Paris St.-Germain could not, in the end, have sped Tanguy Nianzou along much quicker than it did. He was captain of the club’s under-19 side when he was only 16. He was called up to the first team at 17, training alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and the rest, and soon made his debut. He even started a game in the Champions League.
And still, despite all those opportunities, he left. Nianzou had just turned 18 when, on July 1 last year, he was presented as a Bayern Munich player. P.S.G. did not even have the solace of being able to pocket a premium fee for a player it had nurtured. Nianzou’s contract was expiring. He walked out of his hometown club for nothing.
His departure stung. It stung sufficiently that Leonardo, P.S.G.’s sporting director, was citing it as a sort of parable as recently as February, long before the teams were drawn to meet in the Champions League quarterfinals this week.
“He played with us in the Champions League, and he has spent almost a year at Bayern without playing,” Leonardo said, undeterred by the fact that injuries — not a lack of quality — have limited Nianzou to 21 competitive minutes at Bayern. “The problem is thinking that there is paradise elsewhere. They say that P.S.G. lost a youngster, but sometimes I think it is not P.S.G. who loses, but the youngsters who leave.”
Leonardo’s sensitivity — and his club’s — to Nianzou’s departure is only partially explained by the teenager’s talent. It is also because Nianzou is not the only prodigy P.S.G. has allowed to slip through its fingers. He is not even the only one at Bayern.
Kingsley Coman became the youngest player to play for P.S.G. when he made his debut for the club in February 2013. He was the jewel of the team’s youth system, the standard-bearer for its future. A year later, he left on a free transfer. Last August, he scored the goal that won the Champions League for Bayern, against P.S.G.
There are plenty of others like them. There are 11 players left in this year’s Champions League who either grew up in Paris or spent some time in P.S.G.’s youth academy. Only three play for the reigning French champion: Colin Dagba, Presnel Kimpembe and Mbappé, though of course he had to be restored to his hometown at great expense.
Some of the others — Chelsea’s N’golo Kanté, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy, Borussia Dortmund’s Raphaël Guerreiro — grew up in the sprawling suburbs surrounding Paris but never caught the club’s attention. A few did: Like Coman and Nianzou, Dortmund’s Dan-Axel Zagadou and Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy spent time at P.S.G.’s academy before leaving to make their names elsewhere.
That would be galling enough; in reality, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Eleven more players born in P.S.G.’s backyard were eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16, including Christopher Nkunku, Ibrahima Konaté and Nordi Mukiele at RB Leipzig and Jules Koundé of Sevilla.
Dozens more can be found in Ligue 1 and across Europe, from Paul Pogba on down. P.S.G. is sitting on what is generally regarded as the richest gold mine of talent in world soccer, and yet it is allowing prospectors to spirit its treasure away by the truckload. Most of the time it receives nothing in return but the lingering, bitter taste of regret.
It is understandable that Leonardo, for one, should have tried to blame the speculators. Scouts for rival French clubs have long trawled the Paris suburbs looking for the next big thing. In recent years, they have been joined by representatives of German teams and, before Brexit, Premier League clubs hoping to cut out the middleman.
“The German clubs, mainly Bayern, Leipzig and Dortmund, attack young people and threaten French development,” Leonardo…