The money, the numbers have completely lost all meaning at this point.
It should be repulsive. Vulgar. Moral beyond the pale. Even if you discount the ethical questions that come with the provenance of the money, the idea of Al Hilal actually paying €1 billion (£861m; $1.1bn) for Kylian Mbappe to play for them for just one year should be enough to feel pretty crazy.
But while those feelings may also be there, and the bile collects in your throat, there’s a parallel, uncomfortable thought, which is: of course it makes perfect sense.
And it does. If you weigh up the situation that Mbappe is in now and take it all at face value, moving to Saudi Arabia for a year is the coldest logical solution.
To summarize: Mbappe, one of the best players in the world, wants to leave Paris Saint-Germain at the end of his contract in 2024, and almost certainly to Real Madrid. PSG’s current stance is that Mbappe either signs the one-year extension to his deal or he leaves now. If he doesn’t do any of these things, they seem to be saying he will be frozen out of the first-team picture for the entirety of next season. The offer from Al Hilal (now owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) is around $330 million for PSG and a reported $770 million in wages for Mbappe.
So with that in mind, if his alternatives are “to sit around and not do much for a year on the money he’s currently making” or “play some football, even if it’s not of a very high standard, for about 20 times the money he’s making”, the latter not only seems appealing, but makes the former seem ridiculous.
But of course it is not the latter that is ridiculous. That’s the whole situation. And the “whole situation” is not just Mbappe. It’s “football in 2023”.
Football has been divorced from reality, financially speaking, for some time. Who knows when the tipping point was, but at some point the numbers have become meaningless in relation to actual usable currency. So maybe we shouldn’t complain too much; before Saudi Arabia got involved they were pointlessly massive numbers, now they are just higher pointlessly massive numbers.
But you adapt your reality to suit the circumstances, as in all walks of life. If you take the UK housing market – another industry involving obscene amounts of money – prices that seemed fantastic and only for the repulsive rich 20 years ago now feel perfectly reasonable. They are not, but it feels that way. When reality changes, so does your perception.
The money that Saudi Arabia has brought in this year has just accelerated that process and to a point it has numbed us to it all, leading us to the scenario where we think “Sure, this feels pretty normal now”.
But it shouldn’t. The very idea that football is now a place where one begins to engage with Mbappe’s current situation on a logical level is appalling. We should try to resist the shift of football’s Overton window and not just accept that it is normal now.
The argument to justify the amount of money players receive was always that if the game generated that money, then surely it was right that the actual footballers should receive the majority of it. But that doesn’t happen in Saudi Arabia. It is not money that is generated by the game, but instead money that is poured into the purposes that we are all aware of. It is also happening in other places than Saudi Arabia, but they are the ones doing it now and doing it the loudest, so that is why we are talking about it now.
It’s also easy to make the “Well, you’d move anywhere if they offered to quadruple your salary” argument, but that doesn’t apply to footballers who are already paid the amounts they are. For someone earning £20,000 a year, quadrupling their salary would be life-changing. But not for someone who is already being paid £200,000 a week.
What can you do with £800,000, in practical terms, that you can’t already do with £200,000? People also point to the fact that the future of a player’s children is secured. But how far down the family tree does one have to go before someone actually gets a job? Grandchildren? Great grandchildren?
We should also say that all of this can be disputed. Mbappe’s is a situation full of reservations, uncertainty and questions.
Is it all a hoax? Will PSG really let him rot for a year, effectively just to prove a point and show they won’t be pushed around anymore? PSG were encouraged by the situation with Lionel Messi at the end of last season when they suspended him for missing a training session so he could carry out his duties as an ambassador for Visit Saudi. They thought of it as a sign that they could stand up to their stars, that they weren’t dependent on the whims of their best players.
But leaving Messi out for a fortnight – a player everyone knew was heading to Miami in a few weeks anyway – is a very different situation to having the most valuable player in the world train with the reserves for a year because you want to show you’re tough.
Will they even legally be allowed to, or are they just opening themselves up to a world of legal pain?
Will the Saudi government… sorry, Al Hilal really just stop at the single year if/when they get Mbappe into a room? Are they so desperate for the validation that Mbappe would bring that they are prepared to pay the kind of money that could keep entire leagues going for years just to keep him warm to Madrid? Or will they insist on something longer?
Will Madrid hold their nerve or could they be spooked by Al Hilal’s offer to move a year earlier than planned and pay for an extra year with Mbappe?
Will Mbappe take the deal? We already know that he will have no moral qualms about playing for a team in an uncompetitive league, being paid large sums of money by people who promote the public image of a morally dubious oil state. His strong intention has always been to stay where he is, play out the year for PSG and sign for Madrid in 2024.
He may also be thinking about how this would affect his international status. Next summer it’s the EC, which France will probably be favorites to win, and then the Olympics in Paris. How much of his decision making will be influenced by what is the best way for him to prepare for these tournaments?
No one knows what will happen. Even Mbappe. The fact that he scored a hat-trick in the World Cup final in December and less than eight months later is debating whether to move to Saudi Arabia is proof that making predictions about today’s football world is a fool’s game.
As things stand, the most logical thing for Mbappe to do is to accept the Saudi offer. That we have reached this point is a bleak situation.
(Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)