ohOver the years, footballers campaigning for a transfer have concocted all manner of ploys and tricks in an attempt to secure the transfer of their dreams. The well-placed press point: classic. Refusing to show up for preseason training: an old favorite. However, few players have gone to the trouble of ordering and writing a 220-page graphic novel with the sole aim of winning a transfer to Real Madrid.
You don’t have to be a literary scholar to glimpse the subtext of “Je M’Appelle Kylian”, the comic book autobiography published by Kylian Mbappé in November in collaboration with illustrator Faro. The young Mbappé does not hide his desire to play for Real Madrid when he is older, to the point that in an early passage he is even visited in a dream by Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. In the dream, Ronaldo and Mbappé make outfits while Zidane hands him a freshly washed white Madrid jersey. Mbappé was later invited to Madrid for real, an experience he described as “the best of his life”.
Still later, Mbappé is in Monaco when Paris Saint-Germain arrive with a record offer. “Are you sure you have made your choice? Mbappé’s mother asks him. “You know Madrid still want to sign you. Won’t you get bored in Ligue 1? At this point, Mbappé’s representatives inform them that they are close to a deal with PSG which will see Mbappé win 18 million d Euros per year plus bonuses. “Hmmm, it’s not bad,” grimaces Mbappé, reluctantly accepting that the wheels of this high-end transfer had been irrevocably set in motion.
I mean, like the graphic metaphor says, Maus isn’t. And yet, as Mbappé enters the final six months of his contract at PSG and his transfer to Real begins to become inevitable, it is worth re-examining the fundamental absurdity of what is on offer here. One of the richest clubs in the world – with no real financial pressure – is about to lose one of the best players in the world for nothing, in part because Ronaldo visited him in a dream. Someone here, you think, is being assaulted.
Watching Mbappé in PSG’s rainy 1-1 draw in Lyon on Sunday night offered some clues. Mbappé was not the best player on the pitch, nor quite possibly the best player on his side (it was probably Marquinhos). But while PSG – already with a 10-point lead in Ligue 1 – struggled in a deserted Groupama stadium, the moments when Mbappé recovered the ball were the only moments when the match seemed to make sense. He dived, swerved and escaped the three-way challenges. He hit the post with a free kick from a heroically unpromising angle. At his best, Mbappé takes the game to new places, places unknown; places you never thought football could go.
The contrast with what unfolded around him was stark. Despite all its bloodless excellence, PSG seem a particularly unhappy club at the moment, on and off the pitch. Each attack seems tense. Each victory feels like a temporary relief from agony. Each new week seems to bring new revelations from the locker room, a sort of sporting Great Gatsby where everyone is partying but no one is really having fun.
A few weeks ago, a great article in L’Equipe unveiled the many cracks in the club. The indulgence of Lionel Messi, who reportedly missed training the morning after a private party to celebrate his Ballon d’Or victory, has sparked outrage. Keylor Navas and Gianluigi Donnarumma are currently engaged in a gloriously bitchy crash over the goalkeeper shirt. Mauro Icardi’s marriage is in crisis. Meanwhile, Achraf Hakimi is reportedly unhappy with the lack of a defensive structure (to which the only answer is: didn’t you read the header? Who, exactly, did you think was signing you?)
Few people capture this unease like the increasingly desperate Mauricio Pochettino, the alchemist-trainer who seems more and more tangential with each passing week. Putatively, he’s the man in charge. In reality, he is little more than a mere spectator, the coaching equivalent of Rowan, the training instructor in The Office: helplessly watching Icardi discover his soul, Mbappé describes his ultimate fantasy in great detail (” Ronaldo. Zidane. I’m just watching “) and Neymar strums Freelove Freeway on his acoustic guitar.
This is, if you think about it, quite an achievement. 37-year-old Qatari billionaire buys football club on an unlimited budget to attract the world’s best players to one of his biggest cities. Over the course of a decade, he won seven league titles with a combined margin of 101 points. On paper – and let’s put the morality of it aside for a minute – it sounds like the funniest project in football history. And yet, for some reason, it doesn’t. He feels unhappy and dissatisfied and overworked and too serious and completely joyless.
Is this why Mbappé is leaving? Probably not, although that certainly doesn’t help. On some level, it might just be a loveless marriage that just ran its course, as well as the fulfillment of an inexorable childhood dream. And yet, whatever the motivations of Mbappé, it is difficult not to see this also as a judgment on the PSG: a club which, in spite of all its wealth, seems to have lost its way, is lost, has forgotten why he got into that in the first place. When you have all the money in the world, few players are truly irreplaceable. And yet, PSG may have just discovered that Mbappé is one of them.