This feature on PSG first appeared in the November 2021 issue of FourFourTwo, with additional reporting Felipe Rocha, Dani Gil and Nicolas Puiravau. Subscribe now and never miss an issue! (opens in new tab)
When you can put a shark in a bathtub, you can pretty much achieve anything.
The best player of his generation had teamed up with the star of one of the world’s greatest national teams, and an awesome goalscorer in his prime, thanks to the biggest spending spree in history. In one of the globe’s most famous cities, the triumvirate had just one season to deliver, before their much-hyped partnership was scheduled to come to an end.
Before Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe – all named on FourFourTwo's list of the best players in the world 2021 – came Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia at the New York Cosmos. United by the finances of Steve Ross, chief of Warner Communications, they faced sky-high expectations, as they attempted to win the North American Soccer League in their one and only campaign together before Pele hung up his boots at the end of 1977.
“It mostly meshed, occasionally jammed, but when it worked it really was a thing of beauty,” was how one team-mate described the combination. The Cosmos lost 11 of 26 matches during the regular season, but they eventually succeeded in style. Bonded by off-field japes that included Beckenbauer stuffing grasshoppers into players’ socks, and Pele smuggling a small shark into a bath at the team hotel, they went on to win six out of six in the play-offs, cruising to an 8-3 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers – formerly the league’s best defence – en route. Sure, the Cosmos effectively bought the title, but it created a spectacle that’s still talked about 44 years later.
Now, during 2021/22, Messi, Neymar and Mbappe are aiming to link up and achieve
a similar feat – possibly without deploying any finned sea creatures. The world may never grow to love Paris Saint-Germain, but after a total financial outlay of approximately €1 billion on just three players, their fabled strikeforce has an opportunity to write this season’s biggest story, in what could be their one and only year together.
On paper, their career accolades already make them one of the finest trios the game has ever witnessed. If they find harmony on the pitch, Champions League glory could be theirs. But that’s a big ‘if’...
Just as a semi-retired Pele’s 1975 move to the Cosmos was hailed as one of the most sensational deals in football history, so too was Messi’s to the Parc des Princes. PSG had been heavily linked with the Argentine a year earlier, when he made an ill-fated attempt to force his way out of Barcelona armed only with his trusty burofax. But not even Les Parisiens themselves believed there was a realistic chance of snapping up the Flea this summer.
On August 4, the 34-year-old was pictured on holiday in Ibiza with former Barcelona
pal Neymar, compatriots Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes, plus fellow PSG man Marco Verratti. He had no idea that all four were to become team-mates six days later.
“When I saw the photo of Messi with the PSG players in Ibiza, I called one of them and said, ‘Bring Messi to Paris!’” smiles Luis Ferrer, formerly a key part of the Ligue 1 behemoth’s recruitment department. “But they replied saying it was too late – he was going back to Barcelona to sign his new contract.”
Within 24 hours, though, Barça’s stunning U-turn changed everything, and the wheels were set in motion for a week that few in Paris will ever forget. That week, the city was already due to become the official sporting capital of the world, in a handover ceremony to mark the end of the Tokyo Olympics and begin the build-up to Paris 2024. When the ceremony finally happened, it wasn’t even the biggest story in France.
“That week, from Monday to Friday, we had five front pages with a picture of Messi,” chuckles L’Equipe journalist Pierre-Etienne Minonzio. “Maybe that had never happened before in the entire history of L’Equipe, to speak about the same guy five days in a row. Before that week, no one expected the deal at all. It almost didn’t feel real. When Leo played his first game and greeted the fans by showing them the PSG badge on his shirt, you thought, ‘What is happening?!’
“If you look at the history of the French league, it has never had such a huge player in his prime. With Messi, Neymar and Mbappe upfront, there’s a feeling that you have to watch all of their games this season. In the history of football, maybe you’ll never see so many talents in one team.”
The trio’s first appearance together at the Parc des Princes came on Messi’s home bow against Lyon in September, on an evening when a club legend returned to the capital and took the ceremonial kick-off.
