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The Two Sides of Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappé

Two months into the season, PSG’s chairman is under investigation by the Swiss attorney general and the team is being monitored by UEFA for possible financial violations—but they’re undefeated in the Champions League

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In September, UEFA opened an investigation into the finances behind the record-breaking transfers of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to Paris Saint-Germain.

Earlier this month, club chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi was accused by the Swiss attorney general’s office of, as The Guardian put it, “criminally bribing the former FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke to buy TV rights to World Cup tournaments.”

And last weekend, Neymar was red carded, and PSG needed a late free kick from Edinson Cavani just to secure a draw against fifth-place Marseille.

After a summer that saw the French club attempt to stake its claim among Europe’s elite, everything in Paris now seems like it’s up in the air. Khelaifi was questioned by Swiss authorities on Wednesday, the UEFA investigation is ongoing, and while PSG has been the best team in France, they haven’t been “We spent over €370 million on two players” good, either.

There’s a chance that, in the not-too-distant future, PSG has the two best players in the world on one team. But there’s also a chance that the efforts required to get them together will be what brings the whole thing crashing down.

Khelaifi, Valcke, and an unnamed third man are suspected of “bribery, fraud, criminal mismanagement, and forgery of a document.” The investigation has been ongoing since mid-March, according to Swiss authorities, and it’s extended across France, Greece, Italy, and Spain, including a raid on beIN’s headquarters in Paris and the seizure of a €7 million villa on the coast of Sardinia that Khelaifi allegedly allowed Valcke to use.

How is Khelaifi involved? In addition to being the chairman of PSG, which is essentially run by a sovereign wealth fund from the nation of Qatar, he’s also the chairman of the television network beIN, which is also essentially run by the nation of Qatar. And guess who has the rights to broadcast the 2022 and 2026 World Cups to the Middle East and North Africa? Yep, it’s BeIN. Valcke, who used to be disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man, is currently banned from the sport of soccer for 12 years for violations like “using private jets for sightseeing purposes and attempting to facilitate the sale of undervalued TV rights.”

There are, of course, levels to this shit. From David Conn’s report in The Guardian:

Khelaifi, said to be a friend and close associate of the Qatar Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, took over as the chairman and chief executive of PSG after a sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Sports Investments, bought the then ailing club in 2011. The purchase followed a November 2010 lunch the Emir had at the Élysée Palace with the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the then Uefa president Michel Platini, at which Platini as a Fifa executive committee member was urged to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. Platini later confirmed he did change his vote from the United States to Qatar but denied he was influenced by the lunch.

Sarkozy is a PSG fan, and a few months after that infamous World Cup vote, QSI bought the club. A few months after that, beIN bought the rights to broadcast Ligue 1. And after that initial deal, beIN joined with French network Canal+ to buy the Ligue 1 rights from 2016 through 2020 for a record €726.5 million.

Qatar has spent the past decade pumping money into PSG in an effort to improve the squad and raise the club’s profile—prior to 2012-13, PSG hadn’t been in the Champions League since 2004-05—but they’ve also spent hundreds of millions to boost the financial clout and overall appeal of the league that PSG plays in, too.

While the club has steadily been chipping away at the hierarchy of European soccer since QSI initially invested, this summer marked the first time it seemed like they might topple it. First, there was The Transfer Heard ‘Round the World: €222 million to steal Neymar away from Barcelona. But then came The Transfer That Would’ve Been Heard ‘Round the World Had It Happened First: a one-year loan deal for the best teenager on the planet, Mbappé, that will turn into a €155 million transfer next summer.

It was hard enough to understand how the club would pay for the shocking Neymar fee without running afoul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which essentially state that teams can only spend slightly more than they take in. And then the Mbappé deal seemed both a clear recognition of that problem—the one-year loan keeps a transfer fee off the books for a year—and an exacerbation of it. The club still needs to account for the €155 million at some point.

UEFA doesn’t typically examine a club’s finances until the end of the fiscal year, but they have already opened a formal investigation into the Neymar and Mbappé deals. The punishments for violating FFP range from withholding Champions League prize money to a full-on ban from the Champions League.

Whatever happens with the various investigations, PSG is in the Champions League this season, and at halfway through the group stages, no team has been better. They’ve scored more goals than anyone else (12), and haven’t allowed any. Most notably, they piled enough straw onto the Carlo Ancelotti Era at Bayern Munich to break it for good, as Mbappé petrified David Alaba en route to a 3-0 win.

In the French league, plenty of PSG’s games have looked like slam dunk contests more than soccer matches. The trio of Mbappé, Neymar, and Cavani doesn’t have to worry about unlocking opposing defenses. No, they’re going to score; it’s just a matter of how they want to do it. With Mbappé’s hyper turboism, Cavani’s genius-level understanding of spacing and timing, and Neymar’s ability to break down a single defender or an entire defense from anywhere on the field, they’ve frequently been devastating.

Of course, the question of who scores hasn’t been so easy. Against Lyon back in September, Neymar, with the help of Dani Alves, refused to let Cavani take a free kick. Neymar and Alves have been with the team for a few months; Cavani’s been there since 2013.

Then, later on in the same game, Neymar and Cavani had to have a back-and-forth before settling on Cavani as the penalty taker. Cavani missed, and the two incidents were followed by a couple weeks of snowballing drama. Cavani might’ve teased Neymar about Messi. Neymar unfollowed Cavani on Instagram. Alves organized a dinner for the team, but the atmosphere was described as “as animated as a funeral wake.” Manager Unai Emery attempted to solve the problem by simply saying, “I do not want it to be a problem.” And Khelaifi, reportedly, offered Cavani a substantial monetary bonus in exchange for ceding penalty-taking duties to Neymar.

Since then, the tensions have at least simmered, with Alves recently saying, “I'm not Neymar's nanny or Cavani's nanny." However, the Lyon game marked the beginning of a rough patch in domestic play. The following week, PSG drew 0-0 with Montpellier, and although they won the following game against Bordeaux, 6-2, the expected-goals numbers (2.41 to 2.20!) suggested that the Parisians were fortunate to win by so much.

After a 2-1 win against relegation candidates Dijon, they tied Marseille last weekend, 2-2. An injury-time Cavani free kick saved a point, and he might not have even taken it had Neymar not been red carded six minutes earlier. Marseille dominated the match, outshooting their opponents 11-7 and creating the better chances. Most concerningly, the supposed-to-be-washed Luiz Gustavo controlled the game from Marseille’s midfield.

Along with Valencia, Manchester City, and Inter Milan, PSG is the only other team in Europe’s top five leagues that’s undefeated in all competitions. They’re 8-0-2 in Ligue 1, with 31 goals scored and just eight conceded. But they’re only four points up on second-place Monaco, and their expected point total—think Pythagorean wins, but with expected goals—puts them just two points ahead of last year’s champs.

Khelaifi has admitted that PSG needs to win the Champions League in order to become the club he wants it to be. On the grander scale of narrative (which is what a team like PSG traffics in now, as results only matter if they change the way people think about the club), Ligue 1’s importance comes from how it prepares the club for the Champions League. With their financial dominance, PSG should win the league every year; it’s shocking when it doesn’t happen, but no one really cares if they win by five, 15, or 30 points. Instead, the success or failure of this iteration of PSG will be defined by how they play on Tuesday and Wednesday nights across the continent.

So far, that’s gone as well as anyone could’ve hoped. As for what comes next? Some of that’s up to them, but a lot of it isn’t.