It was not, Kylian Mbappé would like you to know, about the money. True, it might look — to the childlike, the innocent, the uninformed — as if he has spent the last year or so playing Real Madrid and Paris St.-Germain off one another in order to drive up his value and elicit the most lucrative contract possible. But that, rest assured, is just an illusion.
Money, in fact, barely came into the negotiations, certainly with P.S.G. In Mbappé’s telling, that particular subject appeared only at the end: There were a “few minutes” of discussions about how much he would be paid, he said, but there were many months picking over the precise nature of P.S.G.’s “sporting project.”
Quite what shape that project takes is not yet clear, of course. Mbappé has denied that the three-year deal he signed 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 make the sort of financial commitment P.S.G. has made to the 23-year-old Mbappé and not run crucial 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 does not, though, indicate that there has been quite so much of a shift in P.S.G.’s “sporting project” as Mbappé might want to believe. For the past 10 years, P.S.G.’s policy has been to hire extravagantly gifted superstars at eye-watering costs and cater to their whims. There are countless stories about Neymar’s occasionally laissez-faire approach to training. At least one coach found that his squad did not, deep down, agree with him that it might need to press its opponents.
P.S.G. 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, P.S.G.’s plan appears to be to retain an extravagantly gifted superstar at an eye-watering cost and cater 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 roughly $200 million P.S.G. turned down from Real Madrid last summer, and the deal has cost P.S.G. $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 is not really about money. The players do not genuinely believe that they require those extra few hundred thousand dollars because otherwise they will be 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.
The parable about Ashley Cole, the former Arsenal defender, nearly swerving off the road because his club had offered him $63,000-a-week, rather than the $69,000-a-week he believed he was due, is not about a man appalled by the 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 Cole was the sense that Arsenal did not value him as much as his teammates or — worse — his peers. Other players of his quality were earning far more than him, he knew, and if Arsenal was not prepared to offer the going rate, then perhaps the club did not value his contributions quite as much as he thought it should.
That is the problem with the Mbappé deal. Every time the salaries of the superstars rise, they slowly but surely drag everyone else’s with them, pulling the sport’s Overton window further and further into the stratosphere.
P.S.G. will be able to cope with that, of course, when Mbappé’s teammates appear asking for improved terms in light of the new normal. Even $400 million is not a figure that will rattle the nation state of Qatar. And perhaps its peers among Europe’s elite will be fine, too, when Mohamed Salah or Kevin De Bruyne or Vinícius Junior or Pedri start their next set of negotiations by using 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 and sell on, 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 the best way to protect everyone from competitive imbalance was to introduce more of it to the competition he runs — fell somewhere between craven and hypocritical.
And yet, under all of that, Tebas has a point. It is dangerous for salaries to be artificially inflated by clubs with no constraints 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, nobody at all, 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, responded to Tebas by reminding everyone that both Real Madrid and Barcelona have been found to have benefited from illegal state aid.
Al-Khelaifi himself took the unusual stance of suggesting Tebas was concerned that Ligue 1 might catch La Liga, simultaneously misunderstanding that worrying about that sort of thing is the essence of Tebas’s job, and apparently denigrating the league that both his club and his broadcast network, beIN Sports, have done so much to subsidize in recent years.
(None of this was quite so strange as Emmanuel Macron, the French president, intervening to persuade Mbappé to stay in Paris: Macron is a sincere and passionate Marseille fan, and should presumably love nothing more than to see Mbappé disappear to Spain, along with most of his teammates.)
That all of them could see no further than their own agendas was neither surprising nor outrageous. Tebas’s role is to promote and protect La Liga, just as al-Khelaifi’s role — or one of them, at any rate — is to act in the best interests of P.S.G. And it is, without question, in the best interests of P.S.G. not only to hoard as much talent as possible, but to make it incrementally more difficult for all of its rivals to keep up.
What is more disappointing is that there is nobody, anywhere, who appears willing or able to confront these issues, not from the perspective of an individual club or a specific league but with the interests of the sport — the industry — in mind. What is good for P.S.G. or Real Madrid is not necessarily in 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 itself of its responsibilities, confounded by its 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 UEFA that has forgotten that for soccer to function in good health, it has to be treated as a collective endeavor.
If it is not, it risks being fractured beyond repair, the golden goose trussed and quartered, sold off to the highest bidder in a market contorted beyond all reason by a handful of teams — and that description fits both Real Madrid and P.S.G. — 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 picking through this column with a fine-toothed comb. “I have seen it said 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 well off the pace this year. When teams from Europe have played teams from the N.W.S.L., Lyon and Barcelona Femení have been matched. The W.S.L. has been getting more publicity and more fans, and that’s great, but right now it seems it’s not the best in Europe, much less the world.”
This is a great point, and there are a few 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 W.S.L.’s rapid rise.
But most interesting is the fourth, something noted by at least a couple of Barcelona players: television. A lot of soccer from the Spanish women’s top flight, for example, is not broadcast. That makes it hard for people to know how high the standard is; much of what we see is Barcelona winning 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, is that it is not the case; she argues that the ease with which Barcelona wins games is testament to its ability, rather than an indictment of its opponents. Until fans can judge that with their own eyes, though, the tendency will be to assume that the league we see most — the W.S.L., say, or the N.W.S.L. — is the strongest.
Bob Honig, meanwhile, wonders whether the presence of the (men’s) World Cup in the middle of next season might “make club teams that are not so reliant on national team players more competitive?”
This is a logical conclusion, of course. Those teams whose players are given a rest 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 all hope that is the case, but let’s not forget the golden rule of modern soccer: Whatever happens, the big teams win.