On Saturday, the entire Parc des Princes crowd (attendance: 45,000) rose suddenly with a collective scream of excitement. The fans were fixated on a Paris Saint-Germain player who'd grabbed their attention -- something that didn't happen too much during the 2-1 win over Toulouse in which, once again, the Ligue 1 champions were average.
The noise increased as this PSG player continued an impressive run, dribbling beyond several tackles. Was it Lionel Messi? Neymar? Kylian Mbappe? No. The guy responsible for this thrilling moment was 16-year-old midfielder Warren Zaire-Emery.
On the right wing close to the touchline, he ran the whole length of the pitch, escaping two slide tackles before squaring the ball on the edge of the box to Messi, who didn't do much with it. A few days before the Toulouse game, Zaire-Emery made history by becoming the youngest scorer in PSG history at 16 years and 331 days old, converting against Montpellier (3-1) to seal the win for his team -- not long after becoming the youngest PSG player to play for the first team. He had come on 20 minutes earlier and, a bit like on Saturday, made a great run down the right flank before entering the box. Instead of passing the ball to Messi, he smashed an unstoppable shot across goal.
The France U19 international is a prodigy. Born in March 2006, the kid from Paris is a product of the club's academy and arguably the leader of the next golden generation of PSG players. He is the A-list star of the Gen-Z set.
One story sums WZE up very well. After Vitinha arrived from Porto in the summer and had settled in following a few training sessions, he said to his agent Jorge Mendes, who also represents Zaire-Emery: "Who is this kid that you got in your team? He is an alien!" Vitinha was so impressed by the young box-to-box midfielder, just like anyone else who's played with him, played against him or even just watched him play.
Veteran midfielder Marco Verratti could not believe what he saw when his young teammate, aged just 15, joined the first team for his first training session with them. Since that day, Zaire-Emery has beaten record after record to the point that PSG decided not to recruit a new midfielder in January so they could give him more game time.
Like Zaire-Emery, PSG are currently cultivating that next golden generation. When Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) purchased the club in the summer of 2011, one of their missions was to produce the next Messi from within the club instead of spending millions to acquire that talent. They did still spend heavily to bring Messi, Neymar and Mbappe to the club, but their academy has also become one of the best in Europe and this next class of graduates projects to be special.
The other notable "phenom" in the PSG squad is El Chadaille Bitshiabu. He is slightly older at 17, but is just as precocious and impressive as Zaire-Emery. The central defender was already 6-foot-2 at 12 years old and he has continued to develop: now 6-foot-5, he's blessed with great awareness and a keen left foot when it comes to building attacks from the back. He'd also broken a few club records before Zaire-Emery came along to one-up his teammate.
Bitshiabu is now getting more and more game time with the first team. He came on at the weekend after 24 minutes, when Renato Sanches got injured against Toulouse. He started against Strasbourg at the end of December in Ligue 1, playing 79 minutes in PSG's 2-1 win.
When Mauricio Pochettino arrived at the club in January 2021 and watched the reserve team train, Bitshiabu was the one who caught his eye. He gave him his first training sessions with the first team and his debut as well, which came in the Coupe de la France at just 16 years and 213 days old. He makes mistakes, of course, as you'd expect at his age -- just like like Zaire-Emery, whose poor pass led to Reims' equaliser 10 days ago -- but he is learning very quickly and could be a fully enter the centre-back rotation next season alongside Marquinhos, Milan Skriniar (who is arriving this summer from Inter Milan) and Presnel Kimpembe.
In addition to those two, PSG have several other talented academy players breaking through.
Attacking midfielder Ismael Gharbi, 18, and striker Ilyes Housni, 17, have also made their first-team debuts this season, showing a lot of promise. Midfielder Ethan Mbappe (16 and brother of Kylian), attacking midfielder Noha Lemina (17 and brother of former Juventus/Southampton player Mario) and right-back Yoram Zague (16) are the next ones in line for more game time at the senior level.
All were born or grew up in Paris; all are training with the first team regularly and are getting picked in matchday squads, as we saw with Gharbi and Housni; all are shining with France's youth teams and for Gharbi the Spain youth team also, as he can represent both. Of course, the gap between the reserve team or U19 team and the PSG first team is huge, but there is all-round belief within the club that this is a very special group.
Of course, PSG have had super talented groups of young players over the years -- most recently with the likes of midfielder Adrien Rabiot, wingers Kingsley Coman and Moussa Diaby, goalkeeper Mike Maignan and playmaker Christopher Nkunku, just to name a few. And yet, most of them left as free agents or for small transfer fees because they didn't feel valued enough and didn't play enough either. Will the same happen here? While it's certainly a possibility, it does feel a bit different this time and the club is pushing the narrative of trusting the young players and giving them regular opportunities. Sporting director Luis Campos reinforced this again on Sunday.
"Of course, we will give time to our young players," said Campos. "The manager Christophe Galtier understands this is our project. We have made room in our squad to make space for the youngsters instead of losing them to other top European clubs."
All of these players have signed long-term deals at the club until 2024 (Bitshiabu, Mbappe, Zague), 2025 (Gharbi, Zaire-Emery) and 2026 (Housni) and their rate of development is very encouraging. However, there is still a long way to go.
Some of them will succeed at the Parc des Princes, while some might not. Time will tell, though they're certainly dreaming about it.