On Wednesday evening, moments after the final whistle in Real Madrid’s Bernabeu, the Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and the club’s sporting director Leonardo descended into the bowels of the stadium.
It is now almost 11 years since Al-Khelaifi’s state-backed Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) acquired PSG and, despite spending in excess of £1 billion on incoming transfers, the Champions League trophy remains elusive. This season, a devastating final half-hour from Madrid striker Karim Benzema turned the round-of-16 tie in favour of the Spanish team, enabling Carlo Ancelotti’s side to recover from a 2-0 aggregate deficit and vanquish PSG from the competition.
Afterwards, Al-Khelaifi and Leonardo were accompanied by the PSG president’s bodyguard as they headed straight for the dressing room belonging to Dutch referee Danny Makkelie. PSG felt the official and his video assistants had failed to intervene to punish what the French club perceived to be a foul on Gianluigi Donnarumma in the lead-up to Benzema’s first goal which altered the face of the contest.
Leonardo, according to eyewitnesses, did much of the shouting, and he is said to have prevented the officials from closing the door as they sought to abruptly end the conversation. It is said that a linesman’s flag was damaged in the scuffle. The tension was further ignited when a member of Madrid’s staff appeared to be filming the incident, and Al-Khelaifi requested it should be destroyed.
In the Spanish media, breathless reports emerged to say that the police were called to intervene but this is a slight exaggeration as eyewitnesses say that riot police carrying shields were, a little peculiarly, already positioned around the tunnel and dressing room from the start of the evening. Donnarumma and Neymar have also denied claims they came to blows in the tunnel and UEFA have opened proceedings to investigate events after the final whistle.
The Athletic can reveal this follows a previous attempt by PSG to challenge officials during the first leg of the tie. Both Al-Khelaifi and Leonardo angered some Madrid staff by attempting to query a decision by Daniele Orsato at the interval of the match at the Parc des Princes in Paris on February 15.
The French league (LFP) previously banned Leonardo for a nine-month period from the bench, tunnel and official functions in 2013 when he pushed a match official. As for Madrid, the club have their own ways to welcome officials: they hired a former professional referee Carlos Megia Davila, who acts as the referee liaison at the Bernabeu on behalf of the home team.
For PSG, it represented a frayed end to another tortuous exit from the Champions League, following on from previous humiliations against Barcelona in 2017 — when PSG infamously lost 6-1 in the Nou Camp — and Manchester United in 2019, when an injury-time penalty from Marcus Rashford knocked PSG out of the tournament.
PSG have reached the final of the Champions League only once under Qatari ownership. Thomas Tuchel was the manager on that occasion in 2020 and his side lost against Bayern Munich.
This latest collapse was particularly galling for PSG in the context of a deepening feud with Madrid off the field. That’s before we even begin to explore what this all means for the French club in the year of the Qatar World Cup, as well as the futures of head coach Mauricio Pochettino and Kylian Mbappe.
It is worth remembering how, only six months ago, PSG came away from the summer market convinced the club had overseen the most spectacular and successful transfer window of all time.
In one summer, PSG had signed Donnarumma, Lionel Messi, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sergio Ramos on free transfers from AC Milan, Barcelona, Liverpool and Real Madrid. The club also spent heavily on full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes from Inter Milan and Sporting Lisbon.
More than that, the club later triggered an option to extend manager Pochettino’s contract until the summer of 2023, having persuaded him to resist advances from former club Tottenham last June. PSG then capped off their window by turning down a £160 million offer from Madrid for Mbappe.
As such, PSG, led by one of the most highly-rated coaches in Europe, would enter the year of the World Cup in Qatar spearheaded by a front three of star turns in Mbappe, Messi and Neymar. The objective in the 11th year of QSI’s ownership was clear: to win the Champions League.
PSG’s on-field ambitions were clear but the club’s president Al-Khelaifi had also been framed, in some quarters, as a heroic force in European football when his club rejected an offer to form part of the European Super League last April. This laid the foundations for a simmering dispute with Real Madrid’s President Florentino Perez, who was one of the key instigators of the Super League.
In a media appearance during the week it launched last April, Perez claimed that PSG were not invited to the competition but The Athletic subsequently saw paperwork which demonstrated that the French club were among those asked to join. Additionally, PSG were left under the impression, before the launch, that they would be deprived of certain commercial benefits should they decide to join the Super League later than the other founder members.
