By the third minute of Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-0 victory over Bordeaux at the Parc des Princes, most of the stadium were tuned into the soundtrack. If Messi or Neymar had the ball, there would be booing. If Kylian Mbappe set off on one of his runs, there would be cheers.
By the 52nd minute, it was clear to those present and the global television audience that a significant portion of the home crowd had the stamina to sustain this derision towards two players who represent, because of their status, how far PSG have underachieved in the competition that matters most - the Champions League. Days earlier, they had been knocked out thanks to a dramatic turnaround from 2-0 up with half an hour left of their tie against Real Madrid last week. PSG finished up 3-2 losers over the two legs.
Against Bordeaux, in the domestic league PSG are dominating, they might have scored 10 goals without erasing the memory of their meltdown in Madrid. Messi initiated the move that led to PSG’s second goal on Sunday, seven minutes into the second half.
There was a characteristic dart forward in which he was on the ball long enough for the booing to be drawn out, rising in volume. His measured through ball to Achraf Hakimi opened Bordeaux up, Neymar in comfortable space to jab Hakimi’s cross past goalkeeper Gaetan Poussin.
The noise at the point was a surreal blend of cheer and jeer. The goal was applauded. The scorer was booed, not by all the home fans, but by many of them.
Outside the Parc, meanwhile, were piles of confiscated toilet rolls, which some ticket-holders had brought to the game to hurl, as streamers with a protest message, onto the pitch. Security staff had been readied for that. There were some new banners unfurled in the grandstands. “Directors, resign!” said one.
Those directors will not be obeying that instruction any time soon. Since the club was taken over by Qatar Sports Investments 11 years ago, some €1.4 billion has been invested in transfer fees alone to transform PSG into a superclub, a heavyweight in Europe. In that time, those who run PSG have known noisy rejection by the support-base a few times, but Sunday was especially striking because of who was identified as villains and who as heroes by those who jeered.
Rewind seven months, to the opening match of the season at the Parc, and there was also a mix of derision and delight. But it was distributed very differently.
On that August afternoon, the new signings from a star-studded summer transfer window were unveiled. Messi, who had left Barcelona after 20 years attached to that club, gained the biggest cheer. Goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma, freshly named as Player of the Tournament at the European Championship, was warmly applauded, along with Hakimi, Sergio Ramos and Gini Wijnaldum.
PSG player ratings v Bordeaux
PSG played Strasbourg after the unveiling ceremony, and when the starting line-up was read out to the same crowd who had arrived early for their first glimpse of Messi, a large number booed Mbappe. He had entered the last year of his contract and not responded to offers of an extension, amid clear interest from Real Madrid in a player who has never made a secret of his ultimate desire to play for Madrid.
Mbappe has still not committed to PSG, and Madrid are confident he will move there, out of contract and so with fee, in July. But the boos at the Parc des Princes no longer trail Mbappe, the star who is likeliest to leave, but pursue Neymar and Messi, the chief figureheads for PSG’s ambition. Although Donnarrumma was on the bench at the weekend, he took the blame for the first Madrid goal of the Spanish team’s comeback and was also jeered when his name was announced.
“Nobody likes these circumstances,” said Mauricio Pochettino, the PSG manager of the surreal atmosphere around a victory that maintained the club’s 15-point lead in the Ligue 1 table. “It saddens me. All those who love PSG are disappointed and we understand the frustration. We have to take responsibility for what happened.”
Pochettino had been booed before kick-off. There is a very low expectation that he, appointed 14 months ago, will stay in the job beyond the end of this season, and what will probably be the muted celebrations of the club’s ninth league title in 11 years.
As for Messi, who signed a two-year contract last August, with the option of a third, the adventure he envisaged did not include being booed with every touch in home matches. He would be forgiven for glancing enviously at his old rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, who also moved last summer. Ronaldo has confronted some challenges at Manchester United, but heard only one noise at Old Trafford at the weekend, his hat-trick against Tottenham played out to a rousing soundtrack of personal approval.