Over the years, footballers agitating for a transfer have concocted all manner of schemes and ruses in an attempt to secure their dream move. The well-placed media briefing: classic. Refusing to turn up for pre-season training: an old favourite. Few players, however, have gone to the trouble of commissioning and writing a 220-page graphic novel purely for the purpose of earning a move to Real Madrid.
You didn’t need to a be a literature scholar to glimpse the subtext of “Je M’Appelle Kylian”, the comic-book autobiography released by Kylian Mbappé in November in collaboration with the illustrator Faro. The young Mbappé makes no secret of his desire to play for Real Madrid when he is older, to the point where in one early passage he is even visited in a dream by Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. In the dream, Ronaldo and Mbappé do keepie-uppies while Zidane hands him a freshly laundered white Madrid kit. Later, Mbappé is invited to Madrid for real, an experience he describes as “the best of his life”.
Later still, Mbappé is at Monaco when Paris Saint-Germain come in with a record-breaking bid. “Are you sure about your choice?” Mbappé’s mother asks him. “You know that Madrid still want to sign you. You’re not going to get bored in Ligue 1?” At which point, Mbappé’s representatives inform them they are close to an agreement with PSG that will see Mbappé earning €18m a year plus bonuses. “Ummm, that’s not bad,” Mbappé grimaces, with a grudging acceptance that the wheels of this high-end transfer had been irrevocably set in motion.
I mean, as graphic metaphor goes, Maus this is not. And yet as Mbappé enters the last six months of his contract at PSG and his move to Real begins to take on a ring of inevitability, it’s worth re-examining the basic absurdity of what is being proposed here. One of the world’s richest clubs – under no real financial pressure – is about to lose one of the world’s best players for nothing, in part because Ronaldo visited him in a dream. Someone here, you feel, is getting mugged off.
Watching Mbappé in PSG’s rain-sodden 1-1 draw at Lyon on Sunday night offered a few clues. Mbappé wasn’t the best player on the pitch, or very possibly the best player on his own side (that was probably Marquinhos). But as PSG – already 10 points clear in Ligue 1 – toiled at a deserted Stade Groupama, somehow the moments when Mbappé got the ball were the only times the game seemed to mean anything at all. He dipped and swerved and wriggled out of three-man challenges. He hit the post with a free-kick from a heroically unpromising angle. At his best Mbappé takes the game into new places, unfamiliar places; places you didn’t think football could go.
The contrast with what was unfolding around him was stark. For all their bloodless excellence, PSG seem a particularly unhappy club at the moment, on the pitch as well as off. Every attack seems strained. Every win feels like a temporary relief from agony. Every new week seems to bring fresh revelations from the dressing room, a sort of sporting Great Gatsby where everyone is partying but nobody is really having any fun.
A couple of weeks ago a big L’Equipe exposé lifted the lid on the many fissures at the club. The indulgence of Lionel Messi, who reportedly missed training the morning after a private party to celebrate his Ballon d’Or win, has been met with indignation. Keylor Navas and Gianluigi Donnarumma are currently engaged in a gloriously bitchy fracas over the goalkeeper’s jersey. Mauro Icardi’s marriage has been in crisis. Meanwhile, Achraf Hakimi is said to be unhappy with the lack of defensive structure (to which the only response is: did you not read the letterhead? Who, exactly, did you think was signing you?)
Few individuals capture this malaise like the increasingly forlorn Mauricio Pochettino, the alchemist-coach who seems more tangential with every passing week. Putatively, he’s the man in charge. In reality he’s little more than a bystander, the coaching equivalent of Rowan, the training instructor in The Office: helplessly looking on as the lovelorn Icardi bares his soul, Mbappé describes his ultimate fantasy in unsparing detail (“Ronaldo. Zidane. I’m just watching”) and Neymar strums Freelove Freeway on his acoustic guitar.
This is, if you think about it, quite some achievement. A 37-year-old Qatari billionaire buys a football club with an unlimited budget to attract the world’s best players to one of its greatest cities. Over the course of a decade he wins seven league titles by a combined margin of 101 points. On paper – and let’s set aside the morality of the thing for a minute – this sounds like the most riotously fun project in the history of football. And yet for some reason, it’s not. It feels malcontent and unsatisfying and overwrought and over-serious and thoroughly joyless.
Is this why Mbappé is leaving? Probably not, although it certainly doesn’t help. On one level perhaps this is just a loveless marriage that has simply run its course, as well the fulfilment of an inexorable childhood dream. And yet whatever Mbappé’s motivations it’s hard not to see this as a judgment on PSG too: a club that for all its riches seems to have lost its way, lost itself, forgotten why it got into this in the first place. When you have all the money in the world, few players are ever truly irreplaceable. And yet PSG may just discover that Mbappé is one of them.