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What Did P.S.G.’s Money Buy?

As a final scene it was so fitting that, for a second, it was possible to wonder if Kylian Mbappé had done it on purpose. He had reached the dying embers of Paris St.-Germain’s run in the Champions League. Yet again, the dream of European glory that powered the club for more than a decade had been dashed.

Suddenly, here he was, clean through on goal: the best player in the world, the hometown icon who has come to symbolize P.S.G.’s ambition, prowess, excess and hubris, his flashbulb moment at his fingertips. And then, as Dortmund’s defiant back line trailed helplessly in his blistering wake, Mbappé slipped.

No tackle, no foul, no intervention whatsoever. He just fell over. He would not have his goal. He would not be the hero. But he had, at least, provided a pitch-perfect allegory: not only for the seven years that he has spent at his hometown club, but also for the lavish, transformative and deeply flawed project he has come to represent.

Whether or not that will be Mbappé’s last act as a P.S.G. player remains to be seen; he has not started in a Ligue 1 match for more than a month. But it will certainly be his last meaningful appearance.

For all its work-in-progress, sorry-for-the-inconvenience vibes, Luis Enrique’s team wrapped up its Ligue 1 title some time ago. The next couple of weeks are mere bureaucratic necessity, a brief period of downtime before the summer’s international business. At some point, in the middle of all that, Mbappé will leave, most likely for Real Madrid, and P.S.G. will be left with nothing but memories.

What they will document is harder to pinpoint. Mbappé has, certainly, scored a lot of goals in his time in Paris: 255 in 306 games at last count. He has amassed trophies, too: six French titles, three French Cups, two French league cups, sundry individual awards. He has become rich beyond anyone’s imagination. His prominence has afforded him some form of political power, too: He has dinner with France’s president at the Élysée Palace more often than, say, Layvin Kurzawa.

But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Mbappé’s seven seasons in Paris will come to be defined more by absence than presence. He was, like Neymar before him and Lionel Messi after, brought for springtime in Paris. His legacy was supposed to be forged in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, the games P.S.G. prizes above all others.

His return in them has been, on the surface, impressive: 20 goals on soccer’s grandest stage. But that number requires a little context.

Mbappé scored six goals in a great flood on the way to the semifinals in 2021, and five more on this year’s adventure. More often than not, he has proved a peripheral figure. (The contrast with international soccer is both apposite and stark: By the time he was 24, Mbappé had been a dominant character in two World Cup finals.)

The same could be said for his team. In P.S.G.’s defense, it has recently established itself as a genuine force in the Champions League. It has reached the semifinals in three of the last five years. In 2020, in the unusual circumstances forced on the tournament by the pandemic, the club at last made it all the way to the final.

That it has never managed to make it over the line and touch the trophy, though, is — or at least should be — a source of not only considerable embarrassment but also genuine existential tension for the richest club in the world. P.S.G., as a project, was acquired by an arm of the Qatari state with the aim of winning the Champions League.

To do so, Qatar has invested untold amounts of money in acquiring players, from Edinson Cavani and David Luiz and Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore and on, through Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi, all the way to Messi and Randal Kolo Muani. The total cost runs comfortably into the billions.

The most significant among that cast, of course, is Neymar, lured from Barcelona for $240 million or so in 2017. That fee did not just represent the Brazilian’s talent, or even his value to his new employer.

The world-record price was, more than anything, intended to break European soccer. P.S.G. paid that much, in part, in the hope that it would inflate the transfer market to such an extent that only the two Manchester clubs would be able to compete. The rest of the old guard, Real Madrid and Barcelona and all the others, would risk bankruptcy if they tried to keep pace. It was a transfer designed to change the world.

With hindsight, of course, we know that it did not work. Neymar was a tourist on P.S.G.’s first team, at best. A few years later, Messi arrived from Barcelona, heartbroken and disinterested. Mbappé, the most expensive homegrown product in history, slowly became an extravagant problem: unwilling to play in certain positions, ineffective in others, his influence such that it might extend beyond the team and into its recruitment policy.