“I wished the three of them the best of luck – the excitement and the commotion inside the stadium was incredible,” smiles former Brazil midfielder Rai, who helped PSG to land their only major European silverware to date, the 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup.
“It was just a lovely coincidence that I was there – last year, I was voted as the fans’ favourite player in PSG history, so got invited. It’s incredibly pleasing to see Messi in a PSG shirt – when he signed, my first thought was, ‘What wonderful craziness’. PSG already had a very competitive squad before the summer, and their results in Europe have proved that. Imagine it now with Messi.”
Some call it Epiphany, but in Spain they call it El Dia de Reyes – Three Kings Day. On the 12th night of Christmas, children polish their shoes and leave them ready and waiting for the kings to arrive and put presents in them. It’s a tradition that harks back to the birth of Jesus, and the Three Kings (or Three Wise Men) who visited Bethlehem bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. It’s a bigger deal than even Christmas Day.
On January 5, 2015, the celebrations were in full swing at Barcelona’s Mini Estadi, a few hundred yards from the Camp Nou, at an open training session to mark the festivities. Children packed the stands ready to welcome three new kings, but one of them didn’t show up. Lionel Messi was nowhere to be seen – and his manager was furious.
If Messi, Neymar and Mbappe exist today as a combination, it’s because of the success that Messi and Neymar enjoyed in Catalonia, together with Luis Suarez. The trio bagged an incredible 364 goals in just three seasons, and are widely regarded as one of the most effective front threes in history.
But that day in 2015, things were on the brink of collapse before they’d really started. MSN had begun with defeats to Real Madrid and Celta Vigo in their opening two matches together, and Suarez’s first Blaugrana season had produced just a single league goal by the time they travelled to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad at the turn of the year. Surprisingly, Luis Enrique rested both Messi and Neymar from his starting line-up, and Barça lost 1-0. Angered at his omission, Messi never arrived for the open training session a day later. In the same week, he started following Chelsea on Instagram, sparking speculation about his future at the Camp Nou.
The Argentine claimed his absence was due to gastroenteritis, but Enrique regarded it as a rather convenient excuse. In his first campaign as Barcelona boss, he was ready to hit his star man with a hefty fine, until Xavi prompted a different sort of epiphany.
“The first half of that season was so s**t,” remembers Ivan San Antonio, writer for the Barcelona-based newspaper Sport. “Nobody thinks about it now, but there were some really ugly results, then the crisis when Messi didn’t go to that event for the children. Luis Enrique wanted to punish Messi, but Xavi stepped in and said, ‘Luis, don’t do it, Messi can’t be punished – if you want to win, you have to take care of him, then he will answer with goals, assists and titles’.”
The coach finally relented. The following weekend, Barcelona hosted Atletico Madrid where Neymar, Suarez and Messi all scored in a 3-1 triumph, racing off to celebrate the third goal together with unbridled happiness. The photograph became iconic, and Barça never looked back. By the end of the season they’d won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, defeating Manchester City, PSG, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, then Juventus in the Berlin final.
The lethal front three were at the heart of everything, having established a rapport on and off the pitch. “When Suarez arrived, he became really close with Messi, then Neymar thought, ‘OK, these guys are the kings, so I have to be close to them too’,” recalls San Antonio. “It was in Neymar’s interest to do it, but it became a real relationship and that always helps players on the pitch. Watching them, you could feel how close they were.
“Barça have always had incredibly good strikers, but those three were the best we’ve ever seen. Luis Enrique didn’t know how to manage them in the first half of the season – he liked to make changes in every game, but eventually realised that those three had to play, always. When he did it, the other players said, ‘OK, you guys score all the goals and we’ll work for you’. Neymar did defend without the ball, and Suarez always pressed, but they did it at a lower level compared with the rest. It was like two teams – the team who defended, and the team who worked in another way to become stars.”
