Kylian Mbappé’s transfer saga, where he played two of Europe’s most prominent clubs off each other, has ended with PSG retaining the French superstar. Rare is the player who passes up a contract with Real Madrid, but even rarer is the player who gains serious control over mechanisms usually left to the backrooms.
Before the Summer of ’22, there was the Summer of ’21. The memories are still fresh. A most perfect marriage, a union of over two decades, fell apart publicly. The two leading suitors, the only likely ones, had seen the smoke signals from far and begun courting the troubled damsel. Lionel Messi’s signature, thus, came down to an arm-wrestle between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Fortunately for those from the blue side of Manchester, the football team bankrolled by the UAE is streamlined enough to value a footballer’s long-term place in their squad over reputation.
Paris Saint Germain and Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), not so much. Before making the lunge for Messi, they had already brought in Sergio Ramos and Gianluigi Donnarumma that summer. Ramos was ageing and turning increasingly injury-prone, and PSG already had a stalwart in Keylor Navas in goal. They didn’t really need either but couldn’t resist the urge to sign a multiple Champions League-winning captain and Europe’s hottest young goalkeeper.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Mauricio Pochettino in that situation? In his first pre-season with PSG, itching to mould a team, but left with no agency over the squad his club were arranging. While some signings from that window, like Achraf Hakimi, Nuno Mendes, and Georgino Wijnaldum, made sense, one wonders how much Pochettino was consulted during the recruitment process. In an already attack-heavy team, including Mbappe, Neymar, and Angel di Maria, Pochettino now had to fit Messi. His new full-backs were also attack-minded, leaving precious little structure to hold the defence together.
On the flip side, technical genius in a financially imbalanced league can count for a lot. PSG motored through most of their season without ever looking like a cohesive unit. Messi wasn’t banging in the goals, but he was dishing some delicious passes out on a plate for the overlapping full-backs and wingers to run into. Even their Champions’ League season began well, with a 2-0 group stage win over the well-oiled machine of Manchester City. Maybe QSI were on to something. Perhaps there was some magic to be harnessed from throwing gold-plated, biased dice into a spinning roulette.
With thirty minutes to go in their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid, PSG were leading 2-0 and looking good for the quarter-finals. The Bernabeau crowd was caught in an awkward space between groaning about Madrid and applauding Mbappe. The tension in this tie extended to the boardrooms. Mbappe’s contract was running out in the summer, and Real Madrid wanted him more than they have wanted anyone in a long time. They even bid $190 million in the winter transfer window but got stonewalled. Mbappe played along with the flirting, making public his admiration for the team and a wish to play there. In February, at the point of this tie, it looked certain that he would be playing the royal white come next autumn.
PSG then ran into a blitzkrieg called Benzemadrid22 in peak form. Madrid found a new gear, Karim Benzema scored a hat-trick in seventeen frenzied minutes, and the tie finished 3-2. At the final whistle, Mbappe looked around the Bernabeau stands wistfully. Had Madrid’s winter bid been accepted, he could’ve been celebrating in white that evening.
Such an implosion is conducive to banter and memes. Amongst the many pictures that swam through social media timelines over the next couple of days, the funniest came from the 51st minute of the match. Madrid were stepping on the gas, upping the ante, and PSG were settling into a mid-to-low block to hold them out. Except, only seven of them were actively engaged in marking players or blocking passing lanes. Kylian, Ney, and Lio were chilling out, stood within ten yards of each other, at the opposite end of the pitch. Unfettered, in their lane, moisturised, glowing. That’s the problem with biased die in a roulette — you are much more likely to land the wrong combination.
At full time, the fans were boisterous but reserved generous applause for Mbappe. It felt like the last enthusiastic goodbye before a move back home. A new life in the capital of European football awaited. They still couldn’t believe that PSG refused $190 million and were about to lose him for free. It seemed bizarre then.
Unlike their football team, PSG’s men in suits handled the tempo of the situation well. First, they stretched out the negotiations with Mbappe, aware that they could outbid anything Madrid offer Mbappe. Then, as the season rolled into its last lap, they built him the offer he couldn’t refuse. Madrid could not keep up with the coffers of an investment company bankrolled by an oil-rich nation. Their final offer to Mbappe had a $25 million annual salary, $100 million as a signing bonus, and full ownership of his image rights. PSG read it, giggled, and doubled the base salary in their offer. They also added clauses that gave Mbappe unprecedented influence in critical recruitments at the club.
Mbappe was quick to deny that he had run towards the green. After the official announcement, he told reporters that salary and other bonuses were among the last things discussed in his meeting with the PSG executives. His sincere interest lay in the “project” they were building and was unaware of the other bonuses they had bestowed on him.
Pinch of salt etc. It is improbable that a club of PSG’s size ran through a negotiation of this significance without discussing every letter of the fine print. Secondly, the sporting project argument also needs to be examined. Building a good team should be the first call of duty in such a situation. That they have retained a player, while giving him overarching influence, without deciding on a new manager and Sporting Director — Pochettino and Leonardo are leaving — says everything you need to know about their emphasis on team-building. PSG haven’t resembled anything like a team for years. Under Thomas Tuchel, they briefly morphed into something of a unit, but couldn’t hold long enough.
