And still he left. Nianzou had just turned 18 when, on July 1 last year, he was presented as a Bayern Munich player. PSGdid noteven havethe solace of being able to pocket a premium fee for a player ithad nurtured.
Nianzou walked out of his hometown clubfor nothing.
“He played withus in the Champions League, andhehasspent almost a year at Bayern without playing,” PSG’s sporting director Leonardo Nascimento de Araujosaid,undeterredby thefactthat injuries— not a lackof quality —have limited Nianzouto 21 competitive minutes at Bayern. “The problem is thinking that there is paradise elsewhere.
They say thatPSGlost a youngster,but sometimesIthink it is notPSGwholoses,butthe youngsterswholeave.”
Leonardo’s sensitivity — and his club’s — to Nianzou’s departure is only partially explainedby theteenager’s talent. It is also because Nianzou is nottheonly prodigy PSG has allowed to slip through itsfingers.
Kingsley Coman became the youngest player to play for PSG when he made his debut in February 2013. Hewasthe jewel of theteam’s youthsystem,the standard-bearer for its future. A year later, he left on a free transfer. Last August, he scored the goalthat won the Champions League for Bayern, againstPSG. There are plenty of others like them. There are11 playersleft in this year’s ChampionsLeague who either grew up in Paris or spent some time in PSG’s youth academy. Only three play for the reigning French champion: Colin Dagba,PresnelKimpembe andMbappé, thoughof coursehehadtobe restoredto hishometown at greatexpense.
Thatwouldbe galling enough; in reality, it is justthetip of the iceberg. Eleven more players born in PSG’s backyard were eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16, including Christopher Nkunku,Ibrahima Konaté and Nordi Mukiele at RB Leipzig andJulesKoundéof Sevilla. Dozens more can be found in Ligue 1 and across Europe, from PaulPogba on down. PSG is sitting on what is generally regarded asthe richest gold mineof talent in world football, and yet it is allowing prospectors to spirit its treasure away by the truckload. Mostof the time it receives nothing in return but the lingering, bitter taste of regret.
It is understandable t h a t Leonardo, f o r o n e , should have triedtoblame the speculators. Scouts for rival French clubs have long trawled the Paris suburbs looking for the nextbig thing. In recent years, they havebeen joinedby representatives of German teams and, before Brexit, Premier Leagueclubshoping tocutout the middleman.
“The German clubs, mainly Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund, attack young people and threaten French development,” Leonardo toldLeParisien this year. “They call parents,friends,family, the player himself, even with players under the age of 16. They turn their heads. Perhaps the rules should be changedto protecttheFrenchteams.”
The problem,though, is not one that can be legislated away. Given the number of playersemerging from Paris, it is unavoidablethatPSGshould misssome of them, as it did with Kante and Mahrez. What should concern Leonardo more is that — as Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s technical director, said—so many young players “seebetter permeability and greater potential for developing” away from PSG.
A decade ago, when Qatar Sports Investmentsfirst invested in theFrench capital’sflagship club, it vowed notsimply to acquire success; Nasser alKhelaifi,the club’s president, spoke of wanting to find the nextLionelMessi, rather than buy the original. The owners puttheir money wheretheir mouth was, investing tensof millionsof dollars on theclub’s youthsystem.
But as PSG has found in its pursuitof the ChampionsLeague trophy,the formula for success is rarely quitethatsimple. The club’s academy is regularly assessed as one of the best in France. In many ways,the amountof players ithas producedfor other teams is proof of its eye for talent and the quality of its coaching.
All of that is irrelevant,though, if the leap from the academy to playing alongsideNeymar andMbappé istoo great. It isherethatPSGhasfailed.
What the stories of Coman and Nianzou andso many of theothershave in common is thatthey made ittoPSG, and allthe way through the academy, only tofindtheir pathblocked atthelast step: by a coach whose job was to focus on today; by an expensively acquired superstar brought in towin trophies; by a club moving too quickly to wait for youngsterstolearn their trade.