Messi, Suarez and Neymar plundered 122 goals together that season, then upped it to 131 in 2015/16 as Barcelona won La Liga once again. “They had an unprecedented ability to score so many goals and never feel satisfied with a result,” former Barça striker Javier Saviola tells FFT. “All three were in the prime of their careers, with a very high level of understanding. We all admired that trident. They’ll go down in history.”
Neymar had already voiced his desire to play alongside Messi long before his arrival at Barcelona. “I think we could be an excellent partnership,” he’d said as a 19-year-old at Santos, months before facing the Argentine in the 2011 Club World Cup Final.
“Neymar was very ambitious and wanted to become the best player in the world, so he thought the best way to do it was playing with Messi,” says San Antonio. “Then he did it and enjoyed it, because it made him play even better. But eventually at Barcelona, he realised he could never be the best player in the world if he was playing with Messi. So he decided to leave.”
It seemed unthinkable that anyone would walk away from one of the greatest strike combinations in history but Neymar knew, despite his near-constant improvements, Messi would always be top dog at the Camp Nou. Barcelona were also starting to falter – Real Madrid wrestled back the league title in 2016/17, while Barça’s Champions League campaign was wildly inconsistent.
There was a feeling that the side’s intensity had dropped, encapsulated by the way Messi stood still and watched after losing the ball for PSG’s second goal in a 4-0 quarter-final first-leg annihilation at the Parc des Princes. Jolted into action, Barcelona responded in the Camp Nou return – with two minutes of normal time remaining, Neymar scored twice and then assisted Sergi Roberto as the Blaugrana improbably prevailed 6-1. It’s the club’s ultimate remontada (comeback), but it had seismic consequences.
The win was expected to kick-start another charge to Champions League success, but it didn’t – Barça lost 3-0 at Juventus in the first leg of the next round, and this time couldn’t recover in Spain. PSG, humiliated and hurt, were ready to make their move.
If you can’t beat them, sign them. That was PSG’s approach during the summer of 2017, after a season of crushing disappointment. Unable to get past the quarter-finals of the Champions League since their Qatari takeover six years earlier, they had somehow lost the Ligue 1 title too – finishing second to Monaco, despite winning the league by a startling 31-point margin the previous campaign. Their answer? To move for the man who had destroyed them at the Camp Nou, then steal Monaco’s rising star.
“Neymar’s transfer was decided upon the arrival of Antero Henrique – he put in place a plan to take PSG to a new dimension,” says Ferrer, of the club’s then sporting director. “We went back in for Mbappe, but we had already tried to get him before he signed his first professional contract with Monaco and had remained in touch with his family. Our recruitment team had informed me about this phenomenon in the youth system – that I absolutely had to watch him, because they thought he’d be a future great.
“I went to see him, and they were right. His potential was so obvious. Some players have a glass ceiling that you discover quite quickly, and you can doubt their future. With Kylian, there was no doubt.”
In early August, PSG paid Neymar’s €222m Barcelona release clause. Later that month they bagged Mbappe too, despite interest from Real Madrid, which would have given the French tyro the chance to play with his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. One morning, Ferrer arrived at Mbappe’s house at 8am, armed with croissants in a bid to secure the deal.
“With Neymar it was much easier,” he says. “There was no discussion with Barça, you just had to know about the ‘secret’ clause. It was Antero Henrique who learned of that and triggered the transfer.
“For Kylian, it was necessary to agree with the player and Monaco, and we had some competition from Real Madrid. It was a very complex transfer. To start with, the money was the main difficulty, because PSG were in the red after Neymar’s transfer. We’d worked a lot on the Mbappe file during the summer, and after Neymar’s recruitment I thought we would stop there. But Antero gave me carte blanche to recruit Kylian – it became a priority and we worked hard to find a solution. The club worked on all of the legal and financial aspects, and I managed the human side and discussions with the family.
“Kylian’s parents joked that I slept in a tent next door to their house. What really made the difference was the club’s sporting project. Everybody at PSG helped – one day I visited his home in Bondy with Unai Emery, Antero Henrique and our head of youth recruitment, Marc Westerloppe. Emery discussed his plan, his ideas, and assured Kylian that he would be a key player in Paris alongside Neymar. Real Madrid couldn’t provide that guarantee, because Zinedine Zidane already had Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal. That sporting aspect was key in our discussions with Kylian’s father, who knows football very well. We didn’t talk about money. Just football.”
PSG signed Mbappe on a season-long loan, becoming permanent for £163m a year later to circumvent Financial Fair Play regulations – the source of much controversy that year. When Neymar’s lawyers attempted to pay his buy-out clause to La Liga, as is convention in Spain, the league refused to accept the money – they insisted there was no way the French club could possibly be complying with FFP. Instead, the cash was sent directly to a reluctant, and positively fuming, Barcelona.
FFP has remained a thorny issue ever since: PSG were fined £20m in 2014, after UEFA ruled that they had overvalued a commercial contract with the Qatar Tourism Authority. Signing Messi late this summer – when they had already recruited Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum, Achraf Hakimi and Danilo Pereira with no significant outgoings – raised plenty more eyebrows, although UEFA’s FFP rules have been relaxed because of the pandemic and Ligue 1’s new regulations have been delayed until 2023. PSG insist they have reaped considerable commercial benefits from Messi’s arrival, but many rival clubs remain hugely sceptical.
🔝 What. A. Moment. 🔴🔵 First Paris goal for Leo Messi = 🔥🔥🔥@PSG_English | #UCL pic.twitter.com/UkKOJyTkVzOctober 1, 2021
In the summer of 2017, PSG had got the two men they wanted, for the two biggest transfer fees in history. With Neymar and Mbappe to the fore, PSG scored a club-record 171 goals in all competitions, regaining the Ligue 1 title by 13 points as well as winning both domestic cups. In the Champions League group stage they slaughtered Celtic 5-0 and 7-1, and finished ahead of Bayern Munich after a 3-0 victory at the Parc des Princes.
In 2018/19, they won the title once more and topped their Champions League group ahead of eventual winners Liverpool, thanks to a 2-1 victory against the Reds.
“Neymar and Mbappe brought confidence to the team, and an even stronger desire to win,” continues Ferrer.
In both seasons, though, Neymar missed key Champions League knockout ties with a metatarsal injury, and things went awry. Defeat to Real Madrid in 2018 was followed by a shock home loss to Manchester United in 2019, having won the away leg 2-0. PSG had choked once more – it was Barcelona parts deux et trois. Their Brazilian superstar watched helplessly from the sidelines, before earning a one-match ban for instructing the VAR match officials to “go f**k yourselves” via Instagram.
When PSG faced Rennes in the 2019 Coupe de France Final, Mbappe was sent off late on for a rash tackle, as Les Parisiens blew a 2-0 lead to lose on penalties. Neymar made yet more negative headlines after lashing out at a fan who’d insulted him as he walked up the steps to collect his runners-up medal.
Frustrated that he was getting no closer to winning the Ballon d’Or – while Mbappe won the 2018 World Cup, Neymar couldn’t help Brazil past the quarter-finals – the Brazilian decided that two years in France had been enough. Irritated by the number of heavy tackles he’d received in Ligue 1, and irked by criticism from the French media, Neymar was absent for the start of pre-season and insisted that he wanted to rejoin Barcelona – even offering to pay €20m himself to help finalise a deal. “He thought, ‘OK, the best I played in my life was with Messi, so I need to play with him again’,” explains Ivan San Antonio. “But Barça couldn’t deal with PSG.”
Les Parisiens kept hold of their petulant star, and have been inching closer to their ultimate goal of winning the Champions League ever since. With Neymar finally fit to feature in the crucial knockout matches of 2019/20, both he and Mbappe provided vital assists in a come-from-behind victory against Atalanta in Lisbon. Finally, they had progressed beyond the last eight, yet both stars missed opportunities in an agonising final defeat to Bayern.
Last season, they combined to gain some sort of revenge on the Germans – winning 3-2 in the quarter-finals in Munich, when Mbappe terrorised the hosts on the counter.
“Neymar and Mbappe have been a success at PSG, because a year and a half ago, there was always this idea that they would suffer a psychological tragedy that would end in a crazy way, like the Barcelona remontada or the game at home to Manchester United,” says L’Equipe’s Minonzio. “But you don’t have that feeling any more.
“When PSG score the first goal, if Mbappe is playing, usually they go on to win. Bayern tried to play higher up the pitch, which was a nightmare because he’s too fast.”
Manchester City ended their hopes in the semi-finals last time out, when Mbappe was injured for the second leg, but the forward had previously scored a hat-trick as PSG demolished Barcelona 4-1 at the Camp Nou. It was only the second time he’d ever been on the same pitch as Messi – he’d produced one of the best performances of his life on the first occasion too, scoring twice against Argentina at the World Cup.
Such European displays made it all the more surprising that PSG came second to Lille in Ligue 1 last term. An 18-day turnaround between the 2020 Champions League Final and their opening game of the new season didn’t help, particularly when that gap was filled by an international break. By contrast, Lille hadn’t played for more than five months. PSG then lost their first two matches after Neymar, Mbappe and several other players caught COVID-19.
Expected to bounce back from their bad start, just as Manchester City did in England, instead their squad depth was exposed. Neymar missed 16 games because of injury and suspension – he was sent off twice, the second in a home defeat to Lille. PSG lost eight league games in total, but Neymar and Mbappe started together in just two of them.
Disappointment followed on the international stage, too: Neymar was defeated by Messi in the Copa America final, while Mbappe was France’s penalty fall-guy at the Euros, having failed to score at the tournament.
Messi’s transfer to Paris proved the perfect pick-me-up – at least for Neymar. “What I’d like most of all is to play with Messi again,” he declared last December. “We have to do it next season.” Whether he meant at PSG or Barcelona was unclear – Joan Laporta has since claimed that Neymar approached his old club about a return following March’s presidential election, but the Brazilian later signed a new deal in France.
Mbappe didn’t seem quite as thrilled about Messi’s arrival, however. Unwilling to extend a contract that expires next summer, and the subject of a £145m summer bid from Real Madrid, he was ready to go.
That Neymar and Mbappe have both tried to leave is hardly a ringing endorsement of the PSG experience – each of the club’s strike trio had been hoping to play in La Liga this season, not Ligue 1. Like Neymar’s move to PSG, Mbappe’s wantaway wish boiled down to a desire for individual honours.
“He’s obsessed with being the best player in the world, and quickly,” says Minonzio. It’s been suggested that even on the night that Mbappe won the World Cup final aged 19, he felt a tinge of disappointment that he’d only scored one goal, not two, because it wasn’t enough to make him France’s standout star and earn him the Ballon d’Or.
“He hates it when someone says, ‘Come on, Kylian, you’re only 22, you still have plenty of time’. His target is to be the number one at a huge club, and he’s understood that’s not possible at PSG. At the end of last season he said he wasn’t happy with PSG’s season, and wanted to be at a club to win. The underlying message was, ‘With PSG I cannot win, so I’m going to leave’.
“That narrative doesn’t work now that Messi has arrived – the sporting director Leonardo said, ‘OK, that’s not the case anymore, so he has to sign a new contract’. But Mbappe feels it will be easier to become the number one in the world at Real Madrid.”
Despite the massive offer for a player who had just a year left on his deal, PSG rejected Los Blancos’ overtures. The club’s owners are determined to head into next year’s winter World Cup as European champions – a status symbol worth more than any money offered for Mbappe’s services.
What’s more, the club see the 22-year-old as their project’s centrepiece. A free transfer to the Bernabeu appears likely next summer, but many hope he will change his mind.
“Mbappe is crucial for PSG,” says Rai. “He’s the youngest of the forward trio, he’s French and has a bright future. Keeping him could make a big difference.”
If this does prove to be the one and only season that Messi, Neymar and Mbappe play together, it creates an intriguing dynamic – three stars who can only win the Champions League by working in tandem, but who are competing against each other for the Ballon d’Or. It could drive each of them to greater heights, or tear them apart.
The early signs weren’t promising, when cameras caught Mbappe complaining about Neymar after being substituted at home to Montpellier. “That tramp doesn’t give the pass to me,” he told Idrissa Gueye.
Developing the sort of three-way friendship that Messi, Suarez and Neymar enjoyed at Barcelona could be crucial to their on-field success, but that will take some time. The triumvirate’s first match together ended in an underwhelming Champions League draw at Club Brugge where PSG were out-shot by the Belgians. MNM struggled to establish an understanding without leaving the midfield over-exposed. When they linked up for the first time in Ligue 1 against Lyon, in a front four alongside Angel Di Maria, PSG grabbed a last-gasp victory – but again the balance of the team didn’t look right.
“I’m not sure whether it will work,” admits Minonzio. “In France we’re obsessed with the 2002 World Cup. We were world champions, we were supposed to go all the way, and we had Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Djibril Cisse – the top scorers in the Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1. We didn’t score a single goal at that World Cup.
“It was very similar at Euro 2020 – we had Benzema, Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, and there were a lot of headlines saying we had the best attack in the world. But football isn’t just about putting great players in the team, it’s about everyone working together. In that first Champions League game against Bruges, there were times when they lost the ball and all three guys were walking around. Messi won’t press because he never does, Neymar can do it but only if he’s fully fit, and Mbappe won’t press if he’s the only one doing it. You can’t win trophies if you’ve only got seven outfield players trying to get the ball back. You can do it against smaller teams, but you don’t have the ball as much in the Champions League.”
Not only that, but expectations are huge. “People expect a spectacle and they expect magic performances,” insists Rai. “My PSG team reached the Champions League semis, but the expectations weren’t the same. We brought PSG to a higher standard, but didn’t have to win the Champions League. We beat Barcelona in the quarter-finals, then lost to Milan in the last four.
“It was seen as an important achievement, like when we won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996. Now, France have won basically every big title in every sport, but that wasn’t the case then, so a European trophy was huge – not only for PSG fans, but for the nation. The current team can take PSG to another level, like we did back then. For them, the next step is winning the Champions League, and they’re capable of making that dream come true. If that front three play like they’ve been playing over the last few seasons, PSG will achieve success.”
As the trio gained familiarity, Les Parisiens began 2021/22 with eight consecutive wins at the top of Ligue 1, netting 22 goals in the process. Then they hosted Manchester City, when Messi grabbed a stunning first goal for the club from a clever Mbappe flick as PSG won 2-0. Far from sensational, they’d beaten one of the best teams in Europe. With Messi, anything is possible.
“He’s still the best in the world,” declares Saviola, who played alongside the Flea during his early years in Barça’s first team. “Today’s Leo has improved in every aspect from those days – much more punch in front of goal, and above all else his understanding of the game. Today’s Leo has an innate intelligence – he knows what’s required in every moment of a game. Everyone was shocked when he had to leave Barcelona, but if he were to go, the best club for him was PSG – a place where he has a real opportunity to win the Champions League. Once there’s more understanding between all of the players, I think they’ll be almost unstoppable.”
Emblazoned across the Parc des Princes roof, there’s a slogan – ‘Revons Plus Grand’. Dream Bigger. This may not be the romantic dream of an underdog – plenty rejoiced at Rennes’ October defeat of the nouveau-riche Parisians – but no club has ever plunged quite so much money into one forward line, and the quest for success.
Football’s biggest fish have been placed into a historically modest pool – the next few months will tell us if they devour defences, or just themselves. Messi, Neymar, Mbappe: the world is watching. PSG haven’t got one shark in a bathtub – they’ve got three.
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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.
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