It gets to Sunday evening. You’ve done your chores. You’ve had your dinner.
You’re tired. You have work on Monday. You just want something to stick on the telly while you flick through the papers or doze on the sofa. These days you have choices. Next Sunday, for instance, if you have a comprehensive satellite package, you could watch Levante against Real Madrid, Roma against Fiorentina or Nice against Marseille. Which are you going to choose?
Perhaps you think Real Madrid, under pressure and having signed only David Alaba this summer, might slip up in the second of three away league games they face at the beginning of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign, so decide to watch La Liga. Perhaps José Mourinho’s first Serie A game in charge of Roma sounds fun, particularly given the combustible nature of some of his pre-season friendlies.
On this occasion, unless you have a particular love of football on the Côte d’Azur, the Ligue 1 offering probably won’t draw too many viewers. But when Paris Saint-Germain are playing it will. Leaving aside everything else – and that is, admittedly, leaving aside a lot – there is a great appeal in seeing just what happens when Lionel Messi links up with Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.
Which game floating punters prefer to watch may sound trivial, but it in fact reaches towards something fundamental. What is football for? What is it about? The probability is that Messi, Neymar and Mbappé will score dozens of goals this season. PSG may have been beaten to the title last season by Lille, but they surely won’t be again. There will, almost certainly, be some brilliant goals – dribbles, moments of interplay, outrageous individual skill – that will be cooed over in context-free 30-second clips on social media.
In that sense the profile of the league will increase. Certainly more people will be interested in watching PSG this season than in the recent past. The scrum at the airport and the queues outside the club shop to buy a Messi shirt are ample evidence of the enthusiasm he has generated (although the club’s suggestions that he will pay for himself should be taken with a pinch of salt).
But is that really what football is now about? Perhaps it is. There is certainly a strain of elite-level marketing departments that sees clubs as content producers. The CEO of Real Madrid, José Ángel Sánchez, has said Disney is the model, while at least one super-club is seriously considering the production of a semi-fictionalised soap opera based on dressing-room and boardroom drama.
We want to see how Messi and Neymar will link up and so we tune in. Some will revel in the beauty of the football and won’t care that scoring a hat-trick against OSC Patisserie may not be the highest level of sport (particularly not after OSC Patisserie were forced to sell their best players following the collapse of the Mediapro TV deal), as though football were like gymnastics or diving, to be marked against an imagined ideal, rather than about beating an opponent. There will be a short-term sugar rush but, however appealing macarons or financiers may be, you cannot live on patisserie alone.
Fans are eager to see Lionel Messi and Neymar link up once more but few expect Ligue 1 to be competitive. Photograph: Christophe Petit-Tesson/EPA
The real footballing test will come in the Champions League. Are PSG better equipped to win it this season than they were last? Possibly, given the investment at the back, particularly the arrival of Achraf Hakimi in the full-back area, which had been an issue. But Messi presents a problem.
PSG already struggled in the biggest games because of the lack of protection Neymar and Mbappé gave the midfield and Messi is not going to resolve that. But that’s a detail to worry about next March.
More significant is what it says about modern football that PSG were one of two, perhaps three, sides in the world who could afford Messi (and yes, it would be nice if he had paused to consider whether he wanted to join a project that in effect exists to promote a state with a questionable human rights record).
England still has a semblance of competitiveness, with Chelsea likely to push Manchester City hard while Manchester United and Liverpool have the potential to challenge, but elsewhere the picture is bleak. PSG and Bayern Munich look all but certain to win their titles. Internazionale did end Juventus’s winning streak last season but are €600m in debt and have already lost their manager, their centre-forward and an accomplished attacking full-back. Juve aren’t such overwhelming favourites as PSG or Bayern (and in fact are a slightly longer price than City in the Premier League), but they are still odds-on to retain their title.
If Spain looks slightly more open, it is only because of the chaos at Real Madrid and Barcelona, both of whom are hundreds of millions of euros in debt and have been forced to alter transfer spending accordingly. But then the terms of the agreement reached on Thursday with the private equity fund CVC, to which Real Madrid and Barcelona (and Athletic Bilbao and an unnamed Segunda División club) have an opt-out, in effect giving up 11% of broadcast rights over the next 50 years in return for €2.1bn now suggests just how desperate the league as a whole is for immediate investment.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe a modern audience does just want to consume content, brief clips of spectacular moves whatever the context. Because if competition is anything like a priority, European football has failed. The economic issues that prompted the attempted Super League breakaway have not gone away just because that project was spectacularly bungled. The financial structures of the game led to the unhealthy perpetuation of an elite, into which system came three clubs whose wealth is not dependent on football and whose domination is perhaps only just beginning.
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That was always the irony of Super League project: the plotters had identified the right issue, but their solution was wretched. It may be the only solution now is the financial collapse of the sport. And in the meantime, we’ll tune in to Ligue 1 and, ignoring what a broken structure it took for them to play together, marvel at Messi, Neymar and Mbappé turning their tricks. Ligue 1 is winning, celebrity culture is winning; football, perhaps, is not.