Paris Saint-Germain are on the vanguard of world football, whether you like it or not. They have no ancient tradition to guard and no moral obligation to uphold. Some people would claim this was a disadvantage, just like our ancient relatives must have thought when the first monkey tried standing up on its hind legs. Obviously though, it was those adventurous monkeys who evolved into the humans who built the first civilizations. The monkeys who stayed on four legs still swing between trees.
In defining evolution, the key term is adaptation. The members of a species who make the necessary adaptation to the ecosystem around them survive and the ones that don’t remain the same or perish. Everything adapts–people, environments, social structures, technology, and yes, even sports. Nothing is immune to adaptation. The change can happen rapidly or subtly over time but inevitably it does happen.
This evolution could be seen as far as 50 years ago with the dawn of Pelé. How many people know who Pelé is and how many people know what club team he played for? How many would know the former, and not the latter, and what would the difference be? As the years have gone by, this phenomena has happened more and more. Countless players have transcended their club teams becoming more closely associated with their nation of birth. This being helped by the fact that the FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of world soccer, rather than an event like the UEFA Champions League. Ask Cristiano Ronaldo if he would trade his Champions League trophies for winning the World Cup for Portugal. Would Steven Gerrard trade all of his FA Cups for just one chance at winning a World Cup final for England?
Some people may say that this statement is irrelevant. Some would even say that with all of the money involved, club football has become even more lucrative and important to superstar players than their international duties. Some would also say that star athletes see these international games as a burden rather than an honor. Those are the people who don’t realize the role club and country actually play in a players bank account. Those people would not be on the vanguard.
The modern superstar footballer has one main source of income and it isn’t their club salary, it’s their individual brand. A footballer uses his skill to sell his face. A face that can be used to promote Hublot watches, Nike cleats, Giorgio Armani suits, or any other high end brand of choice. When Neymar Jr. sells watches, notice he isn’t wearing his club’s kit while he’s doing it. Lionel Messi doesn’t walk around in a FC Barcelona shirt so people know who he is. The player is at the top of the money train with the money they get from their national team notoriety, club notoriety, and brand notoriety funneling in from all directions. Right now this only applies to the top five percent of players but as time passes more and more players will think and operate in these terms.
What this means is that it makes no real difference to a players bottom line who they play for. As long as the team they play for is good enough to showcase their skills. As long as the club has enough talent around them to keep them in major competitions that are televised worldwide. The Champions League is seen a lot more around the world than the UEFA Europa League, which is why a player like Alexis Sanchez wanted to leave Arsenal. Alexis’ monetary value as a brand drops every minute he plays for a mediocre club.
Neymar saw the writing on the wall and realized that the only way to raise his value was to become the face of a team–any team really. Preferably a team with stars but stars that weren’t at his level. Preferably a team that didn’t have frugal owners and an overbearing coach. Paris Saint-Germain checks all of those boxes. Kylian Mbappé needed to grow his brand in a supporting role on a team that consistently competes in the most visible competition all while being well compensated. Paris Saint-Germain checks all of those boxes as well.
PSG haven’t all of a sudden become this convenient option for top players by accident. As comical as this may sound, Paris are by far the most humble of the top clubs in Europe. This is how the lack of major history and tradition is quite helpful. PSG are, and have been since 2011, a sort of blank canvas for great players to paint on. A player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic was essentially allowed to be the face and personality of PSG for a solid four years. While it caused a toxic atmosphere behind the scenes and failed to secure them a Champions League trophy, this was the equivalent of sour-tasting medicine. Hard to get down but it will eventually heal the aches of the body. PSG’s policy of being subservient to their star players has hurt them in the short term, but may have greatly benefited them in the long term.
Think about it, what club would have humbled themselves enough to use their road jersey as a tribute to the Brazilian national team? A brand that has far more broad-based appeal than their own? It is that type of self subjugation in the name of capitalism that some would see as shameless and beneath a large European club. Then Neymar came and the idea wasn’t so silly anymore.
PSG, if nothing else, proved to be a pure “players club”. The players shape the personality of the club rather than a burdensome tradition or a over-demanding manager. While PSG’s stated goal is winning the Champions League, it is not by any means the primary objective. The primary objective has already been achieved. PSG will never be the “brand” that Chelsea FC, Barcelona, or Real Madrid are, nor do they want to be. Paris Saint-Germain is not about the patch on the front, but the name on the back.
Sacrilegious you say but as history becomes more and more ancient and technology makes ten years ago seem like thirty, tradition becomes less valuable as any sort of currency. It is not about the players you had, but the player you have, and will eventually have. Young children in the world follow players, not clubs. The boy in Brazil who wore a Barcelona jersey in July wears a PSG jersey today. The one constant was the name on the back.
The new football is an arms race to collect the top talent and treat them like top talent. To treat them like leading Hollywood actors. Neymar got a stadium unveiling and an Eiffel Tower light show. Ousmane Dembélé got a graphic on Twitter, the same as Nélson Semedo, same as every other player Barcelona signs. The top, top players don’t want to be cogs in a machine, they want to be the centerpiece. The stars are not being selfish, they are only doing what is best for business and what it best for their family. You don’t need Qatari type money to do this either. It definitely helps but as long as the team plays second fiddle to the talent it is possible. While it might be counter intuitive to believe that a club built on this model can survive players leaving better than a club based upon a strong team identity, once elite players see how much wealthier they are with this model, all bets will be off.
For some perspective, Neymar has 81.4 million Instagram followers, Barcelona has 52 million, and PSG have 9.5 million. Neymar has 32.4 million Twitter followers, Barcelona has 24 million, and PSG have 5.2 million. What does this all mean? It means that Neymar is bigger than both Barcelona and PSG, and whichever club Neymar is on gets that benefit. While PSG is in no way bigger than Barcelona, they are now business partners with someone who is, which gives them plenty of opportunity to grow into more of a global brand than they already are.
This is why the 2017 summer transfer window has seen PSG acquire two of the game’s brightest stars. Paris is achieving it’s goal of becoming one of the top platforms for top class athletes to showcase their skill unencumbered by a club’s misguided sense of importance. The next evolution of sports will see clubs become business partners with the players they sign, which puts the club in the same category as Nike, Gatorade, Giorgio Armani, and Hublot. Just another brand that pays to be promoted by the star. The clubs that accept this will thrive and the ones who don’t will perish. That’s just evolution, whether you like it or not.