Did Mbappe, then, sign for the money? Of course, he did. For starters, there is nothing wrong in choosing the more lucrative offer for exchange of your services. This stigma attached to looking after oneself couldn’t hit the bin sooner. Kylian Mbappé is a genius, a World Cup winner, and one of the two footballers most likely to follow Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as this generation’s gold standard. Carl Anka, the Athletic UK journalist, put it well when he said: “When you have dominated a World Cup at his age, the rules for your career are completely different to everyone else.”
But even so, the deal PSG gave him was not just some extra zeros. At clubs like this, money rarely comes without a convoy. Mbappé spent a lot of time this season with Endeavor, a US-based talent agency, to create a media company similar to the one owned by LeBron James. Now, consider the incoming World Cup in Qatar. PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a sovereign wealth fund bankrolled by the Qatar government. As the face of their most glamorous football club, Mbappé’s face will be on billboards, pamphlets, holograms, etc. Will he be called as a guest of honour at the opening ceremony? Are you willing to bet against it? If not in person, you can expect a giant digital hoarding of him. Qatar will not miss the opportunity to parade their favourite footballer with the world watching. Can you imagine what it does for Brand Mbappé? This is what his new contract at PSG gets him. Real Madrid could never have offered something of this scale.
This also feels like a significant moment in football. Beyond this naked dance of money and power, there is always a tangible impact of such a seismic event. PSG’s football team will feel the first tremors. Mbappé can sing a sweet tune all he wants, but it is unlikely that their training ground at Camp des Loges functions like a healthy, high-performance centre in the knowledge that one of them has unconditional blessings from the owners. PSG will benefit from his technical ability, but it is unlikely to come without a cost to team dynamics. If PSG are able to win the Champions League on the back of technical genius and a stitched-together star cast, a lot of tables inside football’s accepted wisdom will be flipped. It is a genuine possibility. But for now, they look far from it, and we can keep taking some comic relief from their haphazard recruitment.
The details of Mbappé’s new deal will also impact how footballers view contract negotiations hereon. PSG’s own players would have be encouraged. When someone raises the ceiling by this magnitude, they take the floor along. Barcelona felt the trickle-down effect of Messi’s exorbitant salaries when some of their bench-warmers demanded, and had to be granted, higher wages than Kevin de Bruyne and Mohammed Salah. Talented footballers outside their premises will also have one eye on PSG’s wage habits. Like Neymar’s $220 million transfer fee in 2017, this deal will, without doubt, shift the market. Last week, Salah told a press conference that he is staying at Liverpool next season. It is the final year of his current contract. Would you blame him for seeing out the season while playing for an elite team, and then letting the wealthiest clubs in Europe do his bidding? Imagine what it does for a player. In lieu of a transfer fee to their previous club, they can demand a significant portion of that money as a signing bonus.
It feels important to recall that all this is happening against a backdrop of a botched European Super League attempt. That there are only a handful of teams where the best players can go reaffirms the idea that a select group controls European football. For the kind of wages he demands, Erling Håland was only ever going to go to PSG, Madrid, or Manchester City. Mbappé, ditto. Give it a decade, and Newcastle United will sit on these tables. Oil is the most potent political tool globally, and football is now part of its appeal. Want a sample? Emmanuel Macron, the French president, personally requested Kylian Mbappé to stay in Paris. Macron is a Marseille fan and would’ve enjoyed seeing their cross-town rivals lose their most significant asset. Mbappé staying put positively impacts the PSG project, which gets Qatar to be invested for longer, which, in turn, positively impacts France.
There is understandable anger in Madrid over Mbappé pulling away after a season of sustained flirting. Florentino Perez was convinced he had landed his target. The confidence within Madrid paved the way for Erling Håland’s seamless move to Manchester City. To be left high and dry by a very public adversary must sting. Curiously, even La Liga were enraged. Javier Tebas, the president, released a statement lamenting an environment where a club that has reported losses nearing a billion dollars over five years is allowed to offer a contract of this scale. While the concern is valid, it reeks of hypocrisy. Tebas just wants Spain to reap the benefits of Mbappé’s magnetism instead of France. And even among the Spanish clubs, only Real Madrid could afford to make a competitive offer. Therein lies the more significant issue.
La Liga and Madrid are part of the power-imbalance problem plaguing football. They are angry because a golden cow did not cross over to their pastures. There is absolutely no overlap between their interests and that of the sport. President Florentino Pérez is still bullish about creating an exclusive competition. He wants the best players in his team. La Liga and Real Madrid claiming a morally higher ground made for good comedy in an uneasy situation.
It is telling that UEFA have no power in this situation. They are basically just tournament organisers now, having failed in every task as a sport’s regulatory body across its most dominant continent. Against influential owners, Financial Fair Play (FFP) policies are about as practical as spoons at a pizzeria. The Super League could not reach escape velocity, but it was conceived and designed under UEFA’s watch. Execution is merely the final stage of a process. That the idea existed without resistance is the point at which football crosses a line. It would be mildly sad if Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s president, was also not the chairman of the European Club Association (ECA) and in charge of representing the interests of European football clubs. At this point, the picture is so absurd it is hilarious.
Kylian Mbappé’s new contract at Paris Saint Germain is much more than a series of numbers on a white A4 sheet. It is the latest confirmation that the sport is flourishing in its new residence. Outrage is futile. Either way, we would have forgotten about it by the Summer of ’23. There is a drinking game hidden somewhere within PSG’s transfer activity.