Thursday, May 11, 2023

PSG week has been chaotic


Even by PSG’s standards, the past week has been a chaotic one

ANGERS, FRANCE - APRIL 21: Lionel Messi (30) during the French Ligue 1 match between  SCO Angers and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) on April 21, 2023, at Stade Raymond Kopa in Angers, France. (Photo by Glenn Gervot/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
By Peter Rutzler
May 10, 2023


Paris Saint-Germain are probably the first football club to evoke comparisons with the American TV show Dallas.

That was Thierry Henry’s summary of the drama that has unfolded at the Parc des Princes over the past week, a soap opera that has scaled new heights and captured headlines worldwide. It began with Lionel Messi, arguably the best player of all time, skipping training to see “magnificent purebred Arabian horses” — among other things in Saudi Arabia — and went on to include fans protesting outside the house of Neymar (who has not played a match since February), as well as a 3-1 win over Troyes.

To get to grips with the latest instalment of PSG drama, you have to start with the football on the night of Sunday, April 30, specifically a 3-1 defeat by Lorient. It was here, with this shock home defeat, that the week’s events were set in motion. PSG were reduced to 10 men inside the opening 20 minutes but the reaction by the team thereafter was poor. It was a display that led to the club’s ultras, the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP), protesting outside the training ground the next day. They were unable to attend the Lorient game itself because of a partial stand closure, caused by fireworks let off at the end of a 1-0 defeat by Lyon earlier in April.

A direct consequence of the result was that PSG’s players lost their day off on Monday morning. This is not unusual; only once this year have PSG retained more than a single day off after a defeat on a Sunday night, and that followed the home loss to Rennes on March 19. That game preceded an international break. Otherwise, defeat has always meant just one day off, which was the case after Lyon (April 2) and Lens (January 1). After beating Marseille 3-0 in February on a Sunday night, the squad were given two days off.

The players were informed of the schedule, yet Messi did not show up on Monday morning. He had a pre-arranged trip to Saudi Arabia as a tourism ambassador for the country. So, as the rest of the squad attended training, Messi was undertaking a “jam-packed” schedule, as the Saudi tourist office press release described it. This was made public with pictures on Wednesday, a day after news of Messi’s suspension had come to light.

Included on Messi’s trip were visits to Riyadh and Diriyah, fine dining at Al Bujairi and an authentic farm experience that included witnessing palm weaving and feeding gazelles. He was also “enchanted by his encounter with a white falcon”. Those at PSG were not quite as enthralled, however, with L’Equipe reporting surprise in the dressing room, with some players having booked flights for trips that they would ultimately not take.

PSG’s punishment was dished out on Tuesday. Messi was suspended for two weeks with docked pay and was unable to attend the club’s facilities — the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner had been banished. For PSG, this was a line-in-the-sand moment regarding discipline — no player would be allowed to be above the club. They had made their stance and the implications for Messi, whose contract expires in the summer, were clear. This behaviour would not be tolerated and, in fact, it marks the beginning of the end of Project Messi in Paris.

Questions naturally arose about whether Kylian Mbappe would have received the same treatment. Or, indeed, whether Messi would have been subject to the same punishment had his trip been to Qatar, home of the club’s owners, rather than to Saudi Arabia.

The club dispute such implications but hypotheticals aside, PSG had made an example of Messi. They wanted the move to be seen within the context of the club trying to pivot towards a different strategy, with a view to building around Mbappe and younger talent. Extending Messi’s contract for a further year, up until this point, had been an open question. But not now.

Christophe Galtier and his team continued their preparations for a trip to Troyes. But an already agitated fanbase viewed Messi’s unauthorised trip with disgust and escalated their protests. For them, Messi’s absence was further evidence of a team not fighting for the shirt, within a context of perceived disconnect between themselves and the club’s identity. Among their grievances is a possible move to the disliked Stade de France, following stalled negotiations between PSG and the Paris council over buying the Parc des Princes outright.

So, on Wednesday, the CUP organised a protest outside PSG’s headquarters in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. There, a group of more than 400 supporters came together and a statement was released criticising “recruitment without a global vision”, the signings of “overrated players” and “mercenaries”, while also outlining their opposition to leaving the Parc des Princes and high ticket prices. Strong, and at times insulting, chants were made against star players including Messi, Neymar, Marco Verratti and Galtier, while president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who the CUP has demanded to meet, was similarly criticised. A banner was unveiled calling on the board to resign.

Online anger among the fanbase continued to grow too and these protests spilled over, with a group of individuals heading to Neymar’s house, in the suburb of Bougival, on Wednesday night, telling him in less than pleasant terms to “leave the club”. Disillusionment with Neymar among fans goes back some time, amid stories about parties and his frequent injury issues, notably in the second half of the season. This, though, was the first time supporters had sought out his home. It left Neymar, according to a source close to the player speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, very upset and confused as to why he was targeted when he hasn’t played since February. He was with his family at home at the time. His future now seems more uncertain, even if it will be difficult for any team to prise him away from Paris owing to his contract, which runs until 2027.

