Newcastle v PSG: A saga of Gulf ambition, rich local talent pool and European dreams

Champions League clash between aspiring heavyweights who have vast fanbases and deep roots in their communities

PSG's Warren Zaire-Emery is challenged by Dortmund's Felix Nmecha, right, during their Champions League match last month. AP
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The venerable French sports newspaper, L’Equipe, are calling it the ‘Golfico’, a slightly awkward melding of the word for ‘Gulf’ and the term ‘classico’. Newcastle United versus Paris Saint-Germain is certainly a clash of aspiring heavyweights and a fixture that, given a Champions League context by the transformative effect on the two clubs of Gulf investment, might yet become a European classic.

But it is a little too simple to style the Group F encounter at St James’ Park as Qatar, principal source of the funds that have made PSG such a star–magnet over the 12 years, against Saudi Arabia, whose Public Investment Fund, PIF, took a majority stake in Newcastle two years ago. These are clubs with long histories of at least flirting with the idea of a sustained place at the sport’s European summit, with vast fanbases and deep roots in their communities.

Newcastle’s tall defender Dan Burn still counts himself as part of the fanbase. Fellow supporters have a special fondness for him and how ably he has straddled the frontier that separates the struggling Newcastle, as they were before the PIF-led takeover of October 2021, and the well-resourced, bigger-spending institution of the period since. Burn was one of the first signings enabled by ambitious new owners.

If he was far from the most eye-catching recruit, he was a pathfinder for illustrious newcomers, like Alexander Isak, Sven Botman, Bruno Guimaraes and Sandro Tonali, imports from the Spanish, French and Italian leagues and part of a €200m-plus strengthening of the squad.

Burn, born in Blyth, a coastal town just outside Newcastle, can tell them what the club means to its followers, or how exciting it seemed to him, as a 10 year-old fan, to watch Newcastle beating Juventus in the Champions League. That was 21 seasons ago, the last time they were in the group phase.

Burn comes from famously fertile football territory, a part of north-east England that has produced figureheads, like the Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jack, from the one England team who triumphed at a World Cup, in 1966; and emblematic internationals from eras where England dreamt of repeating that success, like Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer.

The area still unearths a concentration of talent. Alongside Burn in the Newcastle side on Wednesday, there’s likely to be a role, at kick-off or later in the game, for Elliot Anderson - a midfielder promoted from the club’s academy and much needed lately given injuries to the likes of Joelinton and Joe Willock.

Anderson is 20, born and raised locally. He has been singled out for special praise by manager Eddie Howe for his influence on Newcastle’s run of three successive Premier League wins coming into this evening. “He has a real creative eye, and can see a pass, with a very good body swerve to beat people one on one,” said Howe. “I’m really pleased with how he’s adapting.”

Some of those qualities are easily observed in Warren Zaire-Emery, who made his PSG debut in the Champions League as a 16-year-old last season and has been a fixture, until he was rested at the weekend, in new head coach Luis Enrique’s starting midfield this season. “A diamond,” Luis Enrqiue calls the teenager. “He has everything he needs to become a really important player for PSG.”

Including, some PSG loyalists would say, the right postcode on his birth certificate. Zaire-Emery comes from the greater Paris region, from where gifted footballers emerge in greater numbers than from almost any other capital city in Europe, and a place whose native citizens are becoming a little better represented than they used to be in the PSG first-team.

Kylian Mbappe, the superstar whose long-term commitment to PSG is a subject of tense debate, is from the Paris suburbs, although he made his precocious breakthrough into senior football at Monaco; Randall Kolo Muani, signed from Eintracht Frankfurt to play up front with Mbappe, is from the same district as Mbappe.

They may have been purchased expensively and not, like Zaire-Emery, risen through the ranks, but they have some Paris in their DNA. Like Zaire-Emery, they are a partial argument against years of criticism of PSG’s recruitment policy under the Qatari owners, namely that the tendency has been too much to bring in superstars - like Neymar, Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic - while being careless about the excellent up-and-coming players on the club’s doorstep.

But neither Qatar Sports Investments, PSG’s backers, nor the PIF selected the European clubs they have chosen to invest in without assessing the talent-rich catchment areas of Paris and Newcastle, and the might of their respective followings.

The potential at both is huge. But both are still on a journey to true ‘superclub’ status. PSG’s spending and striving to win the Champions League has yielded just one final - and a silver medal - in the last dozen years. Newcastle will note that when expectations start to rise unrealistically about how quickly they can turn their new financial muscle into European glory.

Updated: October 04, 2023, 9:44 AM