PARIS — For many years, Paris Saint-Germain was synonymous with huge under-achievement on the field, overt racism in the stands and fan violence outside the stadium.
By signing Neymar for a world record transfer fee, PSG and its wealthy Qatari owners have definitively closed that chapter of the club’s history.
Out goes the old image of working-class Paris, and in comes a new era where glitz, glamor and money count for everything.
To secure the services of the Barcelona forward, PSG splashed 222 million euros ($262 million) — double the previous world record transfer of 105 million euros (then $116 million) paid last year by Manchester United for France midfielder Paul Pogba.
Yet that level of spending, though breathtaking, is not as surprising as it first seems.
Since Qatar Sports Investments took over PSG in 2011 with the aim of turning it into a world-class club, the owners have made it clear they are willing to spend big.
In the summer of 2011, QSI signaled its intentions by signing Javier Pastore for 42 million euros from Italian club Palermo. The spree that followed included Thiago Motta (11.5 million euros), Thiago Silva (42 million), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (21 million), Ezequiel Lavezzi (29 million), Marco Verratti (12 million), Lucas Moura (40 million), Edinson Cavani (64.5 million) and Angel Di Maria (63). That’s a whopping 325 million euros ($385 million).
While the willingness to shatter the world transfer record is clear enough, Neymar’s arrival is harder to understand from a sporting standpoint.
Following Ibrahimovic’s departure to Manchester United last summer, Cavani thrived as PSG’s main striker — finishing the season as the French league’s top scorer and bagging a remarkable 49 goals in 50 games across all competitions.
With Neymar joining coach Unai Emery’s system, it remains to be seen whether Cavani will be able to reproduce those impressive figures, especially if the Brazil forward, who can play on both wings, is used in a more central position.
Neymar’s arrival has also left many observers wondering why the club hasn’t invested in other positions, since PSG’s attacking force was clearly not a problem last season.
A pair of top-class defensive midfielders to help protect a shaky back four that conceded six goals to Neymar’s former team during a dismal Champions League night last season would seem to be a far more pressing need. Replacing the error-prone Kevin Trapp with a star goalkeeper might also have been a better investment for a club that has made winning the Champions League a very public objective.
However, as a public relations exercise, hiring Neymar definitely has a lot of benefits.
Along with selling tens of thousands of Neymar Jr. jerseys, the Brazilian’s arrival will help club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in his efforts to promote the slick image of a fashionable club that is determined to succeed on the world stage.
Off the pitch, QSI has helped to rid the Parc des Princes stadium of its most violent supporters and has brought sporting stability as well as top quality players to PSG.
Those improvements have come at a cost for the team’s fans, who have seen the price of season tickets double over the past six years, with holders being asked to pay extra to watch Champions League matches.
A number of protests have been held in recent seasons by longstanding supporters who suspect the club of trying to attract a wealthier demographic to the Parc des Princes.
Those voices have been listened to, and the gradual return of PSG’s hard-core fans last season has greatly improved the match-day atmosphere.
To repay that faith, the team now has to live up to expectations in Europe, after several years of underachievement. Despite the money being lavished on the squad, it has yet to match the feats of the PSG team that reached the Champions League semifinals in 1995 and won the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season.
Signing Neymar has certainly been a spectacular media coup. The challenge now is for him to transform PSG from a very good French team to a great European club.