On Saturday evening, Kylian Mbappe almost certainly became the highest-paid footballer in the world. By signing a three-year contract at Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe struck a dagger into the ambitions of Real Madrid.
Ahead of PSG’s final Ligue 1 match of the season against Metz, Mbappe was paraded on the pitch alongside club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, much to the delight of a fanbase who had assumed this would be his last game for the club, with his contract due to expire this summer. By the 50-minute mark, he had scored a hat-trick, underlining exactly why two of the world’s richest clubs have been fighting tooth and nail for so long to secure his services.
For several years, Mbappe has been the apple of Madrid’s eye. It is no exaggeration to say he has been an obsession of the Real’s president Florentino Perez. Many of the club’s key decisions in recent times have been guided by their mission to secure Mbappe.
When head coach Carlo Ancelotti rejoined Real last summer, he was informed by Perez that players would be sold to accommodate Mbappe’s wages. This is one reason Madrid headed into the campaign without Sergio Ramos, who left for PSG on a free transfer, and Raphael Varane, who signed for Manchester United in a deal worth more than £40 million. In recent windows, the club has also sold Sergio Reguilon, Achraf Hakimi and Martin Odegaard for a total of around £90 million. Within the club, this became known as the “Mbappe fund” and, in reality, nobody at Madrid expected Ancelotti’s side to perform as successfully as they have over the past season, in which they won La Liga comfortably and might still lift the Champions League. Last summer, the club invested modestly, recruiting only David Alaba on a free transfer and signing the young French midfielder Eduardo Camavinga for £34 million.
Madrid’s fixation on Mbappe also had the knock-on effect of dictating the intensity of their attempts to sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund. Due to a clause in the Norwegian’s contract, Haaland was available to sign this summer for £51 million and sources close to the situation believed that the player’s preference earlier this year was to join Madrid.
Haaland, who has since confirmed he will join Manchester City, also had conversations and proposals from Bayern Munich, Barcelona and PSG. Liverpool, whose manager Jurgen Klopp used to work at Dortmund, also sought to hear the extent of the player’s demands, as they also did with Mbappe, but the numbers involved were unrealistic within Liverpool’s structure. In the case of Madrid, the club began to dream of recruiting Haaland in addition to Mbappe. The problem, however, was that the financial burden of doing both deals in the same summer was excessive and as such, they wanted Haaland to spend one more year in Germany before joining the Spanish club in the summer of 2023. This would also allow Madrid striker Karim Benzema, the favourite to win this year’s Ballon d’Or, one more year as the spearhead of the club’s attack alongside his French compatriot Mbappe.
Madrid’s interest was one of the prime motivations for City’s early attack because the English club knew that if Mbappe ultimately decided to remain at PSG, Madrid would bring forward their plan to sign Haaland by a year and tussle more vigorously for the player this summer. City acted with greater conviction, fitting the player’s desire for a transfer this summer, and Madrid’s eggs were now solely in the Mbappe basket. Now, however, they have neither player.
For Perez, this is a heavy sporting and political blow. Madrid hoped to announce the transfer as a feel-good boost before next weekend’s Champions League final against Liverpool and nobody can underestimate Mbappe’s quality — this is a 23-year-old who has already won the World Cup with France. He has scored 221 goals and recorded 124 assists in 330 career appearances for Monaco, PSG and France. His value on the field to Madrid was clear as the club seek to re-energise their squad in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era. For PSG, he will be at the heart of next season’s plans, with the club planning a rebuild that will see Angel Di Maria leave, likely followed by Idrissa Gueye and Mauro Icardi. Head coach Mauricio Pochettino remains vulnerable, too (Zinedine Zidane is a likely target) and there are major doubts over the future of sporting director Leonardo.
More broadly, however, this is a deal that immediately reignites the tensions underpinning modern football. This is the battle royale, the conflict between old money and new money, between legacy clubs and state-backed investment. And, to be blunt, European football has kicked off. On Twitter, Mbappe’s mother — who has been central to the negotiations — rebuked a French journalist who dared suggest her son had broken his word to Madrid. Elsewhere, La Liga president Javier Tebas described Al-Khelaifi as “dangerous” and described the deal as an “insult” to football.
In a staggering statement released on Saturday night, La Liga detailed its intention to file a complaint to UEFA about the deal.
