buys PSG top talent, and maybe a Ligue 1 title
Just before Sweden played France at Euro 2012 last month, as the players were waiting in the tunnel, Swedish captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic walked slowly along the line of French players, staring at each of them eye-to-eye.
When he reached Adil Rami, the center back charged with marking him, he stopped. "You," he said, "today, you are my target." Sweden went on to win the game 2-0, with Ibrahimovic opening the scoring with a volley that was one of the best goals of the tournament.
The story may be apocryphal (it came from someone in the tunnel) but it sounds like pure Ibrahimovic. He is a player who knows his own worth, and understands how his presence can affect others -- and not just on the pitch. When he faced the world's media in his first performance as a member of Paris Saint-Germain at Parc des Princes on Wednesday, he was charming, entertaining and supremely confident. "I don't know everyone in the French league, but I will get to know them, and they know who I am," he told his swooning audience, with a smile.
PSG sports director Leonardo had been criticized for failing to sign other stated targets, including David Beckham, Alex Pato and Carlos Tevez, but this time, signing Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, one of the world's best center backs, the success was his, too. "This shows our intent," said the Brazilian. "We've moved up a gear now; when you sign Lavezzi, Silva, Ibrahimovic, and [Marco] Verratti [a 19-year-old midfielder who cost €12 million], you're sending out a message to the other top clubs, saying, 'OK, now we're here too and you will have to reckon with us.'"
As Ibrahimovic posed with his new shirt on a glorious afternoon under the Eiffel Tower -- two global icons captured perfectly on camera -- there was still a sense of wonder, of 'Is this really happening?' going around the fans. It was echoed at football clubs across the division. "It doesn't seem possible that someone like Ibra would be playing against us," Ajaccio defender Anthony Lipppini told
There are three obvious questions that these 'galactique' signings produce: First, where does this leave PSG's expectations this season? Second, what about Financial Fair Play and third, what does this mean for the future of Ligue 1?
To answer the first: in theory, PSG should easily win the Ligue 1 title but it is not always simple in a division that has produced five different winners in its last five seasons. Still, I reckon that PSG's second team (Douchez; Bisevac, Sakho, Camara/Lugano, Tiene; Verratti, Bodmer, Matuidi; Chantome, Gameiro/Hoarau, Nene) is good enough to finish in the top five, so its first team (Sirigu; Jallet, Alex, Silva, Maxwell; Motta, Sissoko; Lavezzi, Pastore, Menez; Ibrahimovic) should win the title comfortably.
The real target, though, is the Champions League.
PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi set the target of winning Ligue 1 by 2013 (should be doable now) and the Champions League by 2015. He needs to be careful, though. Former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon spoke in 2005 of Chelsea "turning the world blue," breaking even and winning two Champions League titles by 2010 -- in the next seven years, it lost four semifinals and one final before winning the trophy last May.
PSG will probably be drawn into pot four in next month's Champions League draw, as the team that no one will want to face. But just as Manchester City found out last season, the competition is difficult, no matter how much money or experience is behind the team. PSG also knows that 12 months ago, the owners spent €120 million on 11 new players, and it still wasn't enough to win the title, which went to Montpellier (budget, €30 million annually).
If it doesn't work, Leonardo, who played for PSG toward the end of its previous golden era in the mid-1990s, knows he will have to carry the can.
But the strategy is already coming together nicely. It began when Al-Jazeera bought up the foreign broadcast rights to Ligue 1 (which surprised people at the time), continued with Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), who own Al-Jazeera, taking over PSG. In June, it launched a new channel, BeInSport, and blew subscriber station Canal Plus out of the water. Next season, BeInSport will show eight of 10 Ligue 1 matches each week, and 133 of 146 Champions League matches (it reportedly bid double Canal Plus' €30 million bid for a three-year deal).
That QSI has supplanted Canal Plus is a fascinating subplot that makes sense once all the strings are tied to PSG. In 1991, to challenge the dominance of Marseille, it was Canal Plus who bought 40 percent of PSG, and over the next seven years, helped turn the club into one of Europe's most successful sides: it won Ligue 1 (1994), the French Cup (1993, 1995, 1998), the League Cup (1995, 1998) and reached five consecutive semifinals in European competition from 1993 to 1997, including a victory in the 1996 European Cup Winners' Cup. The man in charge of Canal Plus then, and who briefly served as PSG president in 1998, was Charles Bietry. The man who runs BeInSport in France now? Charles Bietry.
One factor not mentioned -- out loud at least -- during 'Zlatan Day' was how PSG can remain within UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations, which start in 2013-14 but take into account spending from 2011 onward. France Football revealed that PSG will have to pay out a total of €51.3 million to cover Ibrahimovic's €14 million annual salary (a fee that will rise to €63.9 million if he has to pay 75 percent tax on it). "The principle of financial fair play is simple: a club should not spend more than it earns," wrote the magazine. "For now, this is far from the case for PSG." The club seems to be working on a, 'Spend now, worry about the consequences later' philosophy, and with the sanctions still fuzzy, appears to be taking advantage of the regulations' transition phase.
As for what this means to the rest of Ligue 1, and whether the smaller clubs risk being left behind? "A huge financial imbalance lies ahead," said Lorient coach Christian Gourcuff, sounding just like his Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger. "Platini's financial fair play will be undermined because clubs are not balancing their accounts."
That QSI's largesse is coming at a time when France's biggest two clubs of the last 20 years, Lyon and Marseille, are struggling financially, is unfortunate. Next season, Lille is probably best-placed to challenge PSG for the title, even though it has sold Eden Hazard, its best player (and France's Player of the Year for the last two seasons), to Chelsea.
For Ligue 1 to be truly competitive again, it needs another investor -- but which club would it buy? Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas has sought investment for the naming rights to the club's new stadium in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while Lille's Michel Seydoux was forced to deny claims last season that the club was close to being sold to a UAE consortium. With Lille so prudently run during Seydoux's decade in charge -- and moving into a new stadium next season -- it would be an obvious target for investment.
Aulas would probably sell Lyon at the right price, while Bordeaux, another stable club, wouldn't cost too much. Marseille owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus may also be prepared to sell, but the club's unique environment might make a sale difficult.
Ibrahimovic's arrival -- and that of Thiago Silva (it's very rare that two great players sign together in a deal like this) -- has given PSG's project a new legitimacy. As he told Darren Tulett in BeInSport's exclusive interview: "This is where the future is, who wouldn't want to come here? This is where it's happening."
After the star players, maybe the new investors will start to follow.