For 66 minutes, there was suspense and a crackle in the air, one of unprecedented anticipation and excitement. Sitting side by side, cramped, shoulder to shoulder, in little plastic seats, those privileged fans in the modest but intimate Stade Auguste-Delaune wanted to see a sight that had previously been considered unfathomable and impossible: the greatest soccer player in the world in colors not belonging to FC Barcelona – Lionel Messi no longer defending his beloved club where his lachrymose departure followed an epoch of excellence.
They all cheered and chanted his name as one – few command an audience like Messi – and in the second stanza the supporters got what they had come for – a Messi cameo off the bench against Reims, a moment that supposedly catapulted French club soccer into a new stratosphere – Messimania, a media frenzy and a visibility that Ligue 1 had hitherto not achieved.
The world was on hand to watch his introduction to French soccer with 52 broadcasters airing the match to 208 territories. Messi’s name resonates everywhere, even beyond soccer. His name and fame are matched only by Pelé and the late Diego Maradona.
Messi’s arrival eclipsed Qatar Sports Investments acquiring the capital club in 2011, a move entangled in geopolitics and soft power. This was even bigger than attaching Neymar’s name, histrionics and marvelous talent to PSG with a world record transfer fee of €222 million in 2017, an extravagant sum tailored to squeeze the market.
The Argentine superstar is the ultimate step-up for Ligue 1. And yet, scratch the surface and French soccer and PSG might not be surging. Les Bleus’ torrid summer aside, the domestic club game has been struggling. The Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of the rights deal with Mediapro in 2020, with the Spanish agency ultimately settling with a compensation of €100 million, have left clubs anaemic. In 2018, Mediapro and LFP had struck a record TV rights deal worth more than €800 million a season across Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 with French clubs budgeting those broadcast revenues for the 2020-21 season, but as the new campaign progressed there were worrying signs that Mediapro wasn’t fulfilling its contractual obligations. A dispute between Canal+ and beIN Sports ensued with Amazon AMZN then striking a cheap rights deal with the league.
MORE FOR YOU
The situation left French football strapped for cash forcing the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) into a €120 million bank loan to cover the parachute payments to the clubs. This was in addition to the €224 million the league had already borrowed from the French government in the spring of 2020 to help clubs handle the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The reigning champion serves as an example of the volatile situation. At its sporting height, Gerard Lopez had to exit the club last season after the club’s main creditors JP Morgan Chase and Elliott Management, run by the hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, refused for debts to be repackaged. Lille is but the top of the iceberg.
Backed by its Qatari owner and a series of Qatari sponsors like the country’s national airways and the powerful broadcast network beIN Sport, PSG has little to fear, but a league that is so lopsided is both unhealthy and embarrassing. Yes, Lille trumped PSG to the crown last season, but that won’t happen again. The deep-pocketed Parisians will reclaim their domination of French soccer.
Messi is obviously not culpable for this general malaise, but can one player rejuvenate a cash-strapped league? At best, he will temporarily raise the profile, his presence resulting in an uptick in merchandise and ticket sales, and a social media boom.
There is another problem with Messi. At 34, he is still an asset, but he represents the past, Mbappe, who want away to Real Madrid, the future. That was the strange drama playing out in the Champagne capital, no more so when Messi took off his training bib and, almost on cue, Mbappe tapped in his second goal following a sumptuous assist from Achraf Hakimi. At all times, Mbappe’s speed, skill and presence allowed PSG’s other players space and room. A once-in-generation player in his own right, he worked tirelessly all game.
Is it good business to pass on the future? In other words, does PSG really need Messi? The club proved top-heavy with both Neymar and Mbappe not tracking back last season in the Champions League, the competition that informs the club. In that respect, Hakimi’s acquisition is more important, injecting quality at full-back, but those are concerns for later. On Sunday, Reims, PSG and Ligue 1 reveled in Messi’s presence. He is French soccer’s new king, but at what cost?