Suspense over Lionel Messi's Paris Saint-Germain debut keeps Brest on their toes

Manager Pochettino says Argentine star needs further training as hype around highly-anticipated start grows

For Brest’s opening home game of the Ligue 1 season, some spectators paid a mere €4 for a seat. It was a special occasion, the first league match at the Stade Francis-Le-Blé without restrictions on numbers since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. It was also a derby, the all-Brittany clash with Rennes.

The crowd was close to its 15,000 capacity for the 1-1 draw. On Friday, for the visit of Paris Saint-Germain, the stadium is sold out without any special-offer €4 seats. Ever since the possibility was raised that Lionel Messi might just be in the visitor’s matchday squad, the resale value of tickets has soared into the hundreds of euros. They would have gone up still higher had the expectation of an imminent Messi debut for PSG not been dampened.

Mauricio Pochettino, the PSG head coach, on Thursday made it clear that he thinks Messi needs further training before he is ready for a first start in French football. But that serves merely to heighten the suspense that is part of the Messimania phenomenon, a hype cultivated by his new club, eager to leverage the global interest in PSG since Messi’s surprise move from Barcelona.

Wherever he sees his first action, Messi’s will soon recognise David versus Goliath scenarios as routine. PSG’s trips to low-key provincial arenas, like Brest’s, remind that many clubs in the top division in France live on annual budgets that would barely cover the basic salary of Messi.

If, say, Brest spent all their money for the entire season on Messi at the rate, over €1m a week he is paid by PSG, they could manage to keep him there for about two-thirds of it. Stade de Reims, where Pochettino takes his team next weekend, could just about maintain Messi for a season on their €60m budget — but they would have almost nothing left to pay anybody else.

Ever since PSG came under Qatari ownership 10 years ago, French football has had to come to terms with a vast imbalance, a huge gap between the super-rich club in the capital and everybody else.

Olympique Marseille, OM, the only French club to have won a Champions League, used to regard themselves as top of the pile in terms of support-base. Olympique Lyonnais, OL, are a 21st century success story in terms of growth and development. But PSG’s resources dwarf OM’s and OL’s.

Yet last season Lille became the champions on a budget of less than a quarter of PSG’s, a triumph that encourages all the clubs from less fashionable cities. “I know everyone in French football wants to beat PSG,” said Messi when he arrived in France.

He has already seen how that works: Lille defeated the aristocrats from the capital in the Trophee des Champions — the French Super Cup equivalent — earlier this month. Newly promoted Troyes took the lead against PSG in the opening game of the Ligue 1 season, before Achraf Hakimi and Maurcio Icardi restored hierarchy with a 2-1 win. Even last weekend, after the formal unveiling of Messi, and fellow new arrivals Sergio Ramos, Gigio Donnarumma, Hakimi and Gini Wijnaldum at Paris’s Parc des Princes, Strasbourg threatened an upset when they clawed back a 3-0 deficit to 3-2. PSG ended up 4-2 winners, but there had been some nervous moments.

How many more close shaves PSG experience once Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Marco Verratti, Wijnaldum, Hakimi, Ramos, Marquinhos are lining up in front of goalkeeper Donnarumma remains to be seen. Of those, only Hakimi, Wijnaldum and Mbappe have been available for the wins over Troyes and Strasbourg, with Pochettino easing the others back to fitness after busy summers, and, in the case of Ramos, awaiting his recovery from injury.

“We have to analyse the physical state of these players to see when they will be ready,” said Pochettino. Several have only recently joined pre-season practice. Five of his squad were involved in the mid-July Copa America final between Argentina and Brazil and the two Italians, Verratti and Donnarumma, in the Euro 2020 final.

Pochettino will be pleased when the end of August arrives, not only because he will have a fuller pick of fit players, but because the transfer window will be closing. Speculation about Mbappe’s future, with the player into the last year of his contract and Real Madrid openly interested in Mbappe, is making almost as much noise around the club as is Messimania.

“I look at this period of the year with a sense of humour,” said Pochettino. “A lot of things get said, and experience tells you some may happen and others will not. Kylian is calm, the club knows he is our player and that he is preparing for our next game.”

Good news for those Brest locals who paid over-the-odds for tickets: they should at least see Mbappe, the superstar of France, even if the Messi express is not yet ready to leave the station.

Updated: August 20th 2021, 4:44 AM