On Tuesday, Chelsea meets Paris Saint-Germain in the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League for the third consecutive season. Though some of the world's best players will be featured yet again, their previous encounters have arguably been dirty and negative, with the more morally compromised team coming out ahead on each occasion.
Between their styles of play, wealthy owners and the means by which they rose to power, neither team is particularly popular with neutral fans. In fact, our own Jack Sargeant thinks this is the worst match that the Champions League could possibly spit out, while his colleague Andi Thomas disagrees. Below, the cases for and against Chelsea vs. PSG being the worst fixture in European soccer.
If you're going to be filthy rich, at least do something fun, by Jack Sargeant
Is having lots of money intrinsically immoral? Perhaps, but few would hold that to be as true as doing bad things with the said cash. We know from bitter experience that ordinary ethics don't apply to football; if they did, perhaps season tickets wouldn't cost more than a small island, perhaps players wouldn't be abused for not wanting to wear a poppy, and perhaps someone, just someone, would have let Liverpool know that taking to the field in Luis Suárez shirts days after he was found guilty of racial abuse wasn't the best of plans.
In an era in which European football is essentially an oligarchy, it may be silly to be upset at Roman Abramovich and Qatar Sports Investments for wanting to get in on the act. Indeed, maybe in sporting terms it's a good thing there are more filthy rich investors wanting to play with their very own football team: at least that makes things marginally more competitive at the top.
However, while we're being all ethical, we're well within our rights to criticise Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain for their spending over the last few seasons. It's not that they have lots of cash (though, it should be noted, the means by which such cash has been accrued is plausibly objectionable), it's that they've produced two of the most predictably boring teams on the continent.
Let's take this team-by-team. Domestically, there's no denying Chelsea's season was every bit as spectacular and amusing for the neutral as anything the supporters have seen at Stamford Bridge over the last few years. But the fun brought by José Mourinho's messy demise has been overshadowed by their painfully slow "revival" under Guus Hiddink. Their football has scarcely improved, either; it remains a sprawling mass of possession, starving for a creative spark. Draws interspersed with defeats has been replaced by draws interspersed with wins, their improvement quick enough to end the faint relegation dream, but slow enough to be totally without merit.
Though for that, we shouldn't be surprised: their best player in last season's title-winning campaign was Nemanja Matić, a defensive midfielder; their most exciting attacker was Eden Hazard, a man who has spent the season looking fractionally as good as Riyad Mahrez, and exactly half the player of Wilfried Zaha. Diego Costa may well be getting back to something like his best form, but he's a brutish thug of a striker, inelegant and unattractive on the eye. A walking, shouting personification of this Chelsea team, perhaps.
It wasn't always like this, but long gone are the glory days of Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. The days when Chelsea were not only unboring, but genuinely likable. The days before John Terry, the days before Frank Lampard. Maybe one day Chelsea will entertain us all again, but given that Abramovich seems set on bringing one of Massimiliano Allegri or Antonio Conte to Stamford Bridge for next season, don't count on it.
PSG's tale is slightly different, but the end result is the same. Only formed in 1970, the Parisians have effectively had to invent a history, in the same way a new nation has to write a glorious foundation myth to prevent everything coming apart at the seams. Their domestic rivalry against the more-storied Marseille is a case-in-point: Le Classique was generated little more than two decades ago, in a shameless attempt to draw attention to a fairly boring domestic division.
But such is PSG's dominance since they were taken over by Qatari investors; not even that derby is worth much any more. Their best and most exciting player remains Zlatan Ibrahimović, yet he is as artificial as the club itself. Granted, beneath the sponsored tweets and the quirky press releases, there's a supremely talented footballer and, probably, quite a funny man; but the cult of Ibra is as cynically manufactured as anything in modern football.
Everything around PSG, from the boardroom to the dressing room, reeks of new carpet, feels like air conditioning and looks like plexiglass signage. Neat, trendy, orderly, and utterly, utterly soulless. Just as Doha is a shiny 21st century city plonked in the middle of the Persian Gulf, PSG are a modern football club plonked in the middle of Paris, almost according to an Ikea manual. Except they've forgotten one thing, the one thing offering redemption: the football.
They've certainly got the components of an exciting team. Ibrahimović remains one of the most gifted technicians in football, Marco Verratti has the potential to become an excellent deep-lying playmaker, and David Luiz is always up for some fun, whether intended or otherwise. And yet despite their squad's constituent parts, they remain inexplicably dull. Most tragic of all has been the demise of Edinson Cavani, who, after an inexplicably disappointing few seasons, has been transformed from one of the world's best strikers to a perennial Arsenal target. It may well be the fault of coach Laurent Blanc, but things were scarcely any different under his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti.
And so to return to the original point, we shouldn't be upset because Chelsea and PSG have lots of money. But they've had ample opportunity to build two of the most exciting teams on the planet -- and in PSG's case, showed scant regard for the soft Financial Fair Play rules -- yet they've turned out two of the most tedious, vastly inferior to the serious Champions League contenders in both talent and entertainment value. That isn't to say things have always been like this -- I love Laurent Robert as much as the next man -- or that they always will be; but for now, you should treat their encounter on Tuesday with all the disdain it deserves.
