PSG's superteam era ends with another devastating defeat in Champions League

PSG's Kylian Mbappe reacts after the Champions League semifinal second leg soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

It is tough to pinpoint when, exactly, the demise of PSG’s $2 billion project began, but easy to identify the coup de grâce. Borussia Dortmund delivered it Tuesday night in Paris. It was 90 minutes of torment, one towering header, and the culmination of expectations unfulfilled.

It was Dortmund 2, PSG 0 over two disenchanting legs of a Champions League semifinal, but it was more than that.

It was yet another knockout-round loss in the very competition that Paris Saint-Germain had built superteam after superteam to win.

It has now been a decade since PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi proclaimed that the club “have to win” the Champions League within four years. It has been a decade of disappointment.

And it is, in a way, The End. Not the end of ludicrous spending in pursuit of soft power and success, but the end of building said pursuit around megastars. Kylian Mbappé is leaving. Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi and Neymar before him, he’ll leave without the trophy that he and his hometown club so desperately coveted. And unlike the others, he’ll leave without a successor.

Mbappé was the last of les superstars. He stuck around for one final season in Paris, and dreamed of saying goodbye on the biggest stage of all, in next month’s Champions League final, at Wembley. He tempted Parisians with audacious skills and goal after goal. He engineered an exhilarating comeback to beat Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

But his dream died just as so many others have.

Over 90 minutes Tuesday at the Parc des Prince, hope turned into irritation, then to exasperation and anger, then despair and miles-long stares.

PSG had been favored, even after a 1-0 defeat in last week’s first leg. But every single foray forward, this week and last, ended with a misplaced pass or a Dortmund intervention, or some new form of misfortune, each a tad more cruel than the last.

The Parisians hit the post twice in nine seconds last Wednesday. This Tuesday, in the second half alone, they struck the post four times.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 07: Warren Zaire-Emery of Paris Saint-Germain reacts after his shot hits the post during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund at Parc des Princes on May 07, 2024 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Warren Zaire-Emery of Paris Saint-Germain reacts after his shot hits the post during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund at Parc des Princes on May 07, 2024 in Paris, France. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

They slipped at vital moments. They won free kicks that appeared to be penalties, but occurred inches outside the penalty box. They skimmed headers just wide.

They unleashed 31 shots in all, but put only five on target.

They created 5.3 Expected Goals over two legs, but zero actual goals — only agony and howls.

"Football,” PSG coach Luis Enrique would later say, “sometimes is very, very unfair."

For the second straight year, they crashed out of the Champions League with zero goals over 180 minutes. In 2023, it was Messi ruefully stroking his beard. In 2024, some characters were different but the scene felt remarkably similar.

And the result was devastatingly familiar.

For the 12th consecutive spring, a PSG Champions League campaign ended sooner than it was supposed to, without the only acceptable result.

This era of expectation began in 2011, when Qatar Sports Investments, a Qatari government-operated venture, bought PSG and began pumping money into the club. One summer of spending lifted a once-middling team into the Champions League. A second brought Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva, Lucas Moura and Marco Verratti, Ezequiel Lavezzi and unprecedented hype.

David Beckham also arrived that winter. PSG reached the quarterfinals, and went blow for blow with Barcelona. The Parisians lost on penalties, but this, the rest of Europe feared, was just the beginning of their climb to the summit.

But then they lost in the quarterfinals again — and again, and again.

In 2017, they regressed, losing in the Round of 16. They responded by paying over $400 million for Neymar and Mbappé.

Their solution to every problem, it seemed, was another eye-watering sum. Since 2011, they have spent over $2 billion on transfer fees, and more billions on wages. They spent years throwing money at failure. After three straight Round of 16 exits, they finally reached the Champions League final in 2020, but lost to Bayern Munich. By 2022 and 2023, they’d returned to Round of 16 flameouts.

They had also cycled through coaches, through tactics, through styles. Finally, recently, they seemed to realize that in soccer, superteams — in the traditional sense, with a few megastars and an overlooked supporting cast — often don’t work. And they concluded that the era must end.

They hoped, of course, that it would not end like this. They tried to persuade Mbappé to stay, and even when it became clear that his sights were set on Real Madrid — he’ll reportedly move to Spain as a free agent this summer — they envisioned one last run, one last dance underneath a Parisian sunset.

But none materialized.

Tuesday’s defeat, to be clear, will not be the end of PSG as a French power. It has won 10 Ligue 1 titles since 2011. The Qatari owners haven’t just shattered global transfer records with nine-figure fees; they’ve paid 30 million euros or more for 27 players, many of whom will remain on a roster that should continue to win trophies domestically. In fact, technically, PSG’s largest single-season transfer outlay was the nearly $500 million spent on a dozen players since last summer.

But the big names will soon be gone. The big European games could be too. The PSG project, as we’ve known it since 2012, is over.