Reports suggest Mbappe will earn €1 million per week at PSG although club sources insist he is earning less, around €40 million per year. They also insist — and perhaps this needs a pinch of salt — that this offer remained marginally less than the one Madrid had put on the table when all signing fees, wages and image rights considerations were taken into account. Earlier this year, Al-Khelaifi said: “I’m not going to hide it, we barely have any relationship with Real Madrid.”
This all began when Perez, one of the key architects of the European Super League, was thwarted by Al-Khelaifi when the breakaway movement launched in April 2021. And now, once again, the Qatar-owned club has come out on top…
PSG first thought they had Mbappe signed and sealed this time last year. At the end of last season, shortly before the European Championship, PSG were left with the impression that Mbappe intended to renew his contract. He was aware of interest from Real Madrid, as his contract had only a year remaining, but PSG were assured that he wished to stay in Paris.
In truth, some involved in the negotiations suspected that Mbappe’s ploy was to go to Euro 2020, shine bright, drive up his value and then sign enhanced terms at PSG. The problem, however, is that his tournament did not go to plan. Mbappe did not score a goal and missed the decisive penalty as France exited in the last-16 stage against Switzerland. Mbappe also had a public disagreement with French striker Olivier Giroud before the tournament had even started. When Mbappe returned to PSG, his name was booed by the club’s fans at the Parc des Princes before the opening match of the league season against Strasbourg. This was interpreted in some quarters as a response to his failures at Euro 2020 but also a public disapproval of his refusal to extend terms at PSG.
Mbappe became more distant and withdrawn from the club. He was unimpressed by criticism in the French media and well-placed sources felt it was the first crisis of confidence to truly grip one of the world’s outstanding players. At no point, however, did Mbappe’s professionalism waver in training and unlike Tottenham’s Harry Kane, for example, he did not miss any matches at the beginning of the next campaign, even as Madrid’s interest intensified.
Mbappe’s mood was lifted by the signing of his friend Achraf Hakimi from Inter Milan, while he was also impressed by the club’s moves for Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum and Nuno Mendes. In addition, PSG were beginning their first full season under Pochettino and there was the attraction of a strike force comprising Messi, Neymar and Mbappe. Indeed, when Messi joined the club in August 2021, Al-Khelaifi made explicitly clear to the Argentinian that he would be playing alongside Mbappe and that the club would not countenance a sale.
Despite this, speculation mounted that Madrid would make a late move in last summer’s window to buy Mbappe a year before his contract expired. By the middle of August, Mbappe had rejected two different contract offers from PSG and the club were becoming concerned. Mbappe is advised mostly by his parents. His mother has been at the heart of the contract negotiations that have made him the highest-paid player in the world, exceeding the £25 million net that Messi earns at PSG. Last summer, however, PSG had the impression that his mother was keener on a move to Madrid, while his father gave the impression of wishing to stay a little longer in Paris. Their son had, by then, decided on a move to Spain and his mother confirmed as much in an interview with Le Parisien a few months down the line.
The question, however, is the extent to which Madrid truly attempted to sign Mbappe last summer, while knowing there would be the opportunity to sign him at the end of his contract within 10 months. What we do know is that Madrid made an opening bid, worth €160 million, for Mbappe on the evening of August 24, a week before the window closed. PSG were initially baffled, as news of the bid leaked publicly before it had even made its way onto their email server. When the offer came, it was immediately rejected.
PSG were guided by the fact that they still owed Monaco €36 million for the final payment of the €180 million transfer they agreed to sign Mbappe from the club four years earlier. As such, the remaining pot of €124 million left them, in their view, short of the requisite funds to replace Mbappe, particularly with a week remaining in the transfer window. The club did, however, make some initial enquiries, exploring the possibility of deals for Haaland and Everton’s Richarlison. Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford had previously been linked but was not under serious consideration.
The next day, PSG’s sporting director Leonardo spoke out. “If he wants to leave, we are not going to hold him back, but it will be on our terms.” Al-Khelaifi said: “The club’s stance is very clear.”
Some confidantes of Al-Khelaifi believed the PSG president may have been prepared to do business had the offer reached €200 million and they felt he was daring the Spanish club to hit those numbers. In truth, senior personnel in Paris doubted that Madrid, ravaged by the financial impact of the pandemic and the cost of their stadium rebuild, genuinely had the funds at their disposal. They wondered if Madrid were publicly posturing and securing a rejection from PSG to give Mbappe the impression they had done everything in their power to sign the striker. This would then leave them perfectly positioned to sign Mbappe in the summer. Additionally, Perez required some positive press coverage after his failure to pull off the Super League, the club’s inability to win last season’s La Liga and the departure of several key players.
