"Football is not for sale," Aleksander Ceferin pronounced, famously, at a Uefa conference two years ago, in the process exploring the depth, width and delicate inner workings of just how wrong one earnest-looking man at a podium can be.
Cut back to the real world. In the current, rather improbable timeline, Uefa is preparing to stage a biosecure Champions League final with no other purpose than the effective retailing of TV rights.
As the season narrows to its end in Lisbon there is also a fair chance Ceferin will be required to present club football's grandest trophy to the representatives of Paris Saint-Germain, a club for whom happiness is a £400m attacking duo, a platoon of loophole-savvy lawyers, and a vast sovereign wealth fund geared entirely towards inflationary on-field success. You're right, Alex old chap. Football isn't for sale. It's already been bought. And no, we won't be needing a receipt.
Sunday night’s Champions League final has been billed as many things. Old, respectable money versus new, insurgent, unpalatable money. Bayern’s high-grade collectivism versus a bolt-on but increasingly compelling PSG attack.
Either way, Paris Saint-Germain as European champions is an extraordinary prospect on many levels, a possibility fraught with some very obvious black holes, dead ends and brain-frazzling mental gymnastics.
Questions like: how can something as contrived, as fundamentally inane as a nation-state propaganda machine, translate into such an engrossing on-field presence? How exactly has Neymar, disdained as a gadfly and choker, accused of wasting his talent in the lukewarm air of Ligue 1, emerged as the most effective attacking player of this midsummer mini-tournament? And is there really any difference between Bayern’s entrenched economic privilege and an expertly enacted plot to buy a little global influence, a little visibility, a little insurance against the backdrop of a gulf region cold war?
There are some obvious answers to this. PSG may have a wonderful attacking unit, boisterous home support and an increasingly successful business plan. There may be an epidemic of moral failings elsewhere in Big Football. This is an industry where, let’s face it, nobody is ever really clean. But the fact remains the PSG project is something new and, at its heart, deeply cynical.
The entire success of this model has relied on loophole-wangling and accounting tricks. PSG’s transfer activity has distorted the market, normalising obscene expenditure. Above all, the world’s most uplifting form of public entertainment has been used as a nakedly political tool by a morally questionable state governed by a super-rich inherited monarchy.
It may seem joyless to state these things so baldly on the verge of the club’s greatest game. But sport plays tricks. It garlands its winners with righteousness. It covers the cracks and the holes with the beauty of the spectacle. Never mind the splendour of the show. The fact remains that this model of football – soft-power tool, spendthrift glory, plaything of the overclass – is a shortcut to another world entirely.
At which point, it is worth remembering how we got here. In November it will be exactly 10 years since the world's richest per capita nation launched its pincer assault on world football via Paris and Zurich. The lunch meeting hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace, the French president's official residence, on November 23rd 2010 has become a kind of dark legend in the years since.
Also present at the Élysée were Michel Platini, the owners of flat-broke middleweights PSG, and Qatar's crown prince Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, an alumnus of both Sandhurst and Harrow.
Ten days after this apparently innocent summit meeting, Qatar stunned the world by winning the vote to host the 2022 World Cup. They were aided by Platini unexpectedly switching his vote to the tiny desert state with the superheated summer climate. Shortly after that same lunch, Qatar’s bid to buy PSG was approved by the French government. A TV rights deal with the newly created Qatari channel BeIn Sports would follow, helping the entire French league avoid a slide into financial peril.
Things moved quickly. By June 2011 Qatar owned 70 per cent of PSG, rising to 100 per cent the following year. In the final transfer window before the takeover PSG spent £8m on three players. The following window they spent £93m. The window after that it was £135m, with the arrivals of Marco Verratti, Thiago Silva and the rainmaker of those early days, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And so here we are. A decade on from that heavyweight lunch date, Sunday's final is in effect a pistol shot on the mini-age of Qatar, a period at the top table that will be bookended by that wretchedly problematic World Cup.
Meanwhile, and lest we forget, football is not, repeat not, for sale.
Neymar remains the most significant element in all of this, a figure around whom so many of these contradictions coalesce. Has there ever been a more divisive, more personally reviled high-end attacking footballer? Neymar remains, along with Kylian Mbappé, the heart of this entire enterprise: not just as a visible, and indeed literal ambassador for Qatar’s grand plan, but also as the key on-field presence.
Mbappé calls his No 10 “the best passer in the world”. Despite the crowing of the English commentary team over a rusty couple of games, Neymar is also a relentless goals and assists machine. From the start of this mini summer knockout the discussion in the Paris dressing room has been about his will to power, his absolute conviction that this will be PSG’s year. We should, as they say, all be such a choker.
At the same time Neymar’s transfer remains a deeply dubious episode, a living rebuke to the entire project. The decision to sign him was made as Qatar was being blockaded by its neighbours. This was an act of overt political flag-waving, at a time when Qatar was also cutting huge trade deals with various western powers.
Witness also the sheer devastating arrogance of paying twice the existing world record fee, or the fiddling with the edges of the deal to avoid any problems with regulations.
Or the “loan” arrangement that allowed Mbappé to arrive the same summer – all prima facie evidence of Qatar’s willingness to stomp right across the delicate micro-climate of football finances to secure their PR coup, their Bank of Qatar ambassador, their social media mouthpiece to the world.
And yet, it has also worked. There is every chance Neymar will have the craft and the drive to bring that 10-year project to its logical end on Sunday night.
For now Bayern Munich remain favourites. The speed, power and clarity of their game of sprints has looked irresistible at times. They have an imperious, classical No 9. They have that reassuring Red Train air of certainty.
They have Thomas Müller, socks rolled down, floating into those familiar awkward, gangly spaces. So far, so much the same as it ever was. In many ways a Bayern win would represent a kind of safe place for European football in this season without maps.
No doubt there are plenty looking on, including within Uefa, who would prefer such an outcome. In reality that 10-year plan has pretty much come to fruition whatever the result at the Estádio da Luz. The real goal was always visibility, engagement, a political presence, a manipulation of the spectacle. From that perspective PSG’s owners have in effect already won. - Guardian