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What The Hell Is Going On With Kylian Mbappé?

Kylian Mbappé alone against a blue background
Aurelien Meunier - PSG/PSG via Getty Images

Back in June, Kylian Mbappé formally notified Paris Saint-Germain, by letter, that he would not be exercising the optional one-year extension to his contract, which means it is set to expire next summer. Pretty much all hell has broken loose since then. Right now, PSG is on a preseason tour of Japan—and Mbappé is back in Paris, exiled from the squad, training with the other unwanteds, while the club and its various apparatchiks call him a traitor in the press. The Saudi club Al Hilal has reportedly offered PSG €300 million to buy Mbappé—for one season, for which the club would pay him up to €700 million in compensation. Mbappé, for his part, has shown no interest in that. What the hell is going on here! Let's make sense of this.

That Mbappé would leave PSG—eventually in any case, and likely sooner rather than later—has been a common understanding for years now, and his desire to play for Real Madrid is one of the sport's worst-kept secrets. PSG never has been an ideal situation for him: The project is and has been a bloated clown car, assembled haphazardly as if by a kid playing FIFA Ultimate Team, too talented by far to be measured by Ligue 1 competition (and yet still failing there sometimes!) but never coherent or serious enough to deliver Champions League glory. Mbappé is the world's best player and one of the most famous athletes alive, but there'd always be at least a faint whiff of Mickey Mouse to his accomplishments unless and until he made his way to a higher level of competition. Perhaps more to the point: Breezing through tomato-can domestic competition year after year, only to get humiliated in the Champions League, seems like it could get pretty, uh, unfulfilling—certainly when compared to taking part in the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry in Spain.

Crucially, however much PSG's leadership might ever have hoped to keep Mbappé for his whole career, they have to have been aware of this eventuality. Mostly, that is because Mbappé put the club through basically this exact same song and dance two years ago: His previous contract was on the verge of expiring and fissure-sized leaks soaked the pages of damn near every sports paper in France and Spain making clear his plan to leave for Madrid. A late intervention by the famous deus ex Élysée Palace (and several Qatar Airways–delivered pallets of money) persuaded him to sign a new short-term contract in 2022 that would keep him at PSG for at least two seasons, with a player option for a third—but another underwhelming season, another Champions League failure, a souring relationship with fellow superstar Neymar Jr., and uncertainty about whether things will ever actually change, now seem to have convinced Mbappé, at last, that the time to flee Paris for good has come.

But where PSG was content to indulge Mbappé's flirtations with Real Madrid back in 2021, the club has proven ... well, let's call it less accommodating this time around. This likely is a reflection of the terms of the 2022 pact that persuaded Mbappé to stay. PSG promised him the world. The money was legitimately crazy: a gargantuan salary (reports put it somewhere around €80 million a year, around double the already eye-popping €40 million Madrid reportedly agreed to pay him had he joined them instead), annual signing-bonus installments almost equal to his yearly salary, and a loyalty bonus of about €90 million he'd get at the end of his contract so long as he never demanded a transfer. Not only that, PSG assured him unprecedented power in the club's decision making: final say on who the club hired as its new sporting director (that job eventually went to Luís Campos, who Mbappé knew from their time together at Monaco), final say on managerial hires, and the guarantee that he'd be the team's designated penalty taker (this coming after he'd gotten into several tiffs with Neymar over who got to take them). It's not hard to see why PSG would react poorly to news that Mbappé wants out now: The club abased itself in desperation to keep him, only for him to put its ass right back in the jackpot only a year later. Mbappé had to have foreseen things would go something like this.

If the source of PSG's rage is that 2022 contract, then the origin of Mbappé's coyness can be found there, too. That deal made the Frenchman ridiculously well-paid—it wasn't until 2023's procession of market-breaking contracts from Saudi Arabia that anyone else in soccer came close to making what Mbappé makes, and even still he ranks very high. So while for career and ambition reasons, yes, Mbappé might love to play elsewhere, for money reasons, he probably isn't in too much of a hurry to leave, unless he can find a deal that lets him have PSG's cake and eat Madrid's too.

Let's get into specifics: To use the numbers from one representative report, Mbappé stands to earn from PSG this season €72 million in salary, €60 million from the next installment of his signing bonus, and a €90 million loyalty bonus. I am no math whiz but that is something like €220 million all together. Reports from Spain say that if he were to sign with Real Madrid on a free transfer next summer, the contract would look a lot like the one the Blancos offered him in 2022: €40 million in salary, and €100 million signing bonus. If Mbappé were to demand and successfully complete a transfer this summer, he would see his salary cut nearly in half, would lose out on €150 million from the signing and loyalty bonuses with PSG, and would not receive anything near €100 million in a signing bonus from Real Madrid, since that figure is predicated on the Spaniards not having to pay the enormous transfer fee a player of his caliber would otherwise command. So even taking for granted Mbappé's wish to play for Real Madrid, and soon, his stated preference for resolving his future next summer, as a free agent, makes sense: Collecting all his checks in Paris and then getting a fat new one in Madrid next year is vastly more lucrative for him than demanding a transfer now.