As the Super League launched and collapsed in the space of 48 hours, the breakaway clubs lobbied PSG’s president, along with other refuseniks Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Al-Khelaifi resisted, despite warnings that his club would fall behind when the Super League became the pre-eminent competition in club football.
The most generous interpretation is that Al-Khelaifi felt loyal to his position on the UEFA Executive Committee and to UEFA’s president Aleksander Ceferin. More cynical voices pointed out Al-Khelaifi is also the chairman of the Qatari broadcaster BeIN Sport, which owns television rights to broadcast UEFA competitions.
As the Super League club executives withdrew from senior roles at both UEFA and the European Clubs Association (ECA), Al-Khelaifi grew in prominence. The man who already ran PSG and chaired BeIN Sport then landed the presidency of the ECA, while his power base at UEFA also heightened. He is, arguably, now the most powerful executive in European football and when the ECA Congress meets at the end of March in Vienna, he will deliver the keynote speech to European clubs in attendance. Speaking late last year, Al-Khelaifi goaded Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, all of whom continue to explore legal routes to revive the Super League.
He said: “I will not spend much time talking about April 18 and the not-so-Super League because I do not like to focus on fabulists and failures. Together, we defended the interests of European football for everyone. We relied on the resolve and strength of Ceferin, who stood up to the midnight coup. He said ‘we will win’ and we did. While the three rebel clubs waste energies, twist narratives and continue to shout at the sky, the rest of us are moving forward.”
On the field, PSG believed they had further undermined their Super League rivals by signing players from five different Super League clubs, many of which were experiencing financial difficulties in the pandemic. Madrid’s president Perez is among those who believes that PSG and Manchester City have warped the transfer market by benefiting from funding via ownership models linked to the states of Qatar and Abu Dhabi which, in the eyes of their critics, forces rivals to overspend and risk their finances in order to keep up. PSG and Manchester City would always argue that they should not be held accountable for the reckless spending of other clubs.
Last month, as PSG and Madrid met in the Champions League, Perez and Al-Khelaifi were reunited in person. As the host club, PSG organised a lunch for club executives and UEFA delegates at the three Michelin star restaurant Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris.
Perez and Al-Khelaifi had originally found it difficult to compromise on a precise time for the lunch, with one party suggesting 1pm and the other 1.30pm. Eventually, the pair agreed on a 1.15pm meeting time. Perez arrived late, for which he was rebuked by his host.
As the lunch played out, the frostiness between the two clubs became evident. Al-Khelaifi reminded Perez he had warned him a Super League would not succeed and then the Qatari businessman laid out what he believes to be his differing vision for football. “There were no fights,” one source insisted, “but it was tense.” Another explains: “Nasser told Florentino that, while Madrid think football should only be for the big clubs, Nasser wants everyone to have the opportunity to grow. The UEFA delegates watched on, looked down, bewildered and twiddled their thumbs.”
The lunch ended swiftly, albeit on polite terms. Before the first leg kicked off, Al-Khelaifi told Canal+: “I’m not going to hide it, we barely have any relationship with Real Madrid.”
Perez and Al-Khelaifi were separated in the director’s box only by the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a longstanding PSG fan who has also known Perez for decades. As Mbappe’s goal went in for PSG, Sarkozy and Al-Khelaifi jumped for joy and Perez disappeared into the night. Little did the trio know how the tables would turn three weeks later, with Madrid winning the tie and Al-Khelaifi furious in the tunnel.
At PSG, nobody is pretending that a round-of-16 exit from the Champions League is anything other than a colossal disappointment.
There is some mitigation, they argue, in what they consider to be a refereeing injustice while there is also recognition that Pochettino’s side were superior both in the first leg of the tie, in which Messi also missed a penalty, and for the first hour of the return fixture.
Yet PSG’s seasons are, increasingly, predicated around performance at the business end of the Champions League. The club are 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 and Pochettino is likely to win his first league title as a head coach. That, however, will do little to disguise the underwhelming nature of a campaign in which PSG have rarely captured the imagination of their supporters and have often stumbled their way to results.
