Kylian Mbappe: Any ‘normal’ club would have accepted Real Madrid’s £171m offer – but PSG are redefining normal
France’s superstar striker can leave for nothing next summer but that matters little to a club of PSG’s wealth and ambition
Mbappe will stay at PSG this season after the club rejected Real Madrid’s interest (Photo: Getty)
If Paris Saint-Germain’s owners fear anything, it is subservience. At its most basic level, state ownership of a usually private or public enterprise is an attempt to seize irrevocable control: controlling media coverage of your state, controlling the destiny of title races, controlling the future of football itself. As soon as control is ceded, subservience seeps into the cracks. Effective sportswashing, for that is what we are describing here, depends on success. But only because success brings with it control.
On deadline day, Real Madrid reportedly failed with a €200m (£171m) bid for Kylian Mbappe, having already seen offers of €160m (£137m) and €170m (£145m) plus add-ons rejected. Were this any normal club, perhaps even any other club, that offer would surely have been enough. Mbappe is out of contract at the end of this season and PSG’s sporting director Leonardo openly admits that he wanted to leave. Mbappe can sign a pre-contract agreement with another club in four months’ time.
Let’s be generous for a moment. There are sporting reasons to keep Mbappe for another year. With Barcelona broken, English clubs likely to be distracted by a domestic title bunfight and doubt about Bayern Munich peaking in their first season under Julian Nagelsmann, this represents PSG’s best chance to win the Champions League. You can doubt the sporting merit of that success given their vast spending, but Qatar has proven itself incredibly adept at ignoring criticism. PSG’s owners consider European success as their destiny; holding the trophy as the 2022 World Cup begins would be considered perfect PR.
And Mbappe has often been the glue that sticks PSG’s front three together; that persists even after the signing of Lionel Messi. Neymar has never played more than 20 matches in a Ligue 1 season and has missed more than 25 per cent of PSG’s Champions League games since arriving in France. Conversely, Mbappe has played in 28 of a possible 30 European fixtures since he signed.
But then sporting factors play second fiddle to geopolitics and the privileges of state ownership by a country desperate to sportswash their human rights record in the eyes of the west. Usual economic logic – the contract expiry date, the mammoth fee, the desire of the player – does not apply here. The true strength of the game’s new superclubs lies not in their ability to buy players at exorbitant prices or fantastically high wages – some clubs still do that – but their lack of need to sell them. Or, to put it another way, their total control.
This is no exact science, but offers a rough guide: Non-elite clubs aim to buy low and sell high; established elite clubs (or at least those that are well-run) aim to buy high and sell high; The superclubs, for whom extreme wealth is an afforded privilege, aim to buy high and believe that they can avoid selling at all unless they want to. That forms the basis of socioeconomic theory: If wealth provides any one thing, it provides choice.
PSG are operating on a different plane. This summer’s transfer market became a three-way battle between state-owned clubs flexing their muscles vs once-nouveau riche clubs spending and selling intelligently vs the historic elite; there was only like to be one winner. The Premier League’s broadcasting deal (77 per cent higher than the next league) gives them some added power, but all clubs are fighting against a tide of state ownership and a lack of fierce regulation that allows them to grow exponentially stronger.
The established elite are not finished; not yet: Atletico Madrid have taken advantage of Barcelona’s mismanagement, Manchester United and Liverpool can depend upon their global marketing appeal, Bayern Munich still enjoy domestic dominance that simultaneously allows them to pick players off Bundesliga’s rest and avoids the obligation to sell their highest-value assets.
Others are not so fortunate (or not so smart). Barcelona are half-broken, Borussia Dortmund shop in a different store. Arsenal are a shadow of their former selves. Inter flew too close to the sun with an unsustainable model for a financial crisis. Juventus bought Ronaldo as a desperate assault on the Champions League but were left without the spending power to improve their midfield and so were eventually happy to shed his wages.
Mbappe will have to settle for the consolation prize of playing alongside Lionel Messi in Paris (Photo: Getty)
That is more than a little depressing. For all the righteous (and entirely reasonable) anger towards the European Super League, the transfer market lays bare that we already have one. There is a reason why Paris Saint-Germain didn’t sign up to the ESL plans and Manchester City were the first English club to drop out of them; the status quo is enabling them to seize greater control. There is an ever-decreasing group of clubs who hold realistic ambitions of winning the Champions League and each summer reinforces that smaller pool. Clubs like Barcelona do not deserve to avoid scrutiny for their mismanagement, but it was provoked by a shift at the top end of the game.
For now, Mbappe remains in Paris. His dream of sitting in Ronaldo’s Bernabeu throne will not be realised for another year and a season playing alongside Messi is a comforting consolation prize in the meantime. He will not go hungry and still has time and talent on his side to achieve what he wants. But this summer he learned that he was not in control. Nor was Messi, left crying at his own press conference and then forced to embrace his new future.
PSG play by their own rules. They have changed the game beyond our previous estimations of normality and sense. Even those things that seem only tangentially connected to them are being controlled by invisible strings that sit in the hands of the puppet master. Everyone else must dance to their tune or tire themselves out trying. And they will have fun watching, knowing that they get to choose the music.