During the ensuing days, more speculation emerged. Reports emerged of a second proposal worth €180 million and a final third proposal worth €200 million. The Madrid press also claimed that the club had negotiators on the ground in Paris and that the club were attempting to speak to the Qatari government to grease the wheels of the transfer.
Yet PSG have always insisted to The Athletic that a second formal offer did not arrive, although it may have been touted during conversations between the clubs. As for the final €200 million approach, PSG deny it happened. The Athletic contacted Madrid, asking whether it was true they had made only one formal offer, and the club did not respond.
Both clubs entered the campaign with the Mbappe situation hanging over them. In the Spanish media, the more dramatic coverage became critical of Mbappe. For example, when, late in the transfer window, Mbappe scored twice against Reims and happily celebrated his goals, he was criticised for not acting up to force through the deal. In one gossipy TV show, El Chiringuito had super-imposed Mbappe’s face over a countdown clock to offer the impression of an imminent transfer.
When the window closed, Madrid-based newspaper AS published a graphic of Mbappe, wearing a PSG shirt, superimposed behind prison bars. PSG, meanwhile, had taken a risk by turning down at least €160 million and now faced losing Mbappe for nothing at the end of the season. Behind the scenes, PSG became more flexible. They initially wanted to tie Mbappe down to a new long-term contract but they realised his camp had no intention of agreeing to this. Various alternatives were laid out. PSG wanted a three-year extension, which would provide resale value, but were also open to a two-year extension if Mbappe insisted.
The club’s pitch was that, at 23, Mbappe is young enough to see through his dream of lifting the Champions League with PSG and then have his adventures elsewhere if he still maintained those ambitions. Additionally, PSG offered to make Mbappe the centrepiece of the club’s commercial operations, as the boy from Bondy, in the Parisian suburbs just seven miles from the centre of Paris. Mbappe had initially felt a little put out by the club’s lauding of Messi but the pair bonded over time and the club saw the need to give Mbappe extra attention and “some TLC”, according to sources.
Madrid initially suggested they would come back and sign Mbappe in January but this did not materialise. That possibility lessened when the two clubs were drawn against one another in the Champions League.
Mbappe scored home and away against Real for a 2-0 aggregate lead, before a 17-minute implosion from PSG and a Karim Benzema hat-trick turned the tables. PSG crashed out of the Champions League once more and despite easily winning Ligue 1, this had been an underwhelming season. Key players such as Neymar and Messi have each been the subject of boos by supporters. The club’s fanbase has also directed strong criticism towards the management of the club, arguing that it has too often prioritised commercial growth over the healthy performance of the men’s and women’s teams. For much of the campaign, even Mbappe’s PSG team-mates were in the dark over his plans. In the late autumn, one told The Athletic: “We do not have a clue.” In public interviews, players stayed deliberately vague but some at the club had started to lose hope.
Amid the turmoil, there had been an increasing expectation in Madrid that Mbappe’s signature would be a formality this summer. The Madrid press often reminded its readers that Mbappe had grown up with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo on his bedroom walls.
Real Madrid’s offer to Mbappe was fiercely competitive, including granting Mbappe large control over his image rights, and even earlier this week, those close to the negotiations were confident he had agreed terms with the club. Sources suggest that Mbappe had even gone as far as to arrange viewings of properties in Madrid last week.
When news broke of Mbappe’s decision to stay in Paris, French journalist Frederic Hermel wrote on Twitter: “In football, there are those who respect the given word. And then there is Mbappe…”
Mbappe’s mother responded: “Monsieur Hermel, when we don’t know, we keep quiet… an agreement was never given… best wishes to you.”
By Thursday this week, PSG were confident they finally had an agreement, although messages were still being exchanged internally into the early hours of Saturday morning and it was only late on Saturday afternoon that Mbappe finally applied his signature. Madrid must now look elsewhere for a high-profile summer transfer, and are eyeing Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, although Liverpool are also monitoring his situation. Meanwhile, Richarlison and Liverpool pair Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane may come into discussions as forward options. Both Liverpool players have a year to run on their contracts and the club remain in healthy dialogue for each situation. However, a deal for Mane, who has a property in Spain, will not be discussed until after the Champions League final.
For Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), which owns PSG, there is a broader appeal to Mbappe’s renewal. This is the World Cup year and Qatar is the host. Many observers believe it would be embarrassing to lose Mbappe just before the country’s big moment. PSG sources are at pains to deny this, arguing that the club only wants to retain the man they consider the best footballer on the planet.