In recent months, the club’s ultras have criticised the management of the club and a perceived prioritisation of commercial performance over on-field success. The ultras have, however, always been careful to mention members of the PSG hierarchy other than Al-Khelaifi.
Pochettino’s own position is now a matter of concern, particularly considering former coach Thomas Tuchel lost his job only five months after reaching the final of the Champions League. Last summer, despite Pochettino’s failure to win the French title, PSG fought hard to keep him, even when they were under the impression that Tottenham were prepared to double the coach’s salary to ensure a return to north London.
Al-Khelaifi told confidantes that Spurs were prepared “to do everything” to make the return happen. Pochettino held talks with Spurs officials but PSG were not prepared to lose him and then backed him firmly in the summer transfer market.
The question of Pochettino’s future then reared its head once more in November when Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. PSG’s frustration was further heightened because this coincided with a trip to Manchester for PSG to face Manchester City. The mere fact of Pochettino being in Manchester set tongues wagging further.
The French club made clear he would not be allowed to go but The Athletic reported at the time how PSG had by now begun to tire of Pochettino’s apparent flirtations with rival clubs when they had invested substantially to support his chances. The sense, even in November, was that PSG might be open to letting Pochettino go in the summer. It was perhaps not coincidental that United decided to hire an interim manager in Ralf Rangnick, providing the space and time for a summer appointment.
Pochettino, for his part, knuckled down. After arriving in December 2020, he and his staff had found their first six months at the club to be immensely challenging. They sought to improve the very basics and the minimum standard of preparedness, fitness and training standards among a group of players that many in France have long claimed to be over-indulged in Paris. There have been improvements to fitness, particularly in reducing the number of muscle injuries suffered by PSG players.
Yet it is also difficult to argue the team has fully gelled. The combination of Messi, Mbappe and Neymar brought an assumption of Hollywood football that has rarely been witnessed. Indeed, some close to the PSG setup believe that rather than multiplying each other’s talent, the trio’s shared presence has divided and reduced the individual impact, particularly in the cases of Neymar and Messi. The three players have scored only 20 league goals between them, of which Messi has only two.
Messi struggled to adapt early on after the sudden shock of his move from Barcelona, while his continuity was interrupted by injuries and travelling to international fixtures in the autumn. PSG also acknowledged matters such as a new home and schooling for his children could have been sorted more quickly. There had been a sense among the PSG coaching staff that Messi had clicked into gear in the new year but he missed a penalty against Madrid in the first leg and offered little of note in the return fixture.
There is also little dispute that Pochettino has not found it straightforward to cope with the psychological transition of coaching Tottenham, where he became the most powerful voice at the club, and PSG, where superstar players are expected to be on the team sheet.
At Tottenham, for example, Pochettino liked to tell his players: “When you sign a contract, you sign a contract to train, not to play.” This meant that no player was assured a place in the team. But PSG’s investments in Neymar and Messi — who each receive in excess of €25 million (£21 million) net per year — mean it would be testing, to put it mildly, for either player to not be selected on a consistent basis when they are available. The disparity in salaries between different squad members also makes it difficult to forge a collective team spirit, although several agents close to other first-team players counter that players are sensible enough to understand that a superstar player should be on superstar money.
One source familiar with Pochettino’s work says: “When you know Mauricio, it’s very difficult for him to manage this type of player, this type of team. He needs to improve players, he wants players to have fundamentally good principles of play.”
Away from the dressing room, Pochettino, as with other previous PSG coaches, has not always relished answering to Leonardo, who some believe to be overly close to the dressing room. Pochettino was also disappointed by the club’s failure to secure Tanguy Ndombele on loan from Tottenham in January, with the Frenchman eventually heading to Lyon.
United, it should be said, remain interested in Pochettino and their chances of clawing him away from PSG were only enhanced by events in Madrid this week. Leonardo said on Wednesday night that PSG do not currently intend to change their manager before the end of the season.
Pochettino’s future beyond that is uncertain and it is true that United made background checks on him before Solskjaer was even dismissed. Sources close to the situation insist that nothing is yet decided but it is expected that United would not be overly influenced by a single result against Madrid, particularly as they also recognise how PSG, as a club, have form for capitulating in the Champions League.
