by Jamie Whitehead
January 31st 2013. Mario Balotelli leaves Manchester City in either a disgrace or a blaze of glory, dependent on your viewpoint. Christopher Samba returns to the Premier League shocking everyone with his £100,000 per week salary and Aston Villa sign the unknown Yacouba Sylla from French second divison side Clermont Foot.
But, as the day ploughs on rumours begin circulating on Twitter there’s going to be a major signing at Paris St-Germain as word begins to circulate that the clubs Qatari owners, Qatar Investment Authority, have called a press conference for 4:30pm local time.
True to their word, the press conference does indeed happen. And the world’s most famous free agent, David Beckham, joins PSG on a five month deal until the end of the 2012/13 season. Not only that, he will be donating his salary to a Parisian children’s charity. It’s a statement which polarises opinion. On the one hand, the former England captain is a wonderful, free thinking phrilanthapist, on the other, it’s nothing more than a tax dodge to exonerate him from the seventy-five percent tax bracket in place in France. A third school of thought suggests that this is his final, desperate bid to one day earn himself the right to be known as Sir David Beckham. One thing that is not up for discussion though is the destination of where the plane left LAX to fly to. The only surprise being the move didn’t happen twelve months sooner than it did.
One thing the move does suggest though is a balance of power shifting toward the City of Love and our Gallic cousins. European football has long held a school of thought of having a ‘Big Five’ of major leagues. These being the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1. The reality is that Ligue 1 still sits a fair distance behind the rest of the so called Big Five.
Taking a look back at European Cup wins since 2000, the Premier League can boast three winners of club football’s biggest prize, Spain boast five wins, whilst the Italians have two wins to their name with a solidarity German win in 2001. French success in the competition is limited to Monaco’s runners up performance in 2004 (losing to Porto) and Lyon’s Round of Sixteen battles with Real Madrid.
In the European Cup’s fifty six year history, France only has one win to its name, Marseille’s 1-0 win over Milan in 1993. And even that is surrounded in intrigue and controversy as Les Phocéens were later to be stripped of the domestic title which earned them the right to represent France in the competition. As an aside, France can only boast one winner of the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners Cup with PSG’s win over Rapid Wien in 1996 and no club from France has ever won the Europa League in any of it’s many formats.
Paris Saint-Germain has always found itself in an uneasy position. Unlike the major European clubs it now strives to compete with, it doesn’t have a history dating back almost or over one hundred years to call upon. In fact, Les Rouges et Bleu were only formed as recently as 1970 as the result of a merger between FC Paris and Stade St Germain following calls from the Parisian public (which gained a lot of weight once a number of leading politicians got involved) for a major team to represent Paris. In England, Chelsea are often accused of having no history, but with Paris St Germain, the case rings even truer.
Also, unlike Manchester, Madrid, Milan or Munich. Paris only has one major side. There’s no Atletico to their Real or Roma to their Lazio. They’re on their own up there, the biggest game in the French calendar, Le Classique being against Marseille. A distance of four hundred and eighty nine miles. Three hundred and thirteen miles separates Madrid from it’s Catalonian nemesis, but they still have Atletico keeping them upon their toes. Whilst there are another two Parisian sides within the French football pyramid, Red Star Paris and Paris FC (who incidentally played each other last night, resulting in a 2-0 victory for Red Star) currently play in La Championaat National, the third tier of French football. When you have the likes of Ibra and Beckham down the road, these two will always be facing an uphill battle.
In what appears to be a massive contradiction to the American Dream, Major League Soccer, as well as other home-grown American sporting competitions such as the NBA and MLB run on a very democratic, almost socialist model. The draft model put in place to ensure an even playing field and the leagues don’t descend into one or two franchises dominating the competition.
There is no doubting the impact that Beckham had off the field during his six year MLS tenure.
During his time in California seven new expansion teams were created and seven new stadiums were built especially for football teams. During his time there, attendances for the Galaxy’s road games increased by forty per cent, whereas games at the Home Depot Center enjoyed an increase of a more modest seven per cent. In terms of television audience share in the United States, Major League Soccer is now the third most watched sport in the country, behind Major League Baseball and the NFL.
