A rebranded Paris Saint-Germain had reconfigured objectives. The new-look club’s revamped mission statement was clear.
When Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) purchased the Ligue 1 side in 2011, the chairman of both entities, Nasser al-Khelaifi, outlined their ambitions. Struggling financially under United States investment firm Colony Capital, PSG were to become the dominant football force, first at home and latterly in Europe, too.
Through significant investment, the former was achieved. PSG won the Ligue 1 title in the first four years following the takeover and, after Monaco wrestled free from their grasp the trophy last season, the capital club are poised this campaign for a seventh top-flight crown and fifth in six years. With six matches remaining, PSG sit perched at the summit in France, 14 points clear of second-placed Monaco.
Yet continental success has continued to elude them. Since QSi’s involvement, they have not once progressed further than the quarter-finals in the Uefa Champions League. Last month, PSG were eliminated at the last-16 stage, surrendering 5-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid, the holders and occupiers of the position PSG want to hold. The failure is believed to be the prime reason manager Unai Emery will not continue in the dugout beyond the expiration of his contract this summer.
"All that, for that?" read L'Equipe's headline the morning after the second-leg defeat. The most expensively assembled team in the history of football had not delivered. They were not even close. The "project" remained some way from its completion.
Now, though, PSG’s quest for European glory threatens to rob them of the opportunity to compete for club football’s most prized possession. On Wednesday, the club denied an inquiry into whether they breached Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules which had found evidence that could lead to a ban from next season’s Champions League.
A report in the Financial Times claimed that a preliminary investigation by European football's governing body into the club's finances, sparked by last summer's world-record signings of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, had found the value of €200 million ((Dh904.2) in sponsorship contracts to be "significantly overstated". That they were not their true worth.
If true, PSG would most likely breach FFP regulations for a second time. In 2014, prompted by a major outlay that included Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and David Luiz, they were fined €60m and struck with a number of other restrictions, including fielding a limited, 21-man squad in the Champions League. This time, though, the suggestion is they could be suspended from the competition altogether.
Prompted into a response, PSG rejected accusations that they were about to again fall foul of FFP as “erroneous information”.
Just last month, sporting director Antero Henrique spoke to L'Equipe regarding the persistent accusations, saying: "We are relaxed about it. It is more of an issue outside the club than inside. It is March and we have until the end of June. There are no worries."
Irrespective of that, the numbers involved are staggering. In signing Neymar and Mbappe, PSG spent more than €400m in transfer fees. They are committed to a combined €40m in salary per season for their five-year contracts.
The reasoning has long been obvious: by attracting genuinely elite-bracket players, PSG have attempted to bridge the gap to the established aristocracy, to expedite their Champions League pursuit. Given they are playing catch-up on Europe’s lead clubs, the recent speculation surrounding their finances could hamper that bid.
“Paris Saint-Germain is already up against a fairly significant competitive disadvantage relative to its European rivals,” says Professor Simon Chadwick, a leading expert on the business of football. “So, therefore, anything that undermines the club, anything that undermines its commercial operations, anything that undermines its financial performance, could adversely affect the club and potentially put it even further behind its rivals.”
The most recent figures published by Deloitte placed PSG seventh in their Football Money League, with a revenue of €486.2m – down from €520.9m the previous year. Crucially, the study does not measure costs. At PSG in particular, those are excessive.
As Deloitte calculate, commercial revenue equates to more than half of that revenue, at 56 per cent, or €274.1m. According to reports, a portion of that income is the subject of an independent review requested by Uefa. There is a concern that some of the money has come from “related parties”, those with close links to QSi. They include the deals struck with Qatar National Bank, Bein Sports and the Qatar Tourism Authority.
While there is still some way to go in the investigation – Uefa will not make a final decision until the completion of the club’s financial year at June end, and it still feels improbable such draconian measures will be meted out – it represents an unnecessary, and potentially damaging, situation.
“It’s the concept of soft power,” Chadwick says. “You try to make sure that fans around the world like you by signing great players, having this really glamorous image. But the counter to that is the concept known as soft disempowerment. Soft disempowerment basically means the likes of Qatar, whatever it is they’re trying to do, it may have the reverse effect. There are lot of people around the world who are somewhat cynical about Paris Saint-Germain and thinking they’re just buying their success and flouting regulations.
“One of the things that Qatar has possibly done is to underestimate the consequences of soft disempowerment. They might think 'we’ve got money, we’ll buy our way to success', but as we know, football fans across the world are not necessarily taken by the bling, the glitz and the glamour. They can take a very cynical view of it.
“And again that’s something that I think not just PSG as a club, but Qataris more generally have got to understand and got to get to grips with.”
Means to generating more money are already in motion. PSG have new sponsorship deals in the pipeline. Talks have begun to sell some of their first-team players, with Julian Draxler, Angel Di Maria and Javier Pastore considered their most bankable commodities.
Also, PSG are confident the increase in merchandising and match-day sales this season, prompted by the acquisitions of Neymar and Mbappe, can help satisfy FFP rules. The view is supported by Deloitte’s most recent study.
However, although expensively assembled and lavishly paid, this season's Champions League disappointment proved once more that the squad is not good enough. If anything, more investment is required. The impending World Cup should represent a shop window for stars to take them to the next level, to forge forward with the project.
But with the spectre of FFP looming large, however unlikely, the club owned by a gulf state seeking to expand its presence could in theory not preside in the one competition they covet most.