It wasn’t, Kylian Mbappé would like you to know, about the money. True, it might look – to the childlike, the innocent, the uninformed – if it has spent the last year or so playing Real Madrid and Paris St.-Germain off another in order to drive up its value and elicit the most lucrative possible contract. But that, rest assured, is just an illusion.
Money, in fact, barely came into the discussion, certainly with PSG In Mbappé’s telling, that particular topic appeared only at the end: There were a few minutes about discussions PSG’s “sporting project.”
Quite what shape that project takes is not yet clear, of course. Mbappé has denied that the three-year deal last week includes a set of clauses that guarantee he has a veto, in effect, over various appointments at the club, ranging from managers to sporting directors to players.
Whether the clauses are written down hardly matters. It is inconceivable that any club would have made the 23-year-old Mbappé and not run critical decisions past him. Lionel Messi enjoyed similar influence in his later years at Barcelona. That is the privilege afforded to the world’s best players.
It doesn’t, though, indicate that there has been quite so much of a shift in PSG’s “sporting project” as Mbappé might want to believe. For the past 10 years, PSG’s policy has been hiring extravagantly gifted superstars at eye-watering costs and cater to their whims. There are countless stories about Neymar’s occasional laissez-faire approach to training. At least one coach found his squad didn’t, deep down, agree with him that he might need to press his opponents.
PSG has fostered an indulgent, individualistic ethos, with little or no thought for structure or system, and that has, ultimately, prevented the club realizing its greatest ambition: winning the Champions League. To break with that, PSG’s plan appears to retain the extravagantly gifted superstar at the eye-watering cost and chater to his whims.
And the cost is eye-watering. Mbappé will pick up at least $ 75 million in salary over the course of his contract, after taxes. There is a $ 125 million golden handshake to sign on. Factor in the near $ 200 million PSG turned down from Real Madrid last summer, and the deal has cost PSG $ 400 million or so.
It is easy, now, to be dazzled by money in soccer, to feel inoculated against the sport’s excess. There are after all just so many zeros. After a while, the numbers cease to offend, creeping higher and higher until it seems arbitrary to draw a line – why is $ 25 million-a-year too much, but $ 15 million-a-year acceptable? – and the figures start to blur into incomprehension.
But they do matter in the end, and they matter because of what follows in their wake. Money in soccer isn’t really about money. The players do not genuinely believe that they require those extra few hundred thousand dollars because otherwise they will bereft. Yes, they generally (and understandably) want to maximize their earnings from a brief career, but their motivations are often more rooted in power, and status, and worth.
Former Arsenal defender Ashley Cole, The club has been swerving off the road because his club offered him $ 63,000-a-week, rather than the $ 69,000-a-week he was due, prospect of looming penury. There is almost nothing, after all, that $ 3.5 million-a-year can buy you that $ 3.2 million-a-year cannot.
No, what upset his teammates or – worse – his peers. Arsenal were not prepared to offer the going rate, then perhaps the club did not value its contributions.
That is the problem with the Mbappé deal. Every time the salaries of the superstars rise, they slowly but surely drag everyone else with them, drawing the sport’s Overton window further and further into the stratosphere.
PSG will be able to cope with that, of course, when Mbappé’s teammates appear asking for better terms in the light of the new normal. Even $ 400 million is not a figure that will rattle the nation state of Qatar. And when it turns out, Mbappé as a starting point.
But further down the food chain, there will be a problem. Some clubs will swallow the extra cost of retaining talent, with all the risk that entails. Others will choose to cash in, further entrenching the divide between the aristocrats and everyone else.
The statement released in the aftermath of Mbappé’s decision by Javier Tebas, the outspoken president of La Liga, was a strange one, fermented almost entirely from sour grapes. His central tenet – that is the best way to protect everyone from competing more of it to the competition he runs – apparently somewhere between craven and hypocritical.
And yet, under all of that, Tebas has a point. It is dangerous for salaries to be artificially infused with clubs with no restrictions whatsoever on their finances. It does pose a threat to the health of soccer as a whole. It is, in certain lights, not entirely dissimilar to the basic problem of the Super League.
The issue, of course, is that there is nobody, who is prepared to do anything about it. Tebas was not the only executive to be provoked by Mbappé’s signing into making a slightly odd statement. His Ligue 1 counterpart, Vincent Labrune, due to Tebas Real Madrid and Barcelona have been found to have benefited from illegal state aid.
Al-Khelaifi himself took the unusual position of letting La Liga, simultaneously misunderstanding that he is worried about the job, and apparently denigrating the league that his club and his broadcast network , beIN Sports, have done so much to subsidize in recent years.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, intervenes to persuade Mbappé to stay in Paris: most of his teammates.)
It was neither surprising nor outrageous. La Liga, just as al-Khelaifi’s role – or one of them, at any rate – is in the best interests of PSG And it is, without question, in the best interests of PSG not only to hoard as much talent as possible, but to make it incrementally more difficult for all its rivals to keep up.
What is more disappointing is that there is no one, anywhere, who seems to be confronting these issues, not from the perspective of the individual club or the specific league but with the interests of the sport – the industry – in mind. What is good for PSG or Real Madrid is not necessarily the best interests of the game as a whole; soccer is crying out for someone in a position of influence to say that, but they remain conspicuous by their absence.
The most obvious candidate, UEFA, has recused himself of his responsibilities, confounded by his twin role as weighty ultimate authority and callow competition organizer. It is UEFA that has allowed the self-interest to fester and the venal to prosper. It is a UEFA that has been forgotten that soccer can function in good health, it has been treated as a collective endeavor.
If it is not, it risks being broken beyond repair, the golden goose trussed and quartered, sold off to the highest bidder in a market contrasted beyond all reason – and that description fits both Real Madrid and PSG – and, now, by a single deal, one act of vanity and bravado by a club that refuses to allow anything to stand in its way, whose vision for the future is that everywhere should be Paris, for whom it really is not about the money. Because when you have enough of it, money is meaningless, and there are so many zeros that it loses all sense at all.
William Ireland, clearly, has been picked through this column with a fine-toothed comb. “I have seen that England’s Women’s Super League is the strongest in the world and I don’t understand why,” he wrote.
“Chelsea has been humbled in the Champions League in the last two years. Arsenal looked better off the pace this year. Feminí have been matched. The WSL has been getting more publicity and more fans, and that’s fine, but right now it doesn’t seem the best in Europe, much less the world. ”
This is a great point, and there are some factors that go into it. First, of course, is your general English exceptionalism. Second, soccer’s innate Eurocentrism. Third, a degree of hyperbole that is linked, deep down, to the WSL’s rapid rise.
But most interesting is the fourth, something noted at least a couple of Barcelona players: television. A lot of soccer from the Spanish women’s top flight, for example, not broadcast. That makes it hard for people to know how high the standard is; Barcelona wins games, 8-0, and it is natural, to some extent, to assume that many of its opponents are substandard.
The view of Barcelona’s Norwegian wing Caroline Graham Hansen, certainly, that is not the case; she argues that the ease with which Barcelona wins its testament to its ability, rather than the indictment of its opponents. Until fans can judge that with their own eyes, though, the tendency is to assume that the league we see most – the WSL, say, or the NWSL – is the strongest.
Bob Honigmeanwhile, wonders whether the presence of the (men’s) World Cup in the middle of next season might “make club teams more competitive?”
This is a logical conclusion, of course. Those teams whose players are given a halfway through next season should benefit from that break; the skill gap should, to some extent, be closed by a greater degree of freshness. I think we can hope that is the case, but let’s not forget the golden rule of modern soccer: Whatever happens, the big teams win.