Chelsea vs. PSG is what this sport is all about, by Andi Thomas
It would be so easy to be cynical. To look at the spectacle of Chelsea taking on Paris Saint-Germain and see not so much a game of football, more the strange and disquieting apogee of everything modern football has become. A glitzy, hollow wrestling match between two vast, continent-spanning superclubs; something cynical, contrived, and ultimately meaningless. And to write that wrestling match off with an airy wave of the hand: sure, I'll watch Zlatan, but I don't have to respect this charade.
But stop. Take a moment. Let the bile simmer down, let the black canker that passes for your heart slow its frantic beating. Strip away the noise and the nonsense, and the tales of PSG and Chelsea and their paths to this meeting, this moment in history, become simple, universal stories of human inspiration and endeavour. A love story, taking on a story of triumph against the odds.
Picture the scene. It's 2003, and we are inside an exceptionally expensive and well-appointed house somewhere in Russia. A young and newly minted Roman Abramovich has just completed his daily regime, yet he feels strangely ill at ease; yes, Scrooge McDucking through a swimming pool of roubles is fun, as well an excellent way to stay in shape, but he's wondering. Could there be something more out there?
He pauses at the end of a corridor. It's not one he uses often; it leads back to the working quarters of the house. But there's light spilling from one of the doors, and there's laughter. Intrigued, he strolls over and sticks his head round the door.
It's his security room. Banks of CCTV monitors show flickering black-and-white images of his house, the grounds, his garages. One, he notes, is trained on this very room; he feels oddly discomfited by the fact that he can see the back of his own head. But the room's occupants -- four very large, very dangerous men, men who know the names and shapes and access points of all 22 bones in the skull -- aren't looking at any of those screens; they're looking at a small colour television on which something exciting is happening. Well, they were looking at that. Now they are looking at him.
An awkward silence descends on the room. Eventually, realising that nobody is going to say anything unless he does, Abramovich asks: "What is this?"
Puzzled, they look to one another, unsure if one of the most powerful men in Russia is indulging himself in some kind of peculiar joke. Do they answer? Do they laugh? Do they turn on one another and fight to the death? Eventually one of them coughs and responds. "This is football, sir. Real Madrid against ... against Manchester United. The Champions League."
Abramovich stares at him for a moment, then looks back to the television. Then he takes an empty seat, and begins to watch. The game proceeds. He asks questions, and his security guards answer as best they can. The laughter returns, slowly, though there's a nervous edge there. Not that Abramovich noticed. He's too busy feeling the world explode around him. He's too busy gaping at wonders of which he'd never dreamed. He's too busy having fun.
Eventually, the game ends: United have won, 4-3, though they're out of the competition. Abramovich stands, and nods to himself. He smiles. "I want one," he says, and sweeps from the room.
Now, consider their opposition. And consider the circumstances by which PSG came to be owned by Qatar Sports Investment.
We've all felt that terror that comes before a crucial interview, right? The constant checking of everything, the futile attempts to hold back the mounting waves of self-doubt that threaten to entirely overwhelm. Have I overdressed? Underdressed? Does my jacket make me look like an estate agent? Or a serial killer? Do my shoes make me look like a war criminal? Have I got anything stuck in my teeth? Have any of my teeth fallen out? No, I'd have noticed. There'd be blood. There isn't any blood. Is there been any blood? No. Calm down. Get the answers straight. This is where I see myself in five years; not too cocky, but not too modest. These are my strengths; by amazing coincidence, they align perfectly with the job specifications. These are my weaknesses; cleverly disguised strengths, one and all. Hello, I'll say. Good morning, I'll say. I think I'm starting to sweat. I won't say that. I'll say, Pleasure, I'm ... oh God, what's my name? I've forgotten my name. No, it doesn't matter. Silly! They'll know my name! It'll be on the paper in front of them. Can I read upside down? Can I ... oh God. I've forgotten how to read.
And that was just for the position of Assistant Barista (Part-Time). In November 2010, Qatari crown prince Tamin bin Haman al-Thani went into a lunchtime meeting not with the manager of a coffee shop, but with Nicolas Sarkozy, then President of France; Michel Platini, then President of UEFA; and a representative of the investment fund who owned PSG at the time. We can only speculate as to how much inner turmoil the poor man must have been suffering.
And yet, it went well! He aced it! Within days, Michel Platini had voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, and shortly thereafter, Qatar took control of PSG. Obviously we have no way of checking this, but that has to be the most exceptional interview performance of all time. Some have even suggested that Sarkozy was so impressed that he subsequently approved the sale of all manner of French assets to Qatari investment vehicles, while it seems that Platini was so charmed that he didn't just vote for their World Cup bid, he also went home and told his family all about it. In 2015 his son, Laurent, clearly inspired by his father's glowing praise, applied for and got the job of legal advisor to Qatari Sport Investments.
In short, what we're going to see on Tuesday evening is the outcome of two heartwarming stories of simple humanity. A man who, as we all did, fell in love with football, saw all his dreams come true, and had absolutely no other reason to sink a lot of his money into a high-cost, high-turnover business in London. Against a man who, as we all have, went into a meeting with his future on the line, slammed that meeting past the goalkeeper and into the top corner, and had absolutely no other motive for doing so beyond wanting football to be the best damn football it can be.
Football is for everyone, from oligarch to crown prince and back again. Let's celebrate these tales of personal fulfillment and human achievement, before China ruins everything with all that nasty money.