PSG reacted strongly to these protests, putting out a statement that night condemning the “intolerable and insulting actions of a small group of individuals that took place on Wednesday”. Additional security was drafted in outside the homes of Galtier, Neymar and Verratti, as well as at the training ground. The head of the ultras, Romain Mabille, distanced himself and the CUP from the protest outside Neymar’s house in an interview with Le Parisien. “I do not condone it, this is not an action of the CUP,” he said. The ultras would feel the impact of the protests because they had their ticket allocation for the trip to Troyes rescinded by the club.

The first time Galtier addressed the issue of Messi’s suspension was during Friday’s press conference, following 15 minutes of open training without Messi present. There he declared he would not comment on it, other than to indicate this was not his decision to make. “I was informed at the beginning of the week by my management of the decision taken to suspend Leo,” he said. “Once I found out, I took it upon myself not to comment on it.” Asked if he signed off the punishment, or would have done the same thing, he said simply: “I didn’t have to make the decision. I have been informed (of it) and I comply.”

That afternoon, Messi broke his silence. He uploaded a video to his Instagram story, which featured him dressed in a blazer and shirt in front of a white wall. He apologised to his team-mates and to the club, stating he thought they would have a day off as had happened in previous weeks. “I had this trip to Arabia organised and I couldn’t cancel it, I had already cancelled it before.”

The team travelled to Troyes without Messi and secured a 3-1 win. It was one of their most dominant performances of the campaign, registering 31 shots, their highest in a single game this season, and their highest expected goals value too, of 4.4. Considering the inconsistent and below-par nature of recent displays, this marked a step in a positive direction.



No Messi, no problem: How balanced PSG beat Troyes with creator Verratti and proper press

Off the field, though, tensions continued. Empty seats were visible in the away end and despite having their tickets revoked, the ultras still travelled but were prevented from entering the stadium. They waited for more than an hour in the car park behind the Stade de l’Aube, held up by stewards and police, awaiting some kind of breakthrough. That did not come to pass. The ultras released a statement after the game stating 200 of their members had been held up and the decision to stop them attending the game had been “disproportionate”.

But the win over Troyes marked the beginning of the end of the drama — for this week at least. On Monday, Messi returned to the Camp des Loges, where he trained on his own as the rest of the squad were given a day off. PSG confirmed he had returned via a Twitter post, which signalled that Messi’s suspension had been reduced to a week and one game. That night, he attended the Laureus World Sports Awards at the Hotel d’Evreux in Paris, where he won the sportsman of the year — the only footballer to have won it, having now done so twice. “I want to thank all my team-mates, not only from the national team but also at PSG — I have achieved none of this alone and I am grateful to be able to share everything with them,” he said.

Afterwards, at 11.30pm French time, the ultras revealed they were due to meet the club to discuss their grievances.

The return of Messi to training changed much in the short term; he is now back in the fold and trained with his team-mates on Tuesday. He is also set to feature in the league run-in, as PSG try to secure a record 11th title. For the player, he is determined to end the season in a positive way by securing that trophy. For the club, this is seen as the best way to handle the situation, an elegant conclusion and a way to avoid any ongoing acrimony. Messi was seen to have done wrong, he had been fined and suspended, and now he had apologised.

In the long term, though, his reintegration does not change his future. He is not expected to stay in Paris beyond this season. AFP reported on Tuesday that a Saudi source had said a deal was done with Messi to bring him to the country. But that is something Messi’s camp have denied, with Messi’s father Jorge making a public statement that his son will make a decision on his future at the end of the season. “Nothing has been agreed with anyone, neither verbal, signed or agreed.”

For the time being, the focus is on winning Ligue 1, with calm restored. Will it last? Well, this title run-in has hardly been a tranquil affair, with allegations levelled at Galtier, Mbappe complaining about a marketing video, and the team suffering three poor defeats from their past four home games.

And there is always Saturday night, against Ajaccio, when Messi returns to action and the ultras return to the Parc des Princes.

Tune in next week to find out what happens.

(Top photo: Glenn Gervot/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Peter Rutzler

Peter Rutzler is a football writer covering Paris Saint-Germain and Fulham for The Athletic. Previously, he covered AFC Bournemouth. He joined The Athletic in August 2019. Follow Peter on Twitter @peterrutzler

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Roland M.

· Wed

Thanks for your effort but who is this article’s intended audience?

90% of this is already known by continental fans. Perhaps if it’s for British fans who only follow the
Premier league, then sure. But hoping to get more insight and substance.


James A.

· Yesterday

I always find it fairly amusing when Ultras of "nu-money" clubs stamp their feet and make demands like petulant teenagers.

PSG were part of a bunch of decent teams in a competitive enough league. Now that their owners buy the league over and over it's like, hey, guys, not good enough. We won't settle until we have a Bundesliga title.



Fran B.

· Yesterday

A good summary. Objective.
I had mixed feelings about Messi until we played Lorient. Then I was deeply disappointed because he was just there on the pitch. So I thought he had made up his mind to go. Next day I heard he was in Saudi so I thought his mind wasn't on the game he was already packing up his case.
Anyway because of his peace offering he's back until the end of the season. I don't doubt he will leave except if the Emirs are competing on the salary scale.
We'll see how he plays until then, see if he does the honourable thing and gives his best and doesn't mess it up.