When Qatar Sports Investments took control of Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, the club’s new owners, armed with barrels of cash and under the logo “Dream Bigger,” set their goal as entering the European elite.
It would not be enough for PSG to dominate in France, as it had done. The Qataris wanted to turn the club into a French Real Madrid, a club with a global fan base, mentioned among the favorites in the Champions League every season.
The club, led by Nasser al-Khelaifi, certainly spent money in an elite fashion. It bought Zlatan Ibrahamovic and a raft of talented players. It hired top coaches like Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc. It expanded scouting and academy networks. And it won the last four French league championships.
But despite the continued investment and recruitment, that elite status in the Champions League has remained elusive. PSG has been knocked out in the quarterfinals of the world’s most prestigious club competition in each of the last four seasons.
This year even the last eight may prove to be too much, unless PSG can pull off a surprise over Barcelona in the round of 16. The first leg is in Paris on Tuesday with the return at the Camp Nou on March 8. Barca eliminated PSG in the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2015.
“Every single year, we are talking about the same subject: Can they do better than the year before? And it has always been the same answer,” said David Ginola, a former PSG and France international winger.
As al-Khelaifi has noted, it took Chelsea’s Russian billionaire owner, Roman Ibrahimovic, nine years to see his investment bring a Champions League title. He might also note that Manchester City, backed by United Arab Emirates money and with Pep Guardiola as coach, is similarly struggling to translate investment into European success.
For Ginola, part of a successful PSG team of the mid-1990s before enjoying a fruitful career in England with Newcastle and Tottenham, PSG needs to have a different attitude to go with its improved position in the transfer market.
“Obviously against Barcelona it will be a massive test. But it’s not about what Barcelona can do. For PSG, it is about not being scared of their opponent,” he said. “PSG have had an inferiority complex against teams like Barcelona and Chelsea. They have shown they have the ability to beat them but there was always something in the end that frustrated.”
Ginola wants to see PSG show it is not intimidated by illustrious opponents.
“Its always complicated to play Barcelona because they have a style of play that makes it very difficult for their opponents. But PSG need to have no complex about that and not be scared of that great passing football,” he said.
PSG faces a fight to win the domestic title this season, sitting in second place, three points behind Monaco, but Ginola, now presenter on “France Has Got Talent,” believes that situation could help Emery’s team.
“You see Monaco playing the kind of football they are playing and you realize that it is very competitive at the top now in France and I think that is better for PSG because in the previous season they were up there on their own,” he said. “Now there is a real competition and every single weekend they have a very tough game to play and that is good for them in the Champions League. It sharpens them.”
But the league table is also an indicator that things have not been smooth sailing for the team, which is in its first season under Spanish Coach Unai Emery, brought from Sevilla last year.
Some of the big signings have failed to deliver. Argentine Angel Di Maria, brought from Manchester United and previously of Real Madrid, has struggled to live up to his reputation and Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak has been unable to replicate the form that earned him a $40 million move from Sevilla.
Forward Jese, brought from Real Madrid in the summer, did so poorly that he has been loaned out to Spanish club Las Palmas. Hatem Ben Arfa, who shined at times in England with Newcastle, has yet to truly impress.
The response by PSG ownership was predictable: spend more. In January transfer window the club invested another $80 million to bring German international Julian Draxler from Wolfsburg and the exciting 20-year-old Portuguese winger Goncalo Guedes from Benfica.
Recent form has been good. PSG has won 10 of its last 11 games in all competitions and striker Edinson Cavani is in great form, scoring twice in a 3-0 win at Bordeaux on Friday.
Emery has dismissed the notion that his team is unable to cope with playing storied opponents.
“We don’t feel inferior to anyone. We have very important players who are growing at PSG and who want to write a wonderful story, as individuals and with this club,” he said this week.
“We want to seize this chance because we’re playing against one of the best teams in Europe and the world. The squad is very motivated,” he added.
Losing Thiago Silva, its captain and key central defender, to injury does not help the French club’s chances. Nor Barca is looking like itself again with midfielders Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta back from injuries to provide the fearsome attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar with the service they relish.
No one said joining the elite was easy.