But it felt that way when they were completing their expert filleting of Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night, condemning the French side to fume outside the Champions League VIP section for yet another season, waving their counterfeit tickets in the air, shouting “we paid good money for these!” It was strangely satisfying to watch PSG dissolve before our eyes from expensively-assembled, leather-upholstered luxury-club to huffy, demoralised rabble; the sight, it seemed, of the proper order of things being restored.
“You can’t buy the Champions League!” exclaimed 1,000 satisfied pundits, the annual humbling of the Qatari vanity project providing reassurance in a fast-changing world that some certainties — death, taxes, and the bludgeoning finality of a close-range Cristiano Ronaldo header — remain.
We’re projecting here, of course. The idea that Real Madrid are engaged in some sort of epic battle for the soul of football is a blitheringly simplistic one, straight from the Hollywood screenplay dustbin.
After all, by promoting the image of the state through football, Qatar are only following the soft power playbook of the Franco regime and their championing of Real’s glorious 1950s incarnation.
And that memorable shot of the directors’ box at the Bernabeu before last month’s first leg was a reminder of modern complexities. Nicolas Sarkozy, Florentino Perez, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi stood abreast, in smiling anticipation of the contest to come: The former French president who brokered the deal for Qatar to buy PSG; the all-powerful president of Real, also head of the construction giant ACS who have been the gleeful beneficiary of billions of dollars of building contracts from Qatar; and the president of PSG and Qatar Sports Investments — Qatar’s representative on earth, or Paris at least.
At this level of the game, everyone is a winner.
But we can forgive ourselves the infantile fantasy that Real Madrid were the plucky David vanquishing the threatening Goliath. One of football’s great qualities is that it is a blank canvas over which any psychodrama — emotional, sociological, or political — can be painted. It can be a working-class movement, an expression of ethnic identity, a parent-and-child bonding ritual — and now, ever more so, a weapon of strategic geopolitical statecraft.
Which is where Qatar comes in. It hasn’t been all bad news this week for the tiny, super-rich Gulf statelet. It was expected that talks between Saudi crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman and UK prime minister Theresa May would help lead to the relaxing of the boycott on Qatar by rival Gulf states.
The blockade, led by Saudi Arabia and conducted under the rationale that Qatar had been funding Islamist extremists (but really intended to destabilise the Qatari regime) has failed to bring the country to its knees. Given that the US and Britain sell arms to both sides of the argument, a gentle nudge towards reconciliation from Washington and Downing Street is likely.
With all that at stake, the mere bauble of Champions League glory might seem like small fry. But it’s the international cultural capital their investment in the likes of PSG brings that is so important to Qatar when it comes to these regional diplomatic dust-ups. With their footprint on so many key Western doorsteps, Qatar will never just be the tiny nub in the Persian Gulf its position on the map suggests.
All of which makes Champions League glory for PSG an existential matter for Qatar. The greater the success for the Ligue 1 giants in Uefa’s annual jamboree, the less scary the bullies across the border look in Doha and the easier it is to hush questions about human rights abuses towards migrant workers. Anyone thinking that the latest failure to make it deep into the knockout stages of the tournament will see Qatar throw its hands up in the air in exasperation doesn’t realise what’s at stake.
So where now for PSG?
“All That For This” was the front page headline in L’Equipe yesterday morning, a reference to the massive splurge that followed last season’s different but equally humiliating last 16 exit to the other Spanish giant.
“It’s a huge disappointment for Paris, for the club, for the players and for the fans,” a downbeat Al-Khelaifi said on Tuesday night.
“We need to calm ourselves and think about how we can improve the team. Winning the Champions League is a slow process, you can’t do it overnight. We’re on the right track.”
The quotes could equally have come from the aftermath of that second leg turnaround in Barcelona a year ago. Back then they stuck with coach Unai Emery, something which is unlikely to happen this time, and smashed the humiliation right back at Barcelona by taking Neymar off their hands.
More spending is likely again, though the strictures of Financial Fair Play may impact. A superstar coach will surely be recruited to replace the low-wattage Emery. And maybe when Al-Khelaifa and his bosses do calm themselves they will reflect on the bad luck that meant their prized asset was unavailable through injury just when he was needed most.
But are they on the right track?
Let’s spool back on Graeme Souness’s post-match comments on TV3 on Tuesday night.
“They were pathetic,” said Souness. “This is a collection of big players. You look at the names on the teamsheet, big players who cost a lot of money. Names on teamsheets don’t win you football matches. They were bang average tonight.
“They are playing very much in a second [class] league where they don’t have to be at their best to win games. Some of them just strolled through that game. At the highest level, you have to sprint back when you lose the ball — you don’t jog back. You have to have a never-say-die attitude if you want to win this big trophy.”
Two things there. Firstly, that PSG are a bunch of individuals who amount to less than the sum of their parts is the natural conclusion of the club’s transfer policy. They have prized signing the next snazzy attacking talent on the rank over coherent team building, and then facilitated indiscipline by indulging the whims of their stars.
Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic before him, PSG were so glad to have a player of Neymar’s profile in Paris that they have allowed him free rein. The Brazilian was thrown a lavish 26th birthday party the week before the first leg in Madrid and allowed to miss training and a French Cup game to recover. How must this leeway affect other players? Any wonder their exit to Real was hallmarked by stroppiness and apathy?
The second problem is harder to fix. Does playing in the French league make it impossible for PSG to realise their Champions League ambitions? “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon,” said midfielder Adrien Rabiot after the first leg in Madrid. “But it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted.”
The only way out of this bind would be for PSG to take their part in the formation of the mythical European Super League, the promised land for the continent’s elite where Dijons and Burnleys and Getafes can be left behind.
Is it beyond the realms of possibility for Qatar Sports Investments to spearhead a move towards such a league? Sounds ridiculous, but then so does hosting the World Cup in a tiny desert state the size of Cork and Kerry put together.
Whatever comes next, expect Qatar to wield that soft power with a little more force, now that their castle has been shown, appropriately enough, to have been built on sand.