When Beckham went to the United States at the age of thirty-one, it was widely agreed that he could have carried on in Europe. Following the announcement of the transfer a few months prior to it actually taking place, the then Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello claimed Beckham would never play for Los Blancos again. Beckham worked hard and fought his way back into the team, so much so that the two were reunited during Capello’s tenure as England manager. As Beckham underwent his medical prior to his first loan spell at Milan, the physio claimed that Beckham was so conditioned, he could play football at the highest level until he was forty.
In typical form for Brand Beckham, all the right noises were made at the unveiling press conference. But, there were elements of it which did make the more cynical amongst us question the motives for the move, more from the employer as oppose to the employee. When asked if this was to be the final stopping point on an incredible footballing journey, Beckham replied “We’ll have to wait and see” before the question of playing in the Qatari Stars League after PSG was bought up and quickly ushered along.
It’s obvious what Qatar Investment group want for PSG “To give something to Paris which is more than just the Eiffel Tower” they recently told British football magazine Four Four Two. When they were tipped to the Ligue 1 title at the final hurdle by Montpellier last season (although still ensuring Champions League qualification) the owners claimed that the title could wait, and that cementing their status in Europe was their top priority for now. Although the signing of Beckham was undoubtedly made by the owners, they do appear to be following the example set by the Abu Dhabi United Group at Manchester City and let the manager take control of which players are needed. For the long term future of the club, this can only be a good thing.
When Beckham arrived in Major League Soccer, it was considered to be a retirement home. During the intervening years, players such as Robbie Keane, Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry have followed suit and played their trade Stateside. Rumours have been circulating that Frank Lampard and Kaka may also one day join the Los Angeles side and Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t ruled out one day playing there. One problem these players face though is the lack of continental competition a title win in Europe brings, and is a legitimate argument that MLS is the final stopping point on a glittering career path.
For all of his great moments on the pitch, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is far too inconsistent to be truly be considered in the same breath as Ronaldo or Messi. And for all the publicity he brings, and the fact he is still one of the best passers of the ball on the planet, as the two recent Classiques have shown, six years in the United States and the fact that forty is creeping ever closer is taking its toll on Beckham. PSG are making the right types of signings in the form of Alex and Javier Pastore. Paris Saint Germain need to be signing players that fit the bill on two fronts: The best in the world in their position and a commercial pulling power. If there is any truth in the paper talk that they will be making a bid for Wayne Rooney in the summer, this would be the perfect signing for them as he fits the bill on both counts.
What Ligue 1 has that MLS doesn’t however is the major pull of the Champions League. With the top two automatically qualifying and the third placed side gaining entry to the qualification stage. Since Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea, we now find ourselves in a position where eleven of the twenty Premier League teams are now owned by people not in possession of a UK passport. As we have already seen, French football does not operate in the same way that German football does so takeovers similar to what we have seen in England can not be ruled out.
Joey Barton’s arrival at Marseille was probably more an escape from QPR than a bona-fide career move and Ibra’s arrival in Paris could be looked at as once again being the big fish in a small pond.
The danger that is apparent here is that Ligue 1 could end up eating itself. The arrival of PSG as a major European force will no doubt turn the heads of the European football elite. But in a world where the only club PSG have to compete with financially is Manchester City, they could end up becoming their own worst enemy. In the SPL this season, Celtic’s performances have been borderline complacent, turning up expecting the points are in the bag whilst their bitterest rivals try and claw their way back to former glories from three divisions below. Unless major investment is made throughout the French top flight, PSG could end up finding themselves on a hiding to nothing with no real domestic rival which could ultimately result in them struggling to sign the right players and finding Champions League glory the impossible dream.
Should that be the case, and with the emerging strength of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in Europe, taking their place at Europe’s top table could be a tougher task than PSG ever imagined. This could then result in Europe’s top players heading to Paris for a final pay day and Qatari Investment Authority getting bored and selling up. A feeling the supporters of Paris St Germain unfortunately know all too well.
Jamie Whitehead is a Broadcast Journalist for the BBC World Service and Writer of the forthcoming feature-length documentary A Different League: Where Next in the Evolution of Women’s Football?