It took eight seconds on Sunday evening for Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to destroy musings in the French media that they are three
incompatible egos in the Qatari-fuelled millionaire playground of Paris.
Straight from the kick-off, Neymar flicked the ball back, Messi stroked it from the centre circle to the edge of the Lille penalty box, and Mbappé
allowed the ball one bounce before chipping it over the advancing goalkeeper. And then, seemingly at their will, the untouchable trio created
– and more importantly, shared – their beauty, their compatibility, their essence of the beautiful game beyond the scope of the former French league
As earnestly as Lille tried, they were made to look like trawlermen trying to catch spiders in giant nets. And, yes, this speaks to the uncompetitive nature of their league just as much as Bayern Munich thrashing Bochum 7-0, also away, also on Sunday in the Bundesliga.
Lest we forget, this is a World Cup season. The stars of Paris Saint-Germain know they must try to win the Champions League, the Holy Grail for their paymasters in Doha despite the fact that in mid-season, the 36-year-old Messi, the 30-year-old Neymar and the young pup Mbappé, 23, will all be heading to Qatar to join up with their national teams.
For that, as much as for PSG, Messi put in extra training hours during the summer break playing keepy-uppy against his exasperated pet dog, a 60kg (9st) Bordeaux mastiff he calls Hulk.
Put aside for one moment the speculation that Paris are paying Mbappé £77m gross for this season alone. And paying Messi £54m, Neymar a mere £48m and, for heavens’ sake, paying £23m to that bully of a Spanish defender Sergio Ramos. I don’t know or care overmuch whether Marquinhos, the superb defender who captains PSG from the back, is paid his worth. Or how much Vitinha, the newest recruit from Portugal, receives for his apprenticeship alongside Messi in midfield.
I take with a pinch of salt the reports that Mbappé has the final say on who
shares his pitch with him. And with a second pinch of the white stuff the
words of Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari who runs PSG on behalf of the Gulf
In June, Al-Khelaifi fired Leonardo, the former player whom he made sporting director, and fired the head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, for only
winning Ligue 1 and only reaching the semi-finals in Europe. It was Pochettino’s fault, apparently, that PSG collapsed after being two goals up
against Real Madrid with half an hour left in the first Champions League
“No more bling-bling,” Al-Khelaifi told le Parisien in June. “We want players who love the club, who love to fight to win, who are humble and give 200% every day.”
The president denies that he ever spoke to Zinedine Zidane or considered him for the role as coach. “We have chosen a coach who will be the best for what we want to put in place,” he said.
In fact, not just a coach but a “conseiller football”, a football adviser who will oversee recruitment and set a more disciplined tone throughout the club. That coach, Christophe Galtier, grew up as a grafting defender in Marseille, and the adviser, Luís Campos, has a distinguished pedigree of scouting players in Brazil, Europe and of course the ubiquitous kindergarten of his native Portugal.
You could very easily forge a team of the players Campos has guided along the way: helping José Mourinho at Real Madrid, tempting Mbappé as a teenager to the Russian-backed AS Monaco along with Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez, Fabinho, Dimitar Berbatov and on and on.
The “conseiller” was the man who advised Al-Khelaifi to swerve Zidane and go for Galtier. He had good reason, good inside knowledge. For it was Campos and Galtier who, in a much humbler, much more pragmatic way,
built Lille into the only French team to take the domestic title during the Qatar era of PSG.
Among Campos’s first appointments in Paris was a nutritionist whose regimen forbids fizzy drinks (Coca-Cola is a club sponsor). And when Mbappé sulked because Neymar insisted on taking a penalty that Mbappé believed was his right the week before the Lille match, it was Campos who put an arm around the big shoulders of the coming king of La France and
smoothed a public row.
Neymar has been getting his own way ever since Al-Khelaifi ripped him out of Barcelona, paying a release clause of £189m that Barça never imagined anyone would trigger for the Brazilian. Wages, of course, on top. PSG went to court to dodge the bullet of Uefa Fair Play financial restrictions, and are reportedly selling off players right now to avoid further Uefa attempts to impose fiscal regulation. The equally elusive balance that is paramount is the efforts of Galtier and Campos to persuade the stars that it is a team game.
The essence of great players is that they thrill us in a childlike way by making the ball dance to their imagination despite opponents trying to break them. The line is so tenuous that between the final whistle after the
penalty-taking squabble and the next training session Neymar publicly
“liked” two Tweets from fans mocking Mbappé’s penalty prowess.
“We met the next day and said what we had to say,” the coach insisted. “There is no malaise. Kylian is the first penalty shooter, Ney the number two.” Peace and harmony translated into Seventh Heaven in Lille.