PSG and Barcelona: A very modern rivalry

There’s a lot of history and there’s also a lot which has gone on behind the scenes,” Jules Koundé said ahead of Barcelona’s visit to Paris Saint-Germain tonight in the quarter-final of the Champions League. It’s a game that like all good rivalries has come to represent something greater. 

The fans of both supporters might call it a battle for the soul of football, the modern weight of the nouveau riche versus the historic and storied institution; or as PSG fans might point towards, the defenders against the fight to change European football versus the polebearers for the Super League. 

However, it’s been a battle that has been fought more in the boardrooms of the two clubs than out on the pitch. The sides have only met each other a handful of times, the first coming in 1995, with each side winning four and drawing four of these occasions. The acrimony, while born on the pitch, matured in the sniping press conferences, the transfer battles, and the courtroom decisions of the Super League. 

La Remontada and Neymar

La Remontada, the night when Barcelona overturned a 4-0 deficit to eliminate PSG from the Champions League, can come some way to explaining the beginnings of the rivalry. It was to be the French side’s crowning moment, the game in the Champions League where they developed from an expensive project dominating Ligue 1 to a side that could embarrass a team consisting of Lionel Messi, Luís Suarez, and Neymar. 

And yet a 6-1 defeat, appeared to confirm their worst anxieties, that they were the laughingstock of the European elite, a team considered incapable of challenging the hegemonic status of the more traditional power bases in the game. It set the foundations for a project that has in many ways shaped modern football when PSG fresh off the wounds suffered from their bruising embarrassment decided to shake Barcelona to their core and in the summer of 2017 target Neymar in a world record transfer. 

Barcelona had no interest in selling Neymar to PSG but Spanish football requires a release clause to be inserted into every player’s contract. The Catalans had set Neymar’s at €222 million, a fee that they believed no club could or would match, it was entirely designed to ward off the prospect of buyers. Until that point, the transfer record for a player was Manchester United the summer before splashing €105 million on Paul Pogba.

Broken records and burgeoning anger 

PSG were more than willing to double that record, to the ire of La Liga and Barcelona, who threatened to block the deal and report the club to UEFA for seemingly flouting their Financial Fair Play rules. The prospect of an embargo was merely hot air, neither the federation nor the club could legally block the transfer, and while the deal was eventually investigated by UEFA, PSG on appeal were cleared of breaking any of the regulations. 

What had begun on the pitch had become blown up in the boardroom. To Barcelona this was a clear challenge to their stability and their status, they were not a selling club that could be pinned in by a richer rival, when a star joined their hallowed grounds it was until they let them go. Neymar and PSG had done something unthinkable. Even the fee they received became a poisoned chalice that left them unprepared for a market acutely aware of the amount now in their coffers. 

The Neymar transfer turned out to be a millstone around Barcelona’s neck as the club hierarchy spent poorly in the years that followed, the injection of cash soon became big contracts for underperforming players, and poor decisions eventually led to a situation where they could no longer afford to keep the crown jewel of their arsenal. The player who had defined their modern era keeping them a threatening force even as backroom choices left the team a weakened unit. 

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembélé

On the 5th of August 2021, after arriving at the club as a thirteen-year-old, Messi left Barcelona. It was a situation both parties were desperate to avoid, but one that they could not figure out a way around. La Liga’s salary limits prevented Barcelona from finding a solution, as the Argentine stated, “I thought it was all sorted. It’s still hard to assimilate. There have been many defeats, but there’s always been another chance. Not this time, this time there’s no coming back.” 

And with his tearful goodbye still fresh, PSG swooped on Barcelona’s misfortune, and two weeks later secured his signature. Outside of Real Madrid, it was perhaps the one club that Barcelona fans and club hierarchy alike could not stomach seeing Messi arrive at, especially when they point towards PSG as the team that had set these events in motion. 

Again last summer, PSG were accused of disrupting the Catalans during their pre-season tour, as they shocked the club by activating Ousmane Dembélé’s release clause and stealing the Frenchman for €50 million, a fraction of the €135 million the club had paid in 2017 with the Neymar money. There is a feeling from the Spanish side that their French counterparts are continually targeting them by pursuing their stars. 

The European Super League

These actions have brought to light a criticism made by Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta, that there is not an even playing field between the two sides because of PSG’s financial weight, with the state-backed investment from the Qatari Investment Fund amounting in Laporta’s view to “financial doping.” 

This has directly led to Barcelona’s strong backing of the European Super League, and the latest battlefield to where their rivalry can be expressed. Laporta has expressed that he believes this prospective competition is the only way to fight against the “unsustainable pace set by state-supported clubs as no one supervises them, they are not subject to any financial fair play restrictions, and financial doping continues unchecked.” 

It’s a position that puts him in direct conflict with, Nasser Al-Khelaifi the president of PSG and head of the European Club Association, who strongly rejects the idea of the Super League, “As a proud European institution, PSG supports the principles of the European sporting model, the values of competition and inclusion, and works with all recognised stakeholders of European football.

PSG-Barcelona: The battle for the soul of football 

For two teams that have met only once since La Remontada, these matches are strange, they’re a moment when a rivalry that has been played out almost exclusively behind the scenes and away from the stadium, can finally find a voice on the pitch. The matches come to represent so much more, they’re the moment where fears over status and the future of European football can finally be contested. 

They’re the moment when the old hegemony frightened for a present that has seen their dominance dissipate can go toe to toe with the modern riches still desperate to solidify its place among the European elite. It’s a rivalry far removed from the local or national derbies that have often defined the history of the sport, instead, it is more modern, a dislike built from competing interests of backroom politics and the desire for status in a new era for the game. 

GFFN | Nick Hartland

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