The job is done. It has proved more stressful than expected, but what many considered a foregone conclusion came belatedly: Paris Saint-Germain are French champions for the eleventh time thanks to a rather disappointing 1-1 draw in Strasbourg.
This is a milestone.
French football has grown accustomed to PSG title wins but this latest success puts that dominance on a new footing. No club in France has won as many league titles as they have. Within a decade, the capital club, financed by the state-sponsored fund of Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), increased their title from two to eleven. That puts him ahead of Saint-Etienne and rival Marseille. Your supremacy is complete.
It is a seismic change in a short period of time.
Coincidentally, the first title of the QSI era was exactly 10 years ago. This was a team coached by Carlo Ancelotti, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Blaise Matuidi and briefly David Beckham. Like this season, 2012-13 was a real milestone. Not just because the new owners were celebrating their first championship, but because it also ended PSG’s 19-year title drought. The long wait was over.
To celebrate this moment, tens of thousands of fans gathered at the Place du Trocadero near the Eiffel Tower, waiting for a parade that never actually happened. Chaos put an end to that. Ultras threw smoke bombs, some scaled scaffolding, while a tourist bus was looted. A planned ‘mini-cruise’ down the Seine for players with the trophy to take part had to be canceled and the team ended up spending around five minutes with their fans before being forced to leave. Clashes with police ensued, resulting in injuries and arrests.
This day triggered mixed feelings. There was pure euphoria that nearly two decades of waiting had finally come to an end, but also great relief, particularly for QSI after Montpellier had clinched PSG the title in their first season as manager. There was also pent-up frustration in it; The chaos in Paris was fueled by the Ultras’ anger at their ejection from the club’s Parc des Princes stadium, the legacy of a policy by former PSG president Robin Leproux in response to previous riots.
While there has been tension with the Ultras this season, there has been no such unrest. But there’s also not much hope for a euphoric celebration to welcome this milestone in PSG’s history. For one, the club was banned from holding title parades following the 2013 bloodbath that also damaged shops and property.
And then there’s the feeling that this title doesn’t feel quite as good as it should.
That is partly to be expected. Under QSI, triumphs in Ligue 1 have become routine: since taking over in 2011, PSG have now won nine out of twelve games. However, it is also an indication of the strain that the season opener brings. Captain Marquinhos summed it up aptly during Sunday’s away game in Auxerre when he said that while success was near, it was “not the best season”. Christophe Galtier, the head coach, was also not nominated for coach of the season by his peers.
Winning the Ligue 1 title alone isn’t necessarily enough for PSG; Given their budget and roster, that’s almost a given. Their financial prowess eclipses their domestic rivals and big things were expected this year, particularly with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Lionel Messi – their goalscorer against Strasbourg tonight – in attack.
Kylian Mbappe runs against Strasbourg (Photo: Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images)
“When you have these players – Leo, Kylian and Ney – the goal from the start of the season is to pair them up for an attacking game with three incredible players,” Galtier said this month. “Unfortunately, this season, when the World Cup was in the middle, we were not able to benefit from the season due to injuries, the fatigue of some players and especially Ney’s serious injury (the Brazilian has not played since February).
“It’s just what happened. Every time they (PSG’s three big names) were on the pitch, they performed very well and we had a very impressive attacking game. We regret that we didn’t have this attacking trio in the crucial games.”
An eleventh title should be the culmination of an era, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Instead of a linear progression, there is a feeling that the PSG sports project has lost its way and there is now talk of a fresh start and a new direction. The contrast with Premier League side Manchester City, who are unhappy with financial support from the Gulf States, is stark.
City are on the cusp of an historic treble in the next few weeks, led by a manager that includes Pep Guardiola, who has been in charge for seven years. In that time, PSG have had four managers and it’s believed Galtier will almost certainly leave this summer. Since reaching the 2019-20 Champions League final, PSG have gone backwards.
But the last decade hasn’t been a total descent – at least for the club’s Qatari owners.
This season was the culmination of years of progress for Qatar, leading to the point that the country hosted the World Cup and also employed two of the tournament’s biggest stars in Messi and Mbappé. December’s final was a ‘PSG’ final and the triumph, in which Messi lifted the trophy after a gladiatorial match with club-mate Mbappe that went all the way to penalties, was one of football’s most iconic moments.
This was Qatar’s time and it can be seen as the culmination of what their investments have been working towards.
But for PSG, the tournament tore the season in two. The tense build-up, with a 23-game unbeaten run, was fueled by the prospect of a flagship event in football and the role the club’s players played in making it happen. But when play resumed at national level just after Christmas, PSG were a different side, suffering nine defeats in all competitions in 2023 and fighting their way to the finish line in the title race with a game to go.
You’ll be glad you got it. The World Cup was the biggest turning point of this Ligue 1 season, but there were other issues to overcome as well.
After Qatar, the number of injuries piled up and it became apparent that the squad structure was particularly poor. This reached its peak just in time for the Champions League round of 16 against Bayern Munich. Neymar, Mbappe, Marquinhos, Achraf Hakimi and Nordi Mukiele all suffered blows at some point in their two home and away games, which helped them fail to achieve the main goal of the season.
Of course, using knockout competition as a barometer of success will always distort expectations, when of course that requires a degree of luck – but PSG’s lack of depth, particularly in defence, has been acknowledged by the Bavaria ruthlessly disclosed.
Off the pitch, drama and intrigue have plagued PSG.
That Champions League exit gave way to Mbappe’s marketing problem with ‘Kylian Saint-Germain’ before racism allegations against Galtier – allegations he denies – resurfaced at former club Nice. Messi then missed training to travel to Saudi Arabia for a promotional trip, earning him a ban from the club, while there were also very prominent and angry protests from fans.
The noise around the team has been fairly constant and so, along with everything else, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that performance has slowed down.
Ultimately, however, PSG managed to pull through.
Whether this is an indication of the difference in quality compared to the rest of the French clubs or a sign that the current team has a certain resilience is debatable. But the title is won and it is historic. PSG are now the most successful club in Ligue 1. They have also held the top spot from matchweek one and were the first club to top the French table for a full season. PSG have now been at the top of Ligue 1 since August 2021 with 74 “game rounds” – a significantly new record.
Their total points aren’t bad either, although they won’t reach the 90 mark after the draw against Strasbourg, whatever happens in next Saturday’s final at home to Clermont. Lens, meanwhile, are on course for their second-highest runner-up if they win the remaining game (they would have 84 points, behind PSG’s 87 when they finished runners-up to Monaco in 2016/17).
PSG’s squad may not always have felt like the perfect squad, but their quality has shown throughout the season. Now it has permanently boosted the status of the club.
Have Messi and Ronaldo tarnished their legacy by accepting money from Saudi Arabia?
There is no escaping the reality that the financial advantage that PSG’s ownership has brought has brought the club to the point of outright dominance. Because of that support, the question ‘Where’s next?’ is almost existential, especially for a side whose expectations are so high they’re impossible to beat, at least in Ligue 1. It limits the emotional ceiling.
It’s unlikely for fans to rekindle the excitement of ten years ago anyway, but in the context of a tumultuous season, it’s going to be difficult. “I understand the comments, the criticism, especially because we suffered defeats at home,” said Galtier on Friday. “Our games weren’t always good.”
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Perhaps a win in the Champions League final would bring those old emotions back – if PSG somehow manages to get back there. For now though, there will be celebrations, a moment seen as their time in the sun, but French football’s utter dominance will not be met with euphoria.
Instead, it will be a sense of relief, and in more ways than one that mirrors what it was a decade ago.
(Top Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP via Getty Images)