PSG tried to break soccer by signing Neymar and Mbappe. The only thing they broke was themselves

It sure seemed like everything changed in August 2017, didn’t it?

Before then, there was an established food chain in soccer’s transfer market: Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top, and then everyone else. Those two clubs were as rich as anyone and for the most part, it seemed like it was every elite soccer player’s goal to end up in the Spanish capital or Catalonia. Once you got there, you only left when you weren’t needed anymore.

In this century, the only star who left either club in his prime while still a key starter was Luis Figo…and he moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Other than that transaction, the two Spanish giants paid the record transfer fees; they never received them.

That is, until two summers ago, when Paris Saint-Germain triggered Neymar’s release clause and bought the Brazilian superstar for $253.8 million. It was more than double the previous record — paid by Manchester United to Juventus for Paul Pogba the previous summer — but more importantly, it seemed like it would reset the world soccer hierarchy.

At 25, Neymar was the presumptive Next Best Player in the World to his teammate Lionel Messi, and he left Barcelona to spend his prime playing for the team against which he’d just masterminded a 4-0 comeback in the Champions League. This wasn’t Kevin Durant going to the Golden State Warriors; it was Stephen Curry signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In this century, the only star who left either club in his prime while still a key starter was Luis Figo…and he moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Other than that transaction, the two Spanish giants paid the record transfer fees; they never received them.

That is, until two summers ago, when Paris Saint-Germain triggered Neymar’s release clause and bought the Brazilian superstar for $253.8 million. It was more than double the previous record — paid by Manchester United to Juventus for Paul Pogba the previous summer — but more importantly, it seemed like it would reset the world soccer hierarchy.

At 25, Neymar was the presumptive Next Best Player in the World to his teammate Lionel Messi, and he left Barcelona to spend his prime playing for the team against which he’d just masterminded a 4-0 comeback in the Champions League. This wasn’t Kevin Durant going to the Golden State Warriors; it was Stephen Curry signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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In case Neymar wasn’t enough, PSG also went out and signed Kylian Mbappe for the second-highest transfer fee ever, $203m, that same summer. At the time, Mbappe was just 19 and could claim the same number of Ligue 1 starts as years spent on this earth. If the move for Neymar was a massive exclamation point written in the sky for everyone to see, the Mbappe transfer was a bolt of lightning shot out of that same cloud.

With perhaps the two best under-30 soccer players on the planet suddenly both on a team that was not Real Madrid or Barcelona, the weather would never be the same. The prices teams pay for world-class players would forever be distorted, the transfer market would be ruined, and if the sport wasn’t already tilted in favor of the mega-rich, the moves for Neymar and Mbappe ensured the gap would continue to increase and PSG would ascend to be the dominant club in Europe.

Except two years later, not much has changed, PSG might be ready to move on from Neymar, only one player has sold for north of $80m (Eden Hazard to Real Madrid this summer), directors of football and transfer committees have invested more time and money in scouting than transfer fees, and the fundamentals of the sport still look a lot like they used to.

The only thing that looks different is PSG.

The texture of the European soccer season allows teams to define success in all kinds of ways. Perhaps avoiding relegation is your goal, or maybe you want to qualify for the Europa League. Win a domestic cup? That’s an option, too. Make a run at a Champions League place, try to win the league or even take a shot at the European Cup. There’s a wide variety of potential objectives to pin to your vision board before Matchday 1.

However, since the Qataris took over the club back in 2011, PSG have really only had one goal. Starting in 2012, they’ve won every Ligue 1 title except for that in the year before Neymar and Mbappe arrived. Domestic trophies have become a fait accompli. As club chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi told The New York Times in 2016, “Our aim is to make the club an institution respected around the world. If we are going to make that happen, we have to win the Champions League.”

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