Messi, PSG and the modern day super-team

Super-teams have a long history in the NBA and NFL, but can the format work in European football?

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Doha Stadium Plus

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Doha Stadium Plus

Before the news and rumours surrounding Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma had become the latest name to join PSG’s ‘super team’ project, as the Paris club looked to make an immediate push for the ultimate prize in club football – the UEFA Champions League.

Prior to Donnarumma’s free transfer to the club, PSG also signed Netherlands talisman Georginio Wijnaldum and Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos on free transfers too. Both players had experience winning the Champions League, with Wijnaldum winning it with Liverpool and Ramos being a four-time winner with Los Blancos.

They join a star-studded team that includes new arrivals Achraf Hakimi from Inter and, last summer, Danilo Pereira from Porto. Alongside the latest talents, there are older faces of the franchise including Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, Marco Verratti, Marquinhos, Presnel Kimpembe and more.

With Mauricio Pochettino at the helm, do PSG even have any weaknesses? It certainly feels like they do not.

Indeed, PSG look like one of those teams you make on FIFA Ultimate Team, where you just buy all the highest rated players and create a winning machine. While Les Parisiens have managed the former, the latter has alluded them so far.

Sure, PSG is a high-achieving team, which is just one year removed from a Champions League final and finished second in Ligue 1 in the 2020/21 season by one point. However, the expectation of a ‘super team’ is to win it all. And to win it all now., especially if they end up signing Messi.

Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s club has never won the Champions League. Ten years ago, they were a struggling club who often flirted with relegation from France’s top division until they were purchased by Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), which reversed their fortunes greatly.

Fast forward ten years and the crowds of the Parc des Princes have seen the likes of Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimović, David Beckham, among other footballing legends suit up for PSG. Our understanding of PSG stems primarily from 2011 to today – most football fans would have little recollection of PSG prior to the QSI investment.

Since the investment, PSG’s identity has been revolutionised, in a bid to build a winning culture for a club that has prospects to sit atop world football. The method? Money. Money talks in the footballing world, perhaps a bit too much if you look at the horror that was the European Super League. But it is important, nevertheless, and PSG are aware of that.

One of the richest clubs in the world currently, PSG boasts the financial muscle and determination to buy any player they like. Whenever a player like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is rumoured to be leaving their club, you can bet that PSG will be one of the rumoured destinations simply because they are one of the only clubs in the world that could even afford them, and, now, that notion appears to be a possibility.

Even if they do end up signing Messi, they have already signed some of the most world class talents in football over the past ten years. There is a certain culture of buying players at the peak of their career to spark instant success.

Has it worked? So far, PSG has just one Champions League final appearance to their name, though they do have seven Ligue 1 titles in the past 10 years.

The ‘super team’ is a strange concept, one that seems like pure fantasy, yet it has proved successful in both the NBA and NFL thus far. There are even early remnants of a formation of a successful ‘super team’ in football in the 1970s. Namely, the New York Cosmos.

The Cosmos had the huge names of Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, albeit when they were old and well past their primes. They did, however, bring their class to the North American Soccer League, showing their dominance with multiple titles and sparking a more widespread love of football across America nationally. Their movement would ultimately led to the formation of the MLS just prior to the turn of the century.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / El Gráfico

Image: Wikimedia Commons / El Gráfico

To compare the Cosmos to PSG is certainly a far stretch though – PSG have a much greater goal with much harder opposition in their way.

Modern day ‘super teams’ have been around in America’s major sports leagues for quite some time. It is most notably found in the NBA, where a ‘super team’ is generally characterised by multiple Hall of Fame players on the same team.

The most recent ‘super team’ to grace the league was the Brooklyn Nets in the 2020/21 season. They boasted a ‘big three’ of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, all household names in the NBA, and all superb talents.

The message was clear – championship or bust. All of Harden, Durant and Irving were brought in for a singular reason: to win the Nets their first ever NBA Championship, a feat that has alluded the franchise since 1976 when they joined the NBA as the New York Nets.

Unfortunately for the Nets, injuries derailed what was a strong start to the season. Having commenced the season as favourites to make the final from the Eastern Conference, the Durant-Harden-Irving triple act failed to take the Nets to the promised land due to an injury-riddled year. They ultimately bowed out of the NBA Playoffs to the Milwaukee Bucks, in a shock defeat over seven games.

While the Nets are unable to provide the winning inspiration for PSG at the moment, perhaps the early 2010s Miami Heat success will. Arguably one of the first modern-day ‘super teams’, the Heat were composed of a ‘big three’ of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Over four years, the star-studded ensemble won back-to-back titles in the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals thanks to what many consider ‘the LeBron effect’.

