Leonardo has a long list for Père Noël this month. The Paris Saint-Germain sports director, who has already agreed a €40m deal for 20-year-old Brazilian winger Lucas Moura to arrive in January, has been linked with moves for David Beckham, Daniele de Rossi, Radamel Falcao, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ashley Cole for 2013.
The most significant remit in his job, though, is in selecting the coach. Just under 12 months ago, Leonardo, who was a crowd favourite in his one season as a PSG player in 1996-97, replaced Antoine Kombouare (with PSG top of the table) with Carlo Ancelotti. Consdering that PSG’s recent managers had included Laurent Fournier, Paul le Guen, and Guy Lacombe, the appointment of the illustrious Ancelotti was seen as taking the club to a new level. And while the Italian’s presence undoubtedly helped PSG recruit Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer, recent results have left him teetering on the brink.
It’s not so much that PSG have lost three of its last five league games and are now five points behind leaders Lyon, whom they play in ten days’ time. Nor is it anything to do with reports of a dressing-room split between French- and Italian-speakers. The concern with PSG under Ancelotti is that it lacks an identity. As So Foot described it: “He gives the impression of not knowing where he is going, switching captains, no continuity in tactics… the team has no leader… collectively the team dos not exist… The real boss here, it’s Leonardo, foisting players onto him.”
While PSG’s 2-1 win over Porto on Tuesday night ensured top spot in Group A and bought Ancelotti some time, it has not saved him. The feeling in the French capital is that, from Ancelotti not surviving the week, he may yet last the season, although defeat to Lyon could see a Chelsea-style ‘interim-manager’ appointed until the end of the season. Eric Gerets and Luis Fernandez have been mooted for this role.
There are three men that Qatari Sports Investments have put top of their list to replace Ancelotti, and it’s no surprise that Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are two of them. No matter how lovely the city or how interesting ‘the project’ may be, or how close Guardiola might be to the powers-that-be in Qatar where he played at the end of his career and for whom he was a World Cup 2022 bid ambassador, moving to Ligue 1 would represent a step down for the Iberian pair at this stage of their careers. This, however, does not apply to the third of the trio linked to PSG, Arsene Wenger.
In fact, of the three, the Arsenal coach’s candidacy is the most compelling. Le Parisien reported that Wenger actually met with representatives of PSG owner Sheik Hamad-Al-Thani at the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris last week, before PSG lost 2-1 to Nice, a story that the Wenger camp denied. But he does have a relationship with the owners: in the summer of 2011 Wenger was offered a job at PSG, either as sports director or coach, and he rejected it. “I have contacts with the shareholders at Paris because I work with them outside of football,” he told Alsace 20 TV at the time, referring to his lucrative work as a pundit for Al-Jazaeera (that’s a handy cover to have, so he can suggest any meeting with them is about something else). The website of Le Nouvel Observateur, a high-brow weekly magazine, rated the likelihood of Arsene Wenger arriving at PSG at a fairly high 68%.
And this is not the first time he has been on PSG’s radar. Former president Charles Villeneuve, ex-head of sports at TV station TF1 and a close friend of Wenger’s, tried to hire the Frenchman during his brief spell as PSG president in the second half of 2008. “When I was at PSG, yes, I wanted to bring him,” Villeneuve told Le 10 Sport last season, claiming that Wenger’s most recent Arsenal contract had an exit clause at the end of every season in which he does not win a trophy.
Wenger rightly prides himself on his previous record on leaving clubs: at Monaco he waited until his contract expired, and he did the same at J-League side Nagoya Grampus Eight, even keeping Arsenal waiting while the J-League season ran its course. But if Villeneuve is correct, and that exit clause does exist, there is surely a credible scenario in which Wenger could leave Arsenal at the end of this season—but only, you’d imagine, if he steered the club to a place in next season’s Champions League.
Then there is the moral issue of Wenger potentially working for a club that practices, to use his turn of phrase, ‘financial doping’. Only last month, Wenger complained that too many clubs are failing to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations. “A team like PSG can buy players because they have unlimited resources, but in the end, football suffers,” Wenger told France Football. “Europe, at the moment, it’s like the Titanic. But in the world of football, we carry on as if nothing matters. More than ever, we need to manage our clubs in a controlled way, because otherwise everyone suffers.”
That said, Wenger has shown he is not above working for Doha, as he does with Al-Jazeera. His €9m annual salary at Arsenal, reported by France Football to be the fourth-highest in the world, proves he knows his own value, though he did once claim to not have the time to spend any of it. “I’ve never really been concerned by money,” he once told So Foot. “In your daily life, when you work 12 hours a day, money doesn’t really interfere, you don’t have time to spend it.” Given their recent splurge, Wenger could always claim he will reduce PSG’s spending (it wouldn’t be difficult); he is such a talented sophist that it wouldn’t ruffle him to explain any apparent philosophical about-turn.
The next question, and it’s a rhetorical one, is whether Wenger would want to work under a sports director at any new club. It’s not just Ancelotti in a tricky situation right now: Leonardo is too, as any new coaching appointment looks like coming from the owners, rather than the Brazilian. If QSI can convince any of their top three to join them, Leonardo will surely be following Ancelotti through the door marked ‘Sortie’.