Some time last year, the club’s hierarchy — long after everyone else — accepted its mistake. The edict went out that the club’s galáctico era was over. P.S.G. would, from now on, reinvent itself as a haven for young French, and particularly Parisian, talent. “We can’t throw everything away just because we have been eliminated,” Marquinhos, the club captain, said in the aftermath of the defeat to Dortmund. “This is a new project, a new coach.”

It is a grounded, admirable stance, one that the club would have done well to adopt around a decade ago, but it does leave one rather glaring question unanswered.

Qatar has poured billions into the previous iteration of P.S.G., and it is likely to have to spend even more to unspool it, to start again, without Neymar, without Messi, without Mbappé.

In doing so, it has not only turned French soccer into a wasteland — a league denuded of competition, but contorted the landscape of European soccer more broadly, all in the hope of attaining a prize it has been unable to seize. It has hardly been worth it. It has not proved to be what anyone would describe as a shrewd investment. And so what, when it comes down to it, has all of this been for?

Calling Mats Hummels a veteran seems like an understatement. The defender is only 35, but it is quite hard to imagine that soccer ever existed without him. It would not be a vast surprise to learn that he is in one of the images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, emerging elegantly, the ball at his feet, out of the Pillars of Creation.

He has also taken a distinctly youthful glee in Borussia Dortmund’s progress to the Champions League final. “Good harvesting this week, my fellow farmers,” he wrote on the social platform X after Dortmund eliminated Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich knocked out Arsenal in the quarterfinals, a jab at those who insist on the agricultural quality of the Bundesliga.

Then, after Dortmund’s triumph in Paris sealed its place in next month’s final, he came back. “So many teams wanted to play against us,” he posted. “Luckily we are really nice guys and made it to the final so that as many as possible of them get the chance.”

It is hard to begrudge Hummels for a little light gloating. He was immaculate in both legs of the semifinal against P.S.G. He is written off as a busted flush roughly once every three months, and he has been for years. And yes, each of Dortmund’s opponents in the knockout rounds this year did probably see Hummels and his team as their least worst option.

At the same time, there can be no question that the draw did play some role in delivering Dortmund to Wembley. PSV Eindhoven, now installed as Dutch champion, was not an easy hurdle in the round of 16, but nor was it as arduous as Inter Milan and P.S.G. might have been. Dortmund was just as thankful for receiving Atlético Madrid in the quarterfinals as the Spanish side.

This is not an attempt to diminish what Dortmund has done, or to suggest its uplifting, inspiring run to the final is some sort of fluke. Quite the opposite. But as much as nobody ever really wants to admit it, the draws for knockout competitions do matter. Some paths provide more difficult terrain than others.

Or they did, at least. This is the last season that the Champions League will have an “open” draw from the quarterfinals on. Starting next year, the event will be seeded, as in tennis.

The theoretical appeal is that this is a more reliable way of discovering the two strongest competitors — think of all those finals between two of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic — but the drawback is that it makes stories like Dortmund’s considerably less likely. It weighs the dice against them. And in doing so, it removes a little more of the tournament’s wonder.

Good news: The eight-person list of nominees for the Premier League’s young player of the season award is out. Bad news: Four of the nominees are also in contention to win the overall player of the season award; two of them have already won the young player award; and one, in fact, won it way back in 2021, rendering the whole award quite pointless.

It is clear — and has been clear for a very long time — that the criteria for the honor need to be altered. Currently, the rules are very simple: Any player who is 23 or younger at the start of the season is eligible. And that, ultimately, is the problem. The rules could do with being a little, maybe a lot, more complicated.

It would, for example, make much more sense to center eligibility not on age but on experience. One of this year’s candidates, Bukayo Saka, has played 225 times for Arsenal. He has been playing for England for several years. Another candidate, Phil Foden of Manchester City, has won 16 major honors. He is not far from his 300th senior appearance. These are hardly wide-eyed newcomers.

Likewise, anyone who has already won the award should be disqualified. That would rule out Foden — he already has two, for crying out loud — and his teammate Erling Haaland, who claimed last year’s prize. Haaland did so at the same time he was winning (overall) player of the year. That absurdity could be stopped by making it plain that players cannot be nominated for both.

There should obviously be an award for the Premier League’s fresher faces, but it would be better to redesign the prize as an equivalent to a rookie of the year honor: open only to players in their first couple of seasons in the division, rather than those who settled in years ago.

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