The ‘super team’ culture spread to the NFL in ground-breaking fashion last season too. The NFL’s winningest player ever, Tom Brady, signed a deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a bid to bring in the Bucs’ first ever Super Bowl and attempt to cement Brady’s own status as the undisputed greatest athlete of all time.

In Brady, the Bucs did not just get an elite quarterback, however. They got one of the greatest team leaders the league has ever seen, that possessed the attractiveness and flair to bring in a whole plethora of the league’s best players aboard the Tampa Bay hype train. Under offensive genius head coach Bruce Arians, the Buccaneers signed the likes of former top receiver Antonio Brown, the greatest tight end of all time in Rob Gronkowski, defensive end Ndamukong Suh, and others, the list goes on.

The Bucs finished the regular season strongly, with an 11-5 record and qualifying for the playoffs as the fifth seed in their conference. The rest is history, as the Buccaneers became the first team to win the Super Bowl in their own stadium, thrashing Patrick Mahomes’ elite Chiefs 31-9 in the final.

In light of the latest Fast & Furious film, the buzz of the Super Bowl win has resulted in many players taking pay cuts to pledge their loyalty to the Bucs in order to go for “one last ride” for the 2021/22 season. The rest of the NFL will be hoping that this Bucs success will not last quite as long as the Fast & Furious franchise, however.

At 43 years old, Brady, the centrepiece of the Bucs team, is certainly reaching the end of his career even if his play suggests otherwise. Does it matter though? Not really – Jason Licht and the Bucs got their first Super Bowl, and that was the goal after all.

The Bucs model will not be sustainable forever though, they have players on expensive deals currently and will likely have to do a franchise rebuild within the next five years as the stars of Super Bowl 55 will be both regressing and retiring.

Unlike the Boston Celtics, the Green Bay Packers, Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid (among others), franchises such as the Brooklyn Nets, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and PSG have not carved their identity out with sustained excellence over decades and decades. They do not boast the illustrious history or the continuous success that the former clubs have.

The thing about a ‘super team’ is that they often seek instant success with big, splashy offseason/transfer window moves. The idea is not to cultivate a winning culture or a sustainable infrastructure for the future – it is about winning the biggest prize in their respective sports at all costs (this should be taken very literally about PSG, given their vast monetary investments).

So, can a ‘super team’ work in European football? Will PSG start a trend for others?

As it stands, the PSG project has not seen enough success. However, with one Champions League final under their belt, they may be able to build more momentum. 

Last season was a disappointment for Pochettino’s men, failing to win Ligue 1 for the first time since 2013. With that said though, this transfer window (so far) has been one of PSG’s most successful and will certainly bolster their squad massively next season.

Ramos brings the winning pedigree and leadership that many felt that PSG had been missing before, and Messi would only add to that. It will be interesting to see the overall impact they would have on the team and whether they bring the ‘Brady effect’ or the ‘LeBron effect’ to the Parc des Princes. Ramos certainly has the desire and determination to do so.

While the mentality and mindset that Ramos brings is imperative to any winning locker room, Pochettino is also fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of world class players.

While the likes of Messi, Neymar and Mbappé would undoubtedly bring the flair, the team will also be supported by a steady spine of players that will include Euro 2020 player of the tournament, Donnarumma in goal, with Kimpembe and Marquinhos ahead of him.

The signing of Hakimi aids one of the weaker positions in the team, right-back. His willingness to bomb forward will complement PSG’s already explosive attack.

Fellow newcomers Wijnaldum and Pereira will bolster one of the deepest midfield groups in world football. It has variety and class in the form of Verratti, Julian Draxler, Di María, Rafinha, Leandro Paredes, Idrissa Gueye, Rafinha, to name just some of the midfielders on offer to Pochettino. Add Wijnaldum and Pereira to the mix and you have an absolute overload, though it must be said that all the midfielders they have offer something different.

This midfield and defence, combined with perhaps the greatest attack of all time, with Messi, Neymar and Mbappé dovetailing, would surely be irresistible.

Added on to this, fortunately for PSG, their winning window appears to be far larger than that of the Nets and Bucs though, given the age of their players and so they have time to allow their players to develop together. 

However, there is no doubt that anything but a Champions League trophy in the next few years will be viewed as failure, given the stature of the team.

If PSG’s model is able to bring a Champions League trophy to Paris, there is a chance that other clubs follow suit. We have seen elements of PSG’s model in the building of Real Madrid’s dominant ‘Galácticos’ eras, Chelsea’s crazy transfer window last year (that won them a Champions League) and Manchester City’s ‘origins’ as a European powerhouse.

However, none of those projects have been quite the size of PSG’s overhaul – especially given that PSG seem more concerned with bringing in instant success as opposed to team-building and culture-building.

The pressure is on for Pochettino and his all-star squad – can they bring football’s greatest treasure to Paris?