Known for splashing the cash on superstars, Paris Saint-Germain is changing its strategy as a 16-year-old midfielder became the youngest player in the club’s history.
Warren Zaire-Emery impressed on tour in Japan last month, showing great composure and a smart reading of the game. PSG coach Christophe Galtier gave Zaire-Emery his French league debut against Clermont last week by sending him on for Italy international Marco Verratti in the 82nd minute. PSG won its league opener 5-0 and next plays Montpellier on Saturday.
“Warren was very serious and very good during the preseason. I had to give him his first minutes in the French league,” Galtier told Canal Plus television. “Our young players must feel involved.”
Zaire-Emery joined PSG’s youth academy in 2014 and won the Euros with the France under-17 team in June. He lifted the trophy with PSG teammate El Chadaille Bitshiabu, who was the club’s previous youngest-ever player.
A look at PSG’s bench against Clermont showed that Zaire-Emery’s presence was no anomaly. Of course, there were internationals like Keylor Navas and Leandro Paredes. But young French players like Nordi Mukiele, Arnaud Kalimuendo and Hugo Ekitike also sat next to Zaire-Emery. Mukiele replaced Sergio Ramos in the 67th while Ekitike came on for Pablo Sarabia in the 78th.
“My goal for the next few years is to only have Parisian players in our team,” PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi told local daily Le Parisien. “There’s so much talent in our region. The best players of our region deserve to play for PSG.”
The introduction of UEFA’s financial sustainability regulations in June could help explain PSG’s emphasis on local talent with European clubs facing financial and sporting sanctions if they fail to limit their spending on salaries.
European clubs can only have a maximum of 17 non-homegrown players in a squad limited to 25, which means that a minimum of eight homegrown players must “have been trained by their club or by another club in the same national association for at least three years between the age of 15 and 21.”
PSG has not done a good job of retaining local talent since the takeover by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011. The owner’s impatience to win the Champions League has deprived youngsters of the time to develop. By signing so many stars, PSG ended up blocking the path of its academy players.
PSG’s youth academy let go a handful of talented players. Kingsley Coman rejected PSG’s contract offer after playing just two league games during the 2013-14 season. At 18, Coman joined Juventus before moving to Bayern Munich in 2017. Coman scored the winning goal for Bayern against PSG in the 2020 Champions League final.
Mike Maignan didn’t get his chance at senior level for PSG after its youth academy and departed for Lille at age 20. Maignan won the Ligue 1 best goalkeeper award in 2019 and helped Lille win the league title in 2021. He showed that was no fluke by winning the Serie A best goalkeeper award and helping AC Milan win the title this year. As a France international, Maignan is also tipped to succeed Hugo Lloris.
Moussa Diaby and Christopher Nkunku are two players who got away as well. Diaby played 25 French league games for PSG during the 2018-19 season but still preferred to go to Bayer Leverkusen at 19. The winger was one of the best players in the Bundesliga last season with 13 goals and 12 assists.
PSG had no luck either with Nkunku, who played 22 French league games during the 2018-19 season before signing with Leipzig at age 21. Nkunku notched 20 goals and 13 assists in the Bundesliga last season to win the player of the season award.
Moussa Dembele, Matteo Guendouzi, Jonathan Ikone and Dan-Axel Zagadou are among other players who also left PSG’s youth academy.
There are only two homegrown players among the regular starters: Mbappe and Presnel Kimpembe. Mbappe is the example of what went wrong with PSG’s recruitment policy. PSG could have had Mbappe for free instead of paying a transfer fee of 180 million euros (now $186 million) to Monaco in 2017.
Born in Paris, Mbappe grew up in the Parisian suburbs and trained at Bondy and the Clairefontaine academy. PSG’s youth academy should have been the next logical step. But the 14-year-old Mbappe decided to join Monaco’s youth academy because he had better chances of getting playing time there than at PSG. Mbappe made his French league debut at 16 with Monaco.
PSG has sent a strong signal to youngsters by hiring Galtier and football adviser Luis Campos this summer. Campos is a renowned talent scout who helped Monaco and Lille win the league titles in 2017 and 2021, respectively, by building their squads. And Galtier has a good track record for developing youngsters. He helped Dutch center back Sven Botman and Canada striker Jonathan David improve at Lille and trusted France under-21 international Amine Gouiri to lead the attack for Nice last season.