The money, the numbers have completely lost all meaning at this stage.
It should be repulsive. Vulgar. Morally beyond the pale. Even if you discount the ethical questions that come with the provenance of the money, the idea of Al Hilal effectively paying €1billion (£861m; $1.1bn) for Kylian Mbappe to play for them for just a year should be enough to feel pretty bilious.
But while those emotions may also be there and the bile is gathering in your throat, there’s a parallel, unpleasant thought, which is: sure, of course, makes perfect sense.
And it does. If you weigh up the situation that Mbappe now finds himself in, and take it all at face value, moving to Saudi Arabia for a year is the most coldly logical solution.
To recap: 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 for Real Madrid. PSG’s current position is that Mbappe either signs the one-year extension on his deal or he goes now. If he doesn’t do either of those things, they appear to be saying that he will be frozen out of the first-team picture for the whole of next season. The offer from Al Hilal (now owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) is about $330million to PSG and a reported $770m in wages to Mbappe.
So with that in mind, if his alternatives are “sit around doing not much for a year on the money he currently earns” or “play some football, even if not of an especially high standard, for about 20 times the money he earns”, then the latter not only seems appealing but makes the former seem ludicrous.
But, of course, it’s not the latter that is ludicrous. It’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 terms of actual useful currency. So maybe we shouldn’t complain too much; before Saudi Arabia got involved they were meaninglessly massive numbers, now they’re just higher meaninglessly massive numbers.
But you adjust your reality to fit the circumstances, as in all walks of life. If you take the UK housing market — another industry that involves immoral amounts of money — the prices that seemed fantastical and only for the repulsively rich 20 years ago, now feel perfectly reasonable. They aren’t, but that’s what it feels like. As reality shifts, so does your perception.
The money brought in by Saudi Arabia this year has just quickened that process and, to a point, it has made us numb to the whole thing, which leads us to the scenario where we think “Sure, this feels pretty normal now”.
Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Saudi Arabia last year (Photo: AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
But it shouldn’t. The very idea that football is now in a place where you start engaging with Mbappe’s current situation on a logical level is awful. We should try to resist the shift of football’s Overton window, and not just accept that this is normal now.
The argument to justify the amount of money players receive was always that, if the game was generating that money, then surely it was right that the actual footballers should receive the majority of it. But that isn’t happening in Saudi Arabia. It’s not money being generated by the game, but instead money being poured in for the purposes that we’re all aware of. That’s also happening in places other than Saudi Arabia, but they’re the ones doing it now and doing it the loudest, so that’s why we’re talking about it now.
It’s also easy to make the “Well, you would move anywhere if they offered to quadruple your salary” argument, but that’s not true of footballers already being paid the amounts of money that they are. To someone earning £20,000 a year, quadrupling their salary would be life-changing. But not for someone 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 a player’s children’s future being secured. But how far down the family tree do you have to go before someone has to actually get a job? Grandchildren? Great grandchildren?
We should also say that all of this might be moot. Mbappe’s is a situation rife with caveats, uncertainty and questions.
Is this all a bluff? Will PSG really let him rot for a year, effectively just to prove a point and show they will no longer be pushed around? PSG were emboldened by the situation with Lionel Messi at the end of last season, when they banned him for missing a training session so he could fulfil his duties as an ambassador for Visit Saudi. They thought of that as a sign that they could stand up to their stars, that they weren’t beholden to the whims of their best players.
But omitting Messi for a fortnight — a player everyone knew was on his way to Miami in a few weeks anyway — is a very different situation to making 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 do that, or are they just opening themselves up to a world of legal pain?
Will the Saudi govern… sorry, Al Hilal really just stop at the single year, if/when they get Mbappe into a room? Are they so desperate for the affirmation that Mbappe would bring that they’re prepared to pay the sort of money that could keep entire leagues going for years, just to keep him warm for Madrid? Or will they insist on something longer?
Will Madrid hold their nerve, or could they be spooked by the Al Hilal offer to make a move a year earlier than planned and pay for an extra year of Mbappe?
Will Mbappe want to take the deal? We already know he won’t have any moral issues with playing for a team in an uncompetitive league, being paid large amounts of money by people promoting the public image of a morally questionable 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 also might be thinking about how this would impact his international status. Next summer is the European Championships, which France will probably be favourites to win, and after that the Olympics in Paris. How much of his decision-making will be influenced by whatever will be the best way for him to prepare for those tournaments?
Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Even Mbappe. The fact that he was scoring a hat-trick in the World Cup final in December, and less than eight months later we are discussing whether he will move to Saudi Arabia, is proof that making predictions about today’s football world is a foolish game.
As things stand, the most logical thing Mbappe can do is take the Saudi offer. That we have reached this point is a grim state of affairs.
(Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
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