Because of course he is…
I am not one for cheesy quotes or sayings. Most are dumb, many tend to not be true in reality, and they are just fairly annoying. There is one in particular that has been on my mind lately.
No, a rising tide does not lift all boats. It simply crushes the ones too weak to handle the waves, leaving the few remaining with more room in the water but wondering if they will be next.
This is where I am at right now as an ardent lover of Ligue 1 and French football since I got into the sport two decades ago. As Lionel Messi prepares to sign his first contract at Paris Saint-Germain, an admittedly colossal and historic moment that I do not think I could have imagined a decade ago, I am preparing to hear all of the grandstanding from Parisian media, both in English language and in French. “Messi coming is incredible for the league” they will say. “It will bring more eyes onto the league, TV revenues will skyrocket! This is exactly what Ligue 1 needs.”
And it’s all a load of…well…I won’t say that word on this blog. But you know what I mean.
This has been an idea that many, mainly those based in Paris or connected in a way to PSG, have tried to emphasize for years now, especially since PSG acquired Neymar and Mbappé. The crux of their argument was PSG winning the Champions League, giving France only their second major European trophy winner, would boost the entire reputation of Ligue 1 and provide a benefit for the whole league. Because of this, all of France, regardless of their club allegiances, should be cheering for PSG in the Champions League.
A similar idea was applied to PSG’s star-studded signings. When Zlatan Ibrahimović signed for them, and once again when Neymar and Kylian Mbappé joined, people argued that this level of star power coming into the league would be beneficial for everyone. Even as PSG consistently ran away with the title, winning every contested league title bar two in the Qatari era by an average of about 15 points per season (and once by as many as 31 points), they argued that these stars made more people watch the league and led to more money in the pockets of French teams. PSG’s success should be applauded because they are helping everyone. The rising Parisian (or really, rising Qatari) tide will lift all boats.
In reality, that has not happened. PSG’s successes have benefitted PSG, no one else. And with Messi arriving into the league, the boost will go to the Parisians alone. A team that has already largely benefitted from a system that they have exploited for years now has the ability to throw down enough money to extend Neymar’s contract and sign Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Gigio Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum, and now Lionel Messi while registering nearly €200 million in lost revenue this year. Meanwhile, Angers and Bordeaux were nearly relegated to Ligue 2 due to financial issues. Lille, having needed a minor miracle to win Ligue 1 on the final day of the season last year, are actively searching for offers for their best players as the only way to pay off mounting debt. Lyon, Nantes, and Saint-Étienne are too dealing with a mounting debt issue. The TV rights revenue for Ligue 1 teams is now at its lowest amount in nearly half a decade, despite the league supposedly having the money-making star power of Mbappé and Neymar, and the need for some French teams to sell players to break even has only become more pressing in the last few years. The only truly financially stable Ligue 1 team at the moment is Nice, recently backed by new rich owner and INEOS Chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe. But the money is trickling down, right? PSG’s success is the rising tide lifting all boats, right?
It is not, and while you can rightly blame the COVID-19 Pandemic on the massive financial hit on the league, the truth is that there has never really been a trickle down as a result of PSG’s success. It has only made PSG more money. The domestic television revenue did not noticeably change when Ibra arrived in the league. Yes, it did noticeably change when Neymar arrived, but you know what else happened around that time? Monaco won the league and made it to the semifinals of the Champions League. Marseille made it to the Europa League Final that was played in France. Lyon made it to the semifinals of the Europa League. The French National Team had just made it to the final of a Euros that they hosted and then won the World Cup. The league itself was much more competitive and, as a result, much more interesting. France’s triumph in Russia put a spotlight on a team and footballing culture that was producing the world’s next young stars. The spotlight was firmly entrenched upon the French Republic, but it was not PSG that put it there by themselves.
A somewhat similar story took place for the international TV rights, but with one main caveat. The company that has control of the international TV rights for Ligue 1 is called beIN Sports. BeIN’s viewership internationally has admittedly expanded, especially in South America as of recent years. While it is very difficult to watch Ligue 1 on beIN in America, and the product and production is admittedly not all that good, it still exists, and that is quite important. But the international TV deals are not nearly at the level of the other four major leagues in Europe, and it is this difficulty in marketing outside of France’s borders that limits the economic potential of the teams in the league. PSG can get away with it with their superstar signings and Jordan Brand collaborations, but the rest of the league cannot. Also, a significant percentage of that revenue, I believe as high as 50% but do not quote me on that, goes back to beIN, with the Ligue de Football Professionnel, the body that runs Ligue 1, receiving the other half. This seems a bit problematic, how could a deal for one of the five best leagues in the world be this bad? Well, you would not be wrong for thinking the LFP are bad negotiators, they are not historically known for being a well-ran organization, but do me a quick favor. Google search “beIN Media Group”, the principal company that runs beIN Sports. Got it pulled up? Good, now look at who owns the company.
For those who did not search it (I would not blame you) or those who do not recognize the name of the owner, I will tell you. BeIN is owned by a company called Qatari Sports Investments. You may not recognize the name, but you will recognize their chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the current chairman of PSG.
