Kylian Mbappé, P.S.G. and the Dangers of a Loveless Marriage

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This time, Kylian Mbappé means it. The reports on Thursday of his decision to leave Paris St.-Germain, his hometown team, might have carried with them an unmistakable sense of déjà vu.

They might, uniformly, have carried not a single direct quote from anyone involved, ensuring that all sides have precious room to maneuver should the situation change in the weeks ahead. They might have been copied and pasted, almost verbatim, from the last time this happened, and the time before that. But this is different. This is not a negotiating ploy. This is not a power struggle. He’s going. No, really. On the count of five.

Given the background, of course, the cynical response is also the sensible one. Mbappé has form here, after all. It is less than two years since he and P.S.G. last came to the brink, his boxes packed, his desk emptied, his goodbye card signed.

And then, just as Real Madrid was preparing the Bernabéu for a celebratory unveiling, Mbappé stepped back from the brink. Precisely what persuaded him to stay in Paris in 2022 is not clear. Perhaps it was the intervention of Emmanuel Macron, the French president. Perhaps it was the promise of having an unusual influence on the club’s transfer policy. (Mbappé has always strenuously denied this