Several sources have told The Athletic that Pochettino has privately asked questions to confidantes about Manchester as a city and the club structure at United in recent times. Sources close to United, PSG and Pochettino all insist, however, that nothing is agreed and United remain eager to perform a methodical process, in which Ajax coach Erik ten Hag remains a central consideration.
Leonardo also said the club has not contacted Zinedine Zidane or anybody else to replace Pochettino. He also described Pochettino as one of the best five coaches in the world and insisted he is increasingly engaged and content in Paris, as well as adding that the coach has never asked to leave the club.
Madrid’s comeback is likely to kill off any speculation that Pochettino could be a summer replacement for Carlo Ancelotti, who is expected to stay for at least one more season in the Spanish capital. Chelsea have previously contacted Pochettino, before hiring Tuchel, but they would not be in the running given their own desperate political and economic predicament.
What we do know is that Pochettino has long been attracted to the idea of reviving United and that the greatest obstacle was always likely to be PSG’s refusal to be pushed around by rivals on the continent. PSG have already showcased their strength by refusing to join the Super League, keeping Pochettino at the club throughout this season and declining Madrid’s exorbitant offer for Mbappe. Any deal would be done on PSG’s terms, and those terms may just have become more amenable.
It all leaves PSG encountering yet another period of uncertainty.
In an interview with L’Equipe last week, Leonardo defended the club’s current standing. He pointed out PSG are top of the table at under-17 and under-19 level, have reached the quarter-final of the UEFA Youth League and have given opportunities this season to four teenagers born after 2003, which is a record only bettered by Rennes in France. The club are also developing enhanced training facilities, which are necessary as previous coaches are known to have felt certain parts of the setup to be behind the times and below-par.
Several former players have, however, been critical of PSG’s culture. One highly experienced former PSG player told confidantes he believed the club to be a “vanity project” and incapable of major sporting success. Former coaches have felt they have had to negotiate with star players as to when they should return from holidays.
In his latest book, Adrenaline, the former PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic said he called Al-Khelaifi to offer his services as a sporting director last summer. He claimed PSG’s players felt it was a good idea. He wrote: “One of them said to me: ‘Zlatan, only you can sort the team out and impose discipline.’ Another one said: ‘Zlatan, if you were around, this thing in the dressing room wouldn’t happen’.” I liked the project, but it wasn’t enough to make me overcome the feeling of fear and panic that gripped me at the thought of retiring.”
Ibrahimovic later claimed to have exasperated PSG by advising Mbappe to leave the club and join Madrid. Ibrahimovic says Al-Khelaifi called him to complain but he argued: “There’s not enough discipline at PSG and Mbappe needs it if he is to improve and go to the next level. Right now it’s impossible in Paris because there aren’t the right people.”
The former striker added: “If there was more rigour, everyone would run on the pitch, no one would be late for training and no one would be allowed to do what they liked.”
Leonardo was asked by L’Equipe last week about Ibrahimovic’s allegations of indiscipline at PSG. “I don’t even want to respond,” Leonardo said. “Where is this indiscipline?’ When the journalist presented the example of Neymar going to nightclubs in the two or three days before a match, Leonardo replied: “There are social networks that transmit a perception which does not reflect reality.”
PSG’s attempts to keep Mbappe, meanwhile, appear increasingly forlorn. PSG deny reports in Le Parisien which claim the club has offered Mbappe €50 million (£42 million) per year as a salary and a €100 million (£84 million) loyalty bonus to sign fresh terms. His existing contract expires this summer and a player who could have been sold for £160 million less than a year ago may now walk out for nothing at all. Madrid are utterly convinced he is theirs and he spent time chatting to international team-mate Benzema after the match on Wednesday. PSG continue to maintain hope that Mbappe could sign a new deal, perhaps a two-year extension.
Yet 2022 was supposed to be the year it all came together for PSG, uniting superstar names and furnishing the image of Qatar ahead of the World Cup in the Gulf state in November. The resonance of PSG’s success to the World Cup is a little overplayed but it would certainly have been a projection of sporting prowess if the Emir of Qatar, Tamam bin Hamad Al Thani, been able to show off a Champions League trophy secured by Neymar, Messi and Mbappe later this year.
As it is, Mbappe, like those above him at PSG, will be reflecting yet again on the wreckage of Champions League calamity.