Seems like a bit of a conflict of interest, right? I get that this can also be spun as PSG using their resources to help the rest of the league, and to a certain extent that is not wrong. But that deal? The handicap on international revenue that is given to French teams, especially when compared to the other major leagues in Europe, is incredibly debilitating on a league already struggling financially. But this is no problem for PSG, because if I wanted to, I can go to the Nike Store at my local mall and buy a Jordan Brand t-shirt that says “Ici c’est Paris” on it with a massive PSG logo in the center as well as a similarly-branded jacket, track suit bottoms, and backpack to go with it. But if I, a Lyon fan, want to buy this season’s shirt, I have to get it shipped from France or buy it second-hand. But please, remind me about how PSG’s success is helping everyone…
This is the root of my issue with all of this. Frankly, I do not really care where Messi chose to go. He deserves to be able to play for whoever in the world he wants to play for. He is the greatest individual athlete I have ever seen in my life, and I will continue to be amazed by the spectacle of seeing him play even if he is playing for a club I despise. Do I wish he chose a more romantic option? Yes, because I am a sappy football romantic trying to survive in a world where the romanticism in this sport is dying at the hands of corporate greed and political sports-washing. Seeing him go to Napoli like Maradona did or go back to Newell’s Old Boys would have been so much fun. But let’s be honest, there were maybe four clubs in the world he would have ended up at, and PSG is the only one of those four clubs that pursued star player moves to this degree.
The thing that I hate about this move, the reason why I get irritated every time I have gotten on Twitter since this became a thing, is the sheer insistence for the “holier-than-thou” snobbery of the Parisian media, and quite a few other people within French football, to have the gall to stand out in public and say that PSG are helping the rest of the league out of the kindness of their hearts by ensuring they win the league by 30 points next season. The incredible desire for them to so blatantly insult my intelligence by saying the exact thing Ligue 1 needs to prosper is for pictures of Messi in a Jordan Brand shirt to be slapped on billboards across the globe during the week while him, Mbappé, and Neymar put 10 goals past Lens at the weekend. The incredible desire to gush over PSG’s owners and Al-Khelaifi’s ability to negotiate this deal is nauseating. And we are completely ignoring the fact that, while Al-Khelaifi is simply the chairman, the owner of the club is Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the actual Emir of Qatar, and he has used this club to mercilessly sports-wash away the dozens of human rights abuses that have been committed in his country to the point where they were awarded the rights to the World Cup next year, which then led to them employing quasi-slave labor to build the infrastructure to host it. We have to ignore that in this discussion cus it’s not the only thing wrong with this football club (but it is definitely the most wrong thing, do not mistake me here).
We all are supposed to gush over their ability to complete this deal like it was anything more than Al-Khelaifi pressing the “withdraw” button on the ATM once again, when we would be lying to ourselves if we did not admit the playing field in France is not equal. Basically since the Qataris bought the club in the early 2010s, PSG have had a carte-blanche to do things that no other club in France could get away with. They have mercilessly exploited rules and rewritten them to suit their needs. Al-Khelaifi has politicked his way up the ranks in UEFA, exploiting the Super League debacle to become maybe the most powerful man within the federation. PSG has become untouchable. And we are supposed to be thankful for them? The brother of the Emir of Qatar was the one who broke the news of Messi going to PSG on Twitter, and I am supposed to sit there and be happy about something that is so blatantly terrifying for the future of our sport, let alone our league? I mean, the current domestic TV rights deal will not get renewed until after Messi’s contract expires. Do we really think that it is going to be that much higher after three years of PSG waltzing to the league uncontested, especially coming off of the back of the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Ultimately, I do not think so, but I can definitely be proven wrong. This is where we all need to stop kissing PSG’s boots and actually challenge them. No more standing on your high horse; if you actually care about helping the league, PSG, then use this signing to get the quality international rights packages that will help the entire league, not just yourselves. If you want to be the best team in the world and win the Champions League routinely, you need to be tested for 38 games a season every domestic season. If you want your titles to mean something instead of just being another win in a “Farmers League”, then give Lyon and Marseille and Monaco and others the resources they need to challenge in Europe as well. And if you do not want to do that, then all of us need to stop pretending that Qatari Sports Investments is anything more than a political tool sucking at the blood of French football like a leech. We will need to stop pretending that there is a divine purpose in PSG’s existence and admit that clubs like them (and others, I have not forgotten about you, Premier League) are destroying this game. The Parisian tide is rising, and we are beginning to see the boats be crushed by the waves.
Now do not get me wrong, I am not blaming PSG for every illness that plagues French domestic football. They are not the ones who brought bad owners into the league to run institutions of French football into the ground. They are not the ones who decided to cancel the season in 2020 instead of trying to finish it, worsening this financial issue. They are not the ones making bad decisions for Nantes or Saint-Étienne. But please, stop pretending that they are the solution. Stop talking to me like a child about how wonderful this will be for our whole league and how PSG is helping to save French domestic football. Stop pretending that what we all see is not actually real, that PSG’s continued dominance of Ligue 1 is good for us as fans of other clubs. Stop trying to get us to pretend that PSG’s eventual Champions League triumph will not be as tainted as Marseille’s was by the match-fixing scandal.
Stop the “holier-than-thou” explanations about how PSG’s operations are a good thing when they very clearly are not.
Well, good luck, Messi. I do not hold any personal animosity against you. I will not call this a cowardly decision, or a money-chasing decision. You have the right to play wherever you want. I hope you do well in every game except in the games where you play my beloved OL, but I know you will destroy us too. Unfortunately, your achievements in Paris will not be as widely celebrated as they were in Catalonia. When you finally get that fifth Champions League title you have so longed for, it will not be celebrated. The day you hoist that European Cup in a PSG shirt and fly off to Doha to present the trophy to your owner will be the darkest day in the history of modern football. It has nothing to do with you, do not take it personally. It is simply the situation you inherited.
While I still admire you as an athlete, I cannot cheer for your success. This has only hardened my beliefs about the football club that you (likely will) play for. I am still what I have been for the last decade…
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