Gabe MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC9 minutes of reading
Let me know if you’ve heard this one before: The game’s No.1 superstar under the age of 35 lets it be known that he will not sign a contract extension at his club, Paris Saint-Germain, meaning that in 12 months time, he will be a free agent.
Minus COVID, it feels a bit like 2021 again, doesn’t it?
Kylian Mbappe told PSG last Monday that he would not take up the one-year option on the contract he signed 13 months ago. (Which makes the pictures of him posing with the silly 2025 shirt seem even more ridiculous now, don’t they?)
Then, as now, PSG were stunned. Then, as now, people speculated that the club would sell him this summer. Then, as now, Real Madrid seemed the most likely destination, given the Cristiano Ronaldo posters on his wall as a child, given Florentino Perez’s penchant for Galacticos (superstar players) and given the fact that you can count on one hand the clubs that can afford him.
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Two obvious — and interrelated — considerations come to mind here. The first is that if you’re the kind of young superstar who moves clubs for huge sums and is willing to bet on yourself, shorter contracts are the way to go.
Once upon a time, long contracts were designed to guarantee a player stability and security, knowing that the financial future of his children and grandchildren would be secured. But the fact is this: guys like Mbappe are already nicely set up for life at the age of 24. What they lose in guaranteed money, they gain in freedom and control over their own careers.
Maybe it’s a Gen Z thing, but the prospect of a single, secure job for their entire playing life (and a gold watch at the end) doesn’t necessarily hold the appeal it did for those who came before them. Especially since the risk of career-ending injuries and lost earnings is covered by the large premiums they pay on insurance.
Mbappe and his family who advise him understand the impact this brings better than most.
Take his last PSG extension. He could have signed it anytime between 2019 and 2021 and it would have been a bonanza. But he waited until the end so he could either move to Real Madrid or get the “two-plus-one” deal he craved. And it was worth it to him, even if it meant that in his first few seasons in Paris he was still on his original contract and therefore relatively underpaid.
Which brings us to the second point. Yes, Mbappe has all the cards…but who is putting him across from him at the table? Who can he really play with, metaphorically and practically? Here you get a massive feeling of deja vu.
If it’s Real Madrid, if they overcome the bitterness of being lined up at the altar 13 months ago. If it’s PSG, if he does the same 180-degree handbrake turn he did last May and chooses to extend his deal (or changes his mind about the option year). If Mbappe moves this summer, there will be a transfer fee to pay, and assuming he wants to stay in Europe without a massive pay cut, the only other options are in Manchester – and both are long shots.
United, for all their pleading poverty and uncertainty about their ownership, could probably find the cash, but it’s hard to see Mbappe wanting to join a rebuilding club right now. He would add even more quality to City and a Haaland-Mbappe partnership would be the fantasy, but will Pep Guardiola mess with his treble winning machine? (And even if he did, does Mbappe want to share the limelight after doing so for the past few years? And will he roll the dice given the Premier League allegations against City and the possibility of Guardiola moving on when his deal expires in 2025, if not earlier?)
If the plan is for Mbappe to force a move this summer – remember, he says he isn’t, but rather that he simply won’t take up the option on his contract – he may have leverage, but no suitors.
Would it be different a year from now? Perhaps Thomas Tuchel can persuade him to make a “lifestyle choice” at Bayern. Perhaps Arsenal or Liverpool will be ready and willing to make a bold move. Maybe Chelsea are back in the Champions League and Todd Boehly’s big plan will suddenly make sense. Maybe Barcelona will find more levers to pull. All possible, none likely.
That’s the irony. For all his influence, his options are limited. It’s not quite a monopsony — a market condition where there’s only one buyer — but it’s not far off either, and everything points to Real Madrid … unless history repeats itself. And that possibility undoubtedly makes Madrid a little wary.
In 2021, with a year left on his deal, PSG spent much of the summer saying he would not be moved on. They were true to their word and rejected repeated Real Madrid offers that went as high as €180m. (about $200 million). When the transfer window closed in September 2021, Real Madrid just shrugged and probably thought “fine, we’ll get him as a free agent next summer and a big chunk of the €180m that was supposed to go to PSG will go to him instead .”
Except then, Mbappe threw that curveball with his May 2022 extension, leaving Madrid seething and Liga president Javier Tebas – who relished the prospect of a global star joining his league – complains to UEFA that PSG must be in breach of financial sustainability rules.
So we can’t definitively rule out this possibility, although you feel that PSG’s behavior this summer will give us an indication of how things might go. Are they becoming more attractive to Mbappe, perhaps with a credible rebuild, perhaps around young French talent with him as a figurehead? Or will it be the same super-expensive, agent-run zoo it was last year? Will they try to find a buyer for him instead of losing him as a free agent next year? We should have a pretty clear idea by August.
Still, indicators point to Real Madrid for various reasons. They are in a decent place financially. They had the second highest wage bill (after PSG) in Europe, but that will be softened by Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard, plus maybe Luka Modric and Toni Kroos too. And the fact is that even though their wage bill increased, Madrid actually made a profit of €160m. ($175m) in the transfer market since 2020 – the money is there, even with the addition of Jude Bellingham. (Indeed, signing arguably the best teenager in the world should help attract Mbappe to what is being built at the Bernabeu.)
Is there bad blood from what happened 13 months ago, perhaps a sense of “once bitten, twice shy” here? They thought he was saving himself from them. Nobody likes to be stood up, least of all Florentino Perez. Maybe, but it’s Mbappe and you don’t become a billionaire like Florentino by having an ego about these things. If you can sign the best player in the world (or so) at the age of 25 for free, do it, even if he might have used you as the bad girl in a John Hughes movie two years earlier.
Some resent the fact that Vinicius, Real Madrid’s present and future, also plays on the right wing like Mbappe, and that the latter does not like to play through the middle. I don’t think it’s a big problem. It is not written in stone that Madrid must play 4-3-3, there you can find solutions.
However, the biggest indicator is the potential alternatives. If Mbappe doesn’t commit to Real Madrid this summer or next, and if he doesn’t pull another Mbappe 2022 and extend with PSG, where can he go?
And that is the irony of the situation. Mbappe’s short-term deal approach gives him freedom and control… but freedom to do what? In the current landscape, unless he wants to take a pay cut or conjure up some kind of new revenue-sharing arrangement with MLS or move to Saudi Arabia, his options are actually somewhat limited: PSG or Real Madrid.
Expect this to rumble on for a long time, but it would be surprising if the result was anything other than the clubs listed above.