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What Does—and Doesn't—Make Sense About Real Madrid and PSG's Mbappé Tug of War

Kylian Mbappé is into the last year of his deal with PSG and wants to join Real Madrid now, but will a $200 million move transpire before the Aug. 31 deadline?

As one possible mega-move closes down, the potential for another one opens up. Harry Kane’s mooted $200 million transfer from Tottenham to Manchester City may be off, but with less than a week until the summer window shuts, there is suddenly the possibility of Kylian Mbappé leaving Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid for a similar fee.

Real Madrid made a bid of €160 million ($188 million) Tuesday, which was rejected by PSG, as Madrid must have known it would be. The question is whether that was a statement of intent, an assertion from Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez of his own enduring might, or whether it is serious and will be backed up by a bid large enough that PSG would be prepared to accept it. Certainly sources close to the player seem optimistic a deal will be done, and it has been made clear that Mbappé not merely wants to leave PSG but wants to leave now. That was confirmed by PSG’s sporting director Leonardo on Wednesday. 

“Kylian Mbappé feels like leaving; this seems clear to me,” he said. “Our goal is to extend and keep him. If a player wants to leave it must be under our terms. This applies not just to Kylian but to all players.”

It is no great surprise that Mbappé is keen to move on. His contract expires next June, and that he had not already agreed to an extension seemed like a fairly clear signal he was considering his options. When Neymar, whose contract also expires next year, agreed to a new deal in May, PSG insisted Mbappé was also close to committing his future to the club, but the more time passed without that happening the more likely it seemed he would try to engineer a move.

Mbappé, now 22, became the second-most expensive signing in history when he joined PSG for €180 million in 2018 (although he had already been at the club on loan from Monaco for a year by that point). He has made no secret of the fact that as a child he dreamed of playing for Real Madrid, and there have also been suggestions that his development has plateaued playing in France where PSG can be expected to dominate. That it did not win Ligue 1 last season, losing out to Lille, whose wage bill is eight times lower, was regarded as a major humiliation.

Real Madrid wants to sign Kylian Mbappé

The form of all players fluctuates, but Mbappé was nowhere near his best last season and was poor at the Euros, ultimately missing the decisive penalty as France lost to Switzerland. Looking for a new challenge is often a euphemism for wanting more money, but in this case it is probably true: Mbappé needs to be tested more regularly rather than the success or failure of each season being determined by a small handful of knockout games in the Champions League.

That PSG has not yet won the Champions League, despite enormous investment from its Qatari owners, is an ongoing source of frustration and one that can probably be attributed to two basic factors. Firstly, its domination domestically means it is not case-hardened when it comes to games against high-level opponents, and, secondly, its indulgence of celebrity and an unbalanced squad are major disadvantages against teams capable of pressing well against it.

While the signings of Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum may help that issue of balance, Mbappé can hardly be blamed if he looks at Lionel Messi and sees a second star who, like Neymar, will offer little in terms of regaining possession high up the pitch (not that Mbappé himself has been particularly diligent in that regard as of late).

In that sense, Mbappé is a victim—albeit an extremely well-paid one, and one who bears a level of responsibility for his own plight—of the unhealthy financial structure of modern football. Which leads to the obvious practical reaction to the mooted transfer, which is: How on Earth does this make any sense?

At the beginning of the year, Real Madrid was reported to have debts of €901 million. It has not signed a player for a fee since 2019–20 and has managed to bring in €180 million in player sales since then, as well as getting big earners such as Raphaël Varane, James Rodríguez and Ramos off the books with Martin Ødegaard following suit.

But in April, defending the failed Super League project, Pérez claimed that Madrid would be “dead” if the proposals were not enacted. It is very hard to square that with a $516,000-a-week contract for David Alaba, who joined on a free transfer from Bayern Munich in the summer (free, here, meaning for a $21 million signing-on fee and $6 million commission to the agent, according to a contract leak), and still less for a $200 million bid for a player with one year left on his contract.

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True, that player could come to define the next decade as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo defined the past decade. But still, it’s hardly indicative of financial good sense to spend $200 million now for something that would be free in 10 months (and that could be agreed upon with a precontract in four), which has led some, including Leonardo, to ask just how serious this bid is. 

"It seems like a strategy to try to get a 'no' from us, to show that they have tried everything and to wait for a year to get Mbappé for free," he told RMC. In which case, all else being equal, PSG’s best response might be to accept the offer.

If Madrid doesn’t have the money, it either has to panic to raise it, or has to admit that it can’t actually afford Mbappé. And if Madrid can pay, both Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo have hinted in the past week that they would not be against a move. Or there’s always Kane, whose proposed move to City seems almost certain not to happen after he used Twitter to recommit to Spurs. He has said he would be reluctant to leave England, but the chance to work with his former boss, Mauricio Pochettino, and $600,000 a week might be persuasive.

Similarly, City may decide to at least explore the possibility of signing Ronaldo or Lewandowski, or may wait a year and hope to pick up Erling Haaland—or, potentially, a free Mbappé. Either way, the number of realistic options for top stars is small and getting smaller—essentially, the three petro-clubs (PSG, Man City and Chelsea), Manchester United and, possibly, Real Madrid.

Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi in PSG training

With regards to Mbappé, all else is not equal, though. Signing Messi was a major breakthrough for PSG, a club whose signings are always as much about polishing its status as about winning trophies. A Messi-Neymar-Mbappé forward line would be as glamorous as any forward line in the history of the game. It’s easy to see why PSG would be extremely reluctant to lose any component of that, and particularly the component that was born in Paris.

Which is also, of course, part of the appeal for Madrid. Pérez is still furious about how the Super League plan fell flat. He continues to be lauded by a client media in Spain, but further afield, he became a laughingstock. PSG has become the emblem of the forces that, as he sees it, are ranged against him. It did not sign up to the Super League, and yet it is PSG’s wealth that has inflated the market to make the Super League, as Pérez would see it, necessary.

When PSG signed Neymar from Barcelona, part of the point was to prove that it could. If Madrid could now sign Mbappé from PSG, it would show the traditional elite still have teeth, and it would diminish PSG’s triumph in landing Messi. The attraction is clear, quite apart from Mbappé’s abilities as a player. Whether personal vendettas are a healthy way to run a club is another issue; impatience to get a player now rather than waiting a year to get him for $200 million less (and, if $200 million is indeed available, to have that be allocated more wisely) is one of the reasons so many of the traditional elite find themselves in such financial difficulty. Madrid did just the same with Eden Hazard in 2019, paying €100 million to land him immediately rather than waiting a year for him to be free.

The Madrid press is already praising the club for its strategy in a long-term pursuit of Mbappé, and if it does get him to sign a precontract in January before a free transfer next summer, perhaps that is justified. But spending $200 million now rather than waiting a year would seem bizarrely wasteful (even assuming it does meet Financial Fair Play requirements). What was the point of that year of retrenchment just to blow the budget now?

But then, when have football’s finances, and especially those of Madrid, ever made sense?

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