Mbappe soap opera is over for now but questions remain

Sports

The game’s hottest young talent is staying at Paris Saint-Germain and not joining the biggest brand in world football, Real Madrid. Kylian Mbappe‘s contract with PSG expires in 40 days and, for much of the past year, it seemed a dead certainty that he would bid the French capital adieu and take a massive free-agent deal in Madrid.

After all, Mbappe, 23, has a long and flirtatious history with Madrid. He was invited to training sessions at their academy as an 11-year-old and slept under a poster of Cristiano Ronaldo (the happy, productive Madrid version). In 2017, still a teenager, Mbappe opted to leave his first club, Monaco, for PSG instead of Real Madrid, who had pursued him all summer, justifying his decision in part by the promise of playing time and growth in the French league.

A year ago, Mbappe seemed ready to move, but this time it was PSG who blocked the deal, turning down a reported offer of close to $200 million — the second-highest fee ever, after Neymar ($263m) — for his services. The prevailing wisdom was clear. The stock explanation — and, possibly, one that must be questioned — was this: Mbappe wanted to go, PSG could not let him since they had just added Lionel Messi to the mix and wanted to take a serious run at the Champions League … but next summer, if he doesn’t extend, there’s nothing to stop him.

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Right, nothing to stop him. Except, of course, for Mbappe opting to stay at PSG.

For the French club and their Qatari owners, this was a massive coup. You keep the gang — the “once-in-a-lifetime” front three of Mbappe, Messi and Neymar — together for another season (at least) and have another run at the Champions League. You show the world that there is a serious sporting commitment behind the club, that this is not just a showpiece for Qatar’s involvement in sports and a giant PR project culminating in the 2022 World Cup next November. And, obviously, for Paris and France as a whole there is a fair amount of pride too: this is a native son, born in Paris, raised in the City of Light’s northern urban sprawl, six miles from the State De France.

Still, there will be questions. The club recorded losses of nearly €350m ($390m) in the pandemic-affected seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21 and doubled down with a massive spree last summer (acquiring the contracts of Achraf Hakimi and Danilo Pereira for around $100m combined and signing pricey free agents such as Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum and, of course, Messi).

The game’s governing body in Europe, UEFA, has introduced spending restrictions that will come into effect in 2023. Some, like Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga, have questioned whether PSG are serious about observing them.

A day earlier, Mbappe’s mother, Fayza Lamari, had said there would be no new meetings with clubs regarding her son’s future. Madrid had made their best and final offer and so had PSG, in an effort for him to stay.

“We have found an agreement [in principle] with both Real Madrid and PSG and the discussions are over because it is Kylian who has to choose now,” she told Kora Plus. “The two offers, that of PSG and Real [Madrid] are almost identical. At Real, my son would have control of his image rights. We will await his decision.”

It’s rare to get such clarity from a de facto agent: Mbappe doesn’t have an official representative and relies on parents, Fayza and Wilfried, who are separated. Many read into it that he was ready to commit to PSG but did not want to leave on bad terms, and was keen to show that the French club had done everything they could to keep him. Maybe coming from an agent — who would have to do business with both clubs in the future — that would have been the case. Coming from a mom, not so much.

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Rodrigo Faez discusses Real Madrid’s reaction to reports that Kylian Mbappe will be staying at PSG.

As for Real Madrid, this feels like one of those great “Will they? Won’t they?” soap opera romances. The old trope was that you can only deny them so many times, ultimately they get their way. Mbappe might have used up his allotment of “nons” … unless, of course, there’s more here that we don’t know. Like, perhaps, that his new contract at PSG contains a release clause or is merely an extension so he can have another go at winning the Champions League with Messi at his side and will join Madrid later. But all this is speculation.

The reality is that there is a 2022-23 season for which to prepare. For Real Madrid, after years of relatively muted spending, by their standards, this was going to be the summer when they reloaded, with Mbappe the jewel in the summer spending spree. He was going to team up with presumptive Ballon d’Or winner (and one of his boyhood idols) Karim Benzema, as well as Brazilian wunderkind Vinicius Junior, in a stellar front trio.

Now, it’s time for Plan B. Real Madrid rode their veteran stars in winning LaLiga and reaching the Champions League final against Liverpool on May 28 (which, ironically, is in Paris… want to bet some were hoping Mbappe would be there to cheer them on?) But the team, evidently, needs fresh blood and depth. Mbappe won’t be a part of it. At least not next year.

Because that’s the thing about romance. Rings on fingers in this sport can be removed — sometimes easily, sometimes at great expense — and, until he retires (which won’t happen for a good decade or more) it feels like there will always be a flicker of “maybe one day they’ll get together.”

After all, the best romantic soaps eke out the suspense as long as they can.

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