The tensions between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain go deeper still

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The Catalans are desperately looking for new sources of income while PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who also leads the European Club Association, is dead against it.
At Barcelona, this led to hostility towards PSG growing to unprecedented heights — a feeling that endures.
PSG sources strongly rejected that.
“PSG was one of the biggest clubs in the world, but Marco was playing in a weak league,” Di Campli said.
Barcelona were braced for long talks in order to find the best possible deal — until PSG came in with a no-nonsense approach.
One year later, Barcelona had not forgotten about Silva and they decided to make a tentative approach to PSG.
But from a purely sentimental point of view, nothing has been harder to take for Barca fans than seeing Lionel Messi at PSG.
Club sources at the time suggested including this clause was seen as the only way to keep him.

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Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona square off in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal tonight. These are two institutions whose relationship has severely deteriorated over the last ten years.

Currently, the main source of contention between the teams is PSG’s opposition to a European Super League and Barcelona’s ongoing support for one. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who also serves as the head of the European Club Association, is adamantly opposed to the Catalans’ desperate search for new revenue streams.

But there’s much more history to their rivalry. With each side scoring points against the other, it has gone through multiple stages of evolution. And 2017 was a crucial year when things really heated up.

After losing the first leg 4-0 in France, Barca fans saw one of their team’s greatest ever performances on March 8 of that year in a 6-1 “remuntada” home victory in the second leg of the Champions League last 16.

Neymar, the game’s biggest star, left Barcelona for PSG just four months later after the club fulfilled his €222 million release clause (£190 million, or $241 million at today’s exchange rates). It is still the most costly signing in football history, and the dramatic tale surrounding that transaction is widely known.

This caused animosity toward PSG at Barcelona to reach previously unheard-of levels, and it still does. When asked which team they have the most tense relationship with, executive sources at Barca, who like everyone else cited here, preferred to remain anonymous, do not hesitate to answer: “Paris Saint-Germain has to be up there.”. “.

By the end of that summer, Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club’s then-president, made the decision not to renew the sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways, a business connected to Qatar Sports Investments, the majority owner of PSG.

But the Neymar case was just the straw that broke the camel’s back at the Camp Nou.

Only a few months earlier, they had been angered by the way PSG blocked a move for Marco Verratti, who Barca had identified as their biggest target of the transfer window.

The Italian fitted the profile Barca wanted in midfield, and they understood Verratti had resolved to push for a departure, as his former agent Donato Di Campli recognised years later in an interview with L’Equipe.

“PSG was one of the biggest clubs in the world, but Marco was playing in a weak league,” Di Campli said. “I told him that if he wanted to become a true champion he needed a change. It wasn’t to go against PSG, but it was easier to get to that elite level in clubs such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid. ”.

Barcelona and Verratti’s camp decided to apply all sorts of pressure moves to force PSG to sell him. This included Verratti posing for the Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo during his holidays in Ibiza, holding a front cover of their newspaper — in which his intention to ask for a meeting with Al-Khelaifi to switch clubs was reported.

The meeting eventually took place. But what Verratti found was Al-Khelaifi’s total denial to entertain any sort of negotiation with Barca. The PSG president then followed that up with a bullish move for Neymar, paying what was considered within the industry to be an unreachable sum to free him of his contract in Catalonia. These days, Barca put their release clauses closer to the €1billion mark.

“When Verratti realised the move was not possible, he was afraid,” Di Campli added in that L’Equipe interview. “He was worried that PSG would sideline him for the rest of the season. As soon as he came back for pre-season, the club told him they would bring in Neymar — and that he would be signing a contract extension. ”.

Barcelona set out with the intention of signing Verratti and wound up losing their next big star to them (Neymar was 25 at the time). There was a familiar feeling of frustration.

Back in 2012, Barca were actively trying to sign the 28-year-old Thiago Silva from AC Milan. He was seen as the perfect successor to club captain Carles Puyol, then 34.

Negotiations with the Italian side were not easy. Barcelona were braced for long talks in order to find the best possible deal — until PSG came in with a no-nonsense approach. They bid the €42million Milan were asking for and got the player.

One year later, Barcelona had not forgotten about Silva and they decided to make a tentative approach to PSG. After seeing no progress would be made, they turned their attention to Roma’s 19-year-old Brazilian defender Marquinhos instead.