Many continue to argue that PSG is a vanity or sport-washing project to cleanse human rights concerns associated with Qatar. In an interview with The Athletic last month, Al-Khelaifi countered that he considers PSG to be an “investment project”, arguing that the club was acquired for €70 million but its value has since risen into the billions.
These questions will not go away and the debate resurfaced on Saturday when Tebas, La Liga’s president, sent an inflammatory tweet: “What PSG are doing by renewing with Mbappe for a huge amount of money (who knows where and how it’ll be paid) after announcing losses of €700 million in the last few seasons and having a wage burden of €600 million is an INSULT to football. Al-Khelafi (sic) is as dangerous as the Super League.” PSG, it is understood, are furious with Tebas’ public criticism. When PSG rejected an offer for Mbappe last summer, Tebas tweeted: “Club-states are as dangerous to the football ecosystem as the Super League. We were critical of the Super League because it destroys European football and we are just as critical of PSG. COVID losses +€300 million; TV revenue in France -40 per cent; +€500 million in salaries? Untenable.”
Tebas, it should be said, is not alone in his concerns but to miss out on both Mbappe and Haaland is a blow for a competition that has already lost Ronaldo and Messi in recent years. Last summer, the transfer net spend of La Liga was 10 times lower than the Premier League.
On Saturday night, La Liga issued a statement before Mbappe had even confirmed his decision. It was a staggering statement.
La Liga said: “On Kylian Mbappe’s possible announcement to stay at PSG, La Liga wishes to state that this type of agreement attacks the economic stability of European football, putting at risk hundreds of thousands of jobs and the integrity of the sport, not only in European competitions, but also in domestic leagues.
“It is scandalous that a club like PSG, which last season reported losses of more than €220 million after accumulating losses of more than €700 million in prior seasons (while reporting sponsorship income at doubtful valuation), with a squad cost around €650 million for this season, can close such an agreement, while those clubs that could afford the hiring of the player without seeing their wage bill compromised, are left without able to sign him.”
The statement continued: “La Liga will file a complaint against PSG before UEFA, the French administrative court and fiscal authorities and European Union authorities to continue to defend the economic ecosystem of European football and its sustainability.”
The rise of state-backed clubs was one of the motivating factors behind the Super League for clubs such as the American-owned Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, who say they wish to run more sustainably, as well as Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. On the other side of this debate, clubs such as PSG and Manchester City (who, along with Chelsea, were the first to drop out of the Super League) would argue that their rivals are anti-competitive and that state-backed clubs should not be held responsible for the debts of a club such as Barcelona.
PSG’s refusal to join the competition, along with German clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, was one of the key reasons behind the Super League’s collapse. Madrid remain committed to the Super League, fighting in the courts, and they continue to be absent from UEFA and European Club Association (ECA) meetings. Al-Khelaifi, meanwhile, now runs the show at the ECA and has a senior UEFA executive committee position.
Earlier this season, Al-Khelaifi taunted the remaining Super League clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus.
He said: “I do not like to focus on fabulists and failures. Together, we defended the interests of European football for everyone. We relied on the resolve and strength of UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who stood up to the midnight coup. He said, ‘We will win’, and we did. While the three rebel clubs waste energies, twist narratives and continue to shout at the sky, the rest of us are moving forward.”
The pettiness between the two clubs reached new levels in February when PSG and Madrid met in the first leg of the Champions League in Paris. Perez and Al-Khelaifi met in person for the first time since the Super League. PSG hosted a lunch for club executives and UEFA delegates at the three-Michelin-star restaurant Pavillon Ledoyen.
Perez and Al-Khelaifi had originally found it difficult to compromise on a precise time for the lunch, with one party suggesting 1pm and the other 1.30pm. Eventually, the pair agreed on a 1.15pm meet-up time. Perez arrived late, which was underlined by his host.
As the lunch played out, the iciness between the two clubs became evident. Al-Khelaifi told Perez he had warned him a Super League would not succeed and then the Qatari businessman laid out what he believes to be his differing vision for football. “There were no fights,” one source insisted, “but it was tense.”
Another explains: “The UEFA delegates watched on, looked down, bewildered, and twiddled their thumbs.”
Three weeks later, Perez was the man on the up when his team knocked PSG out of the Champions League. Now, however, Al-Khelaifi has landed yet another a right hook to Perez’s ambitions.
(Top photo: Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)
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