All of that is what gives this transfer saga its unique favor. Mbappé wants out, but not right now—unless he can somehow get at least a substantial chunk of what PSG owes him this year in the bargain. That is probably why Mbappé seems to have gone out of his way to anger the club by being so public about the decision not to extend his contract: If the transfer is their choice and not his, he gets the loyalty money. The same calculation drives PSG's recent ultimatums that Mbappé either sign a new deal or state clearly his desire to be sold. If the club were to sell him under the present circumstances, with him refusing to extend but not having demanded an immediate transfer, PSG would still owe him that €90 million even if they get rid of him this summer.

PSG would like to keep Mbappé, of course, but probably can't even envision what kind of promises, economic and other, they could make that might actually secure his loyalty; they already gave him everything a year ago and it still didn't work. In light of that, the club wants him out now. Selling Mbappé would help PSG recoup at least some portion of the money it already spent on him. (Reports of PSG's €200 million asking price quickly gave way to substantially lowered numbers, no doubt because the team appreciates its weak negotiating hand; it's hard to spark a bidding war over someone everybody knows will be available for free in a year.) A sale would also help the club right itself in terms of Financial Fair Play; PSG doesn't need the money in and of itself, but a €150 million windfall would really help clean the books in the eyes of the auditors. And a sale would enable the club to load up for a spending spree—to replace Mbappé. Mbappé's best-case scenario—a free exit, to Madrid, with no transfer fee involved and with most or all of the money PSG owes him for this season in his pocket—is PSG's worst-case.

This is how we've arrived at this old-fashioned game of chicken. PSG's hope is that by exiling Mbappé and threatening to keep him off the pitch for as long as he remains a PSG player, the club can coerce him into forgoing the loyalty bonus, demanding a transfer, and agreeing to be sold now, even if it's a one-year layover in Saudi Arabia, for the sake of not losing a year of his career. Mbappé's hope is that by placidly enduring the club's saber-rattling while the clock ticks, and making all the right noises about fully intending to play the final year of his contract, he can coerce PSG into offering him ever sweeter terms—up to and including keeping the loyalty bonus and maybe even a large part of the signing bonus too even if he leaves, or offering him some kind of world-historic salary to extend his contract—to stop or reset the transfer clock and avert the threat of losing him next summer for nothing.

For all PSG's infinite riches, and its ability to (for now) put him on ice, Mbappé has the upper hand here: This being soccer, every player essentially has a no-trade clause, because players must agree to a new contract with a buying team before any transfer can go through. So ultimately, even in the scenarios less favorable to him, all Mbappé has to do is exist for the next 12 months, and one way or another he will collect every penny PSG owes him and can then sign a very large contract to play soccer somewhere else. By contrast, PSG must actively make something happen, and to do so it needs the cooperation of both Mbappé and another club, be it Chelsea or Real Madrid or whoever, willing to pony up now when it could wait a year to get the same thing much more cheaply.

What Mbappé's done, simply, is put PSG over a barrel—not a place one of Europe's richest and most powerful clubs likes finding itself. Which explains the difference in their respective moods, at the moment: Mbappé, coolly training with the other outcasts, and the club, pitching a fucking fit all over the place. Somebody—almost certainly someone in Paris, trying to pressure someone in Madrid—even tried to spark a rumor on Monday that PSG was negotiating Mbappé's transfer to Barcelona, a hysterically ludicrous suggestion (given Barça is utterly broke) but also a useful index of how dumb this whole thing has gotten.

It's bracing to encounter a scenario in professional sports that feels authentically unpredictable. I have no idea how this is going to play out. I can't imagine new PSG coach Luis Enrique going along with a plan to hold Mbappé out all season; nor can I imagine Mbappé accepting a full lost season in exchange for the freedom to walk next summer. But it also hard to imagine PSG acquiescing by allowing Mbappé to play in peace and then walk for free next summer. Nor can I imagine Mbappé agreeing to play a year in Saudi Arabia, or joining Chelsea.

The safest bet is probably the dullest one: Mbappé and PSG hammering out some preposterous extension that allows him to play this year and allows the club to make money off of his eventual departure, with the implicit agreement that the club will sell him next summer if he still wants to leave. But that stinks, so I'm rooting for chaos.

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