For the second consecutive summer, PSG beat them to it. Not only did Barca fail to lure Silva out of Paris, they also missed out on Marquinhos to the French side, who swooped in to seal a deal worth around €30million.

During this time, at least Barca could take comfort from the fact they had the upper hand on the pitch. They knocked PSG out of the Champions League three times between 2012 and 2017 — including on their way to the 2015 title. The Catalans could proudly brag that European success was something their Qatari-owned rivals could not buy.

Neymar’s departure was a turning point, not just because it was an acceleration of PSG’s ambition to achieve. At Barcelona, there was a series of poor decisions that followed as money from the sale was reinvested.

But from a purely sentimental point of view, nothing has been harder to take for Barca fans than seeing Lionel Messi at PSG. Less than a week after the Argentinian was forced to leave the Camp Nou in tears, he was jetting off to Paris and posing with a smile. The emotional damage Messi’s spell in France could have provided, though, was mitigated by their lack of European success, and by the fact he never really settled.

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Beyond the Super League project, the most recent entry in PSG and Barca’s turbulent relationship played out last summer — and it further exposed Barca’s current problems.

During the club’s pre-season tour of the United States, PSG met a €50million release clause in Ousmane Dembele’s contract. Barca’s initial response to PSG seemed to suggest not everyone among the club’s leadership was aware that the clause existed.

But it certainly did and, in this way, Barca unexpectedly lost one of their best players — one they signed from Borussia Dortmund for a joint club-record fee of €135million in 2017, financed with the Neymar money.

However, Barca only recouped around €25million from the sale because of an agreement reached with Dembele’s representatives during July 2022 negotiations over a new contract when his previous deal had expired — with the other half going to the player. Club sources at the time suggested including this clause was seen as the only way to keep him. “It was whether to have Dembele on risky conditions or just not have him,” they said.

But the whole outcome last summer left Barca executives hopeless once again, and there was a feeling among sources in the boardroom and on the coaching staff that both Dembele and PSG had toyed with the club.

Ultimately, blame for the situation could only be left at the door of Barca’s leadership, just as with Messi’s departure. The fate of both players revealed how Barca could no longer consider themselves a dominant force in world football.

Times had already changed for Barcelona. And by this point, PSG had secured a telling blow on the pitch: their 4-1 first-leg victory in the Champions League last 16 of 2021 was followed by a 1-1 draw in Paris in the return leg.

Kylian Mbappe scored a hat-trick at the Camp Nou in that win — and it turned out to be Messi’s final European appearance for Barca. An era was about to end in Catalonia, while PSG looked steps ahead.

That game won’t be too far from the minds of several Barca executives present at the Parc des Princes this evening. Some of them accused Al-Khelaifi of disrespectful behaviour on that night in February 2021.

They claimed that the PSG president protested the award of a penalty to Barca (which Messi converted to give the home side the lead) to Giorgio Marchetti, the UEFA vice-secretary general, who was also present. Before Messi took the spot kick, they said, Al-Khelaifi stormed out of his spot in the VIP seats. A PSG source played down such suggestions.

Relations have not been repaired much since, with PSG and Al-Khelaifi at odds not just with Barcelona but Real Madrid and La Liga president Javier Tebas, a long-time critic. The Super League is the backbone of that dividing line, and for PSG and Al-Khelaifi there has been a soreness about what sources at the club characterise as repeat attacks made on them.

Laporta has not shied away from his criticisms of PSG, suggesting their state-backed status means they are financially doping and forcing clubs like his to compete with them via other means.

Senior sources at PSG did say, however, that there had been signs of rapprochement in recent months, including at a meeting between Al-Khelaifi and Laporta in Switzerland in the autumn, before the European Court of Justice ruling on the Super League in December.

But there could well still be something of a frosty atmosphere on Wednesday — not that PSG will feel much need to prove a point.

It is now the French club that has arguably the best player on the pitch on their side. And they have a manager the Catalans would happily take for next season in Luis Enrique. They must surely be favourites, on paper at least.

Additional reporting: Peter Rutzler.

(Top photo: Getty Images. Visual design by Eamonn Dalton). Current Barca boardroom sources believe the French club still hold a grudge over that decision. PSG sources strongly rejected that.

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