Perhaps this can all be traced back to Le Giuse? The Italian restaurant owned by Marco Verratti, located on the famous Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore near the Champs-Elysees, is where Paris Saint-Germain‘s season changed for the better.
On Feb. 25, when the Italy international invited all of his teammates to his venue for lunch, things were not good. PSG had lost their Champions League round-of-16 first leg 2-1 at Borussia Dortmund, where coach Thomas Tuchel’s tactics and his players’ attitudes were all wrong. Two days later, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi organised a joint birthday party and some of the footage posted on social media — including some of the players dancing bare-chested — upset a lot of fans and people at the club. Before the defeat in Germany, they had drawn against Amiens 4-4 and, after they got back, they were lucky to beat Bordeaux 4-3 at the Parc des Princes. Crisis was in the air.
The players got together at Veratti’s restaurant to show unity, but also to create unity. This group of players needed a change, something that would spur them on and lead them forward. The word out of that meeting is that it made them a team, gave them a collective strength.
That day, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, who were sat next to each other in their Christian Dior hoodies (orange for the Frenchman, yellow for the Brazilian), realised they had to open up and get closer to their teammates because something special was about to happen. The players believed they were going to turn around the tie against Dortmund. And they did.
That 2-0 win behind closed doors, inspired by Neymar and celebrated by 4,000 PSG ultras outside the Parc des Princes, sent them to Lisbon. But to do what exactly?
During European football’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, with players in lockdown all around the world — some in France, some in Germany, some in Brazil — they made a pact: They would give everything to go as far as possible in the Champions League. They knew how good each of them were individually, but it was time to become a proper team, to fight for each other and be focused, disciplined, professional. It was a pledge.
It was May and, with the Ligue 1 title already secured by default after the French season was cancelled, the only objective on each PSG player’s mind was the Champions League. If they wanted to go all the way and lift the Holy Grail, they needed unity and solidarity. You don’t win the Champions League unless you are a proper team and behave like it.
Tuchel witnessed it all from afar. The PSG manager was not at Le Giuse in February. He is not in the players’ WhatsApp group. He had little communication with his men during lockdown. But he trusted the process. He knew something was happening. Once the squad returned for training in June, Tuchel could see how exceptional the atmosphere had become between all the players, on and off the pitch. They were ready to go to war in Lisbon. Ready to go all the way.
Before Tuesday’s semifinal, in the home dressing room of the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, the PSG players reminded each other of their promise. Against RB Leipzig, they played more like a cohesive unit than ever before, and sealed a convincing 3-0 win. They had great togetherness, great composure. If the late comeback to win 2-1 against Atalanta in the quarterfinal was all about spirit, reaching the final was about a collective performance of the highest level.
Postmatch, that same dressing room was humming. In one corner, best buddies Mbappe and Neymar were singing: “We are, we are, we are in the final!” Elsewhere, Ander Herrera was banging on one of the kit boxes like a drum and shouting. For his first season at the club, the Spaniard has made a huge impact. Not so much on the pitch, although his work ethic is contagious, but more importantly off it. He got this squad together. He unified the South American and European clans. He is PSG’s discreet leader.
Nasser Al Khelaifi, the club’s president, gave Herrera a big hug in the dressing room. Then, an ever bigger hug for Neymar. The Brazilian is at the heart of the PSG project, more than anyone else in the squad, and to see how much he was celebrating reaching the Champions League final proved how much it meant to him.
As the players arrived back at their hotel, the Myriad, the Paris No. 10 was carrying a big speaker blasting out some Brazilian music. Everybody was behind him dancing and singing. This is Neymar’s team. If Herrera is the discreet leader, Neymar is the figurehead. When he won the Champions League in 2015 with Barcelona, the triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar ruled Europe, but it was still Messi’s team, Messi’s title and Messi’s Ballon d’Or. This time it will be different: If victory comes on Sunday, it will be Neymar’s trophy, even if there’s no chance of a Ballon d’Or to go with it.
Tuesday’s party continued in the rooms and corridor of the hotel, but Neymar, like Tuchel, warned his teammates almost as soon as the RB Leipzig match was over: There is one more step to go. And he’s right. PSG have not gone this far, and invested so many millions, to be runners-up. Reaching the final cannot be an end in itself.
PSG have come a long way since Feb. 25 and the lunch at Le Giuse. They are almost there, where they promised each other they would be on Aug. 23: Standing alone at the top of Europe.