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‘Dépaysement’ is french word without an English translation. It describes a feeling of bewilderment or disorientation as a result of leaving one’s comfort zone, like a lost foreigner who doesn’t speak the native language. Ligue 1 clubs are often susceptible to dépaysement on their travels and none more so than Paris Saint-Germain. Having shared 4 goals at the Parc des Princes, the return leg of PSG’s Champions League quarterfinal tie with Manchester City in April 2016 represented an opportunity. Dispute QSI’s billions, their mission statement centred around winning the European Cup, PSG are yet to make the competition’s final 4 under Qatari rule.
Facing a club caste from the same mould, reshaped by a pair of equally deep pockets and just flaky on the continental stage, but not sharing in their European obsession, this should have been PSG’s moment. But, as the Nou Camp witnessed less than a year on, Paris are masters of engineering defeat. The brittle, insipid Parisien display was compounded by coach Laurent Blanc’s baffling switch to 352, a setup not ever used in earnest under his stewardship, his players apparent feeling of bewilderment and disorientation intensified sufficiently for City to progress almost by default via Kevin de Bruyne. A wholly avoidable defeat that was arguably more frustrating than that inflicted by the Barcelona whirlwind at the Nou Camp.
Despite the deep pools of talent in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 and the host of major clubs that contribute to a rich footballing tradition, not to mention PSG’s resources, France was again, embarrassingly, underachieving. Lyon’s freewheeling title challengers finished bottom of a weak group while Marseille and St Etienne were swiftly dispatched in the Europa League’s last 32. This contributed to Ligue 1, despite being a traditional top 5 league, not being taken as seriously as the rest. However, since PSG’s collapse at the Etihad (and the Nou Camp) as well as Lyon’s and Marseille’s swift European exits that season, French domestic football has started to realise it’s potential and with Neymar’s arrival in Paris, Ligue 1’s evolution into the force it has often threatened to be is gathering momentum.
Granted, Neymar’s move is more about money and particularly individual acclaim than Ligue 1’s recent forward strides but nevertheless, it is a move in part born of that development. Neymar’s rationale in joining PSG is focused on the Ballon d’Or. He has long been in Lionel Messi’s shadow at Barcelona and likely forever would be. And as far as he is concerned, for a player to become the best in the world they require a team, much as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have, to be build around them. As a member of Neymar’s entourage colourfully explained to RMC this week “He is always standing behind Messi, who is the pope of the town.” Neymar needs to be pope in his own town.
Crucially, the Brazilian now sees PSG, and by extension Ligue 1, as being capable of elevating him to the status of Messi and Ronaldo and to challenge their duopoly. Paris made overtures towards the player last summer but were swiftly rebuffed despite their huge salary offer. This off-season it was the Neymar clan’s turn of make longing glances in the direction of Paris, approaching the club, unprovoked, about a possible move with PSG President Nasser Al Khelaifi, who is handling the negotiations personally, willing to play the 222m euro release fee and 30m yearly salary. Yes, the fees involved are astronomical but PSG’s widening Brazilian contingent have been able to convince Neymar that Paris is the place to achieve his aims. The only other club likely to be able to afford Barcelona’s number 11, Manchester United, have barely been mentioned this summer.
Whether the burgeoning development of Ligue 1 factored directly into Neymar’s decision making or not, the move should be considered a watershed moment for the league. While little has changed for PSG since those losses in Manchester and Barcelona, if anything they have regressed under Unai Emery’s leadership, the league itself has become a much more attractive proposition in the meantime. Monaco’s firebrand football saw them blast their way to the Ligue 1 title and the Champions League semis last year, embarrassing PSG on two fronts in the process, Lyon overcame their own perpetual European befuddlement in making the Europa League semi’s while Marseille and Lille have begun to stir from their slumber, Dimitri Payet and Marcelo Bielsa headlining their revivals. Not to mention Claudio Ranieri’s arrival at Nantes and the raft of youthful, attacking outfits such as Nice and Bordeaux who have challenged the established order in the last 12 to 18 months. France has moved on from PSG’s obscene 31 point margin of victory in 15/16. Ligue 1 is relevant once more.
However, despite the deft nurturing of swathes of French talent in recent times, money, of course, has played a huge part in Ligue 1’s resurgence making French football not only more attractive in footballing terms but financial ones too, for both players and investors. QSI’s acquisition of PSG and the purchase of Monaco by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev aside, Lille’s £50m outlay and capture of Marcelo Bielsa this summer has been funded by Spanish born businessman Gerard Lopez, LA Dodgers owner Frank McCourt bankrolled the additions of Payet, Patrice Evra, Luis Gustavo, Adil Rami and Valere Germain to the Marseille squad while, despite their comparatively modest budgets, Bordeaux and Lucien Favre’s Nice have also benefitted from recent foreign investment. Conversely, Ligue 1 record champions, St Etienne, a regular Champions League chaser in recent campaigns have been left behind. The club stating they are proud to be French owned but admitting they can no longer keep pace with the top 6, a drab and distant 8th last season supports that assertion.
As a result, PSG desperately needed to refresh and make a statement of intent having been ambushed last season. The Brazilian’s arrival at just 25 with much of his prime still before him, is the arguably the biggest moment in the club’s history, certainly since QSI’s arrival, and represents a victory on a numbers of levels. Primarily, it is the first meaningful sign that Paris are capable of competing with the established European aristocracy on player recruitment, tempting away one of their rivals’ prize assets for the first time. A fact reinforced by the rebuffing of Barcelona’s pursuit of their own talisman, Marco Verratti. Moreover the deal takes PSG’s quasi-galactico ethos to another plane entirely. Signing one of the world’s ‘top 5’ players, in this case top 3, has long been an objective of the club’s, something they’ve not come close to before. Pivotally, it is difficult to forgot amongst the fiore, significantly strengthens the Parisien hand in the Champions League. They now look better placed than ever to reach their promised land of European success.
Neymar’s move to PSG is not simply a world record transfer, it marks a shift in European football. Whatever the causes, this is the first time in the modern era that anyone outside the Premier League’s top 4 or 5 or Europe’s big three has truly muscled in on that monopoly and those clubs will now be forced to reassess their view of PSG and Ligue 1 as a whole. As Neymar’s gargantuan price tag leads him to Paris and he is presented with a navy blue Paris Saint-Germain jersey under the Eiffel Tower, for a moment at least, it’ll be the rest of Europe’s turn to experience the bewilderment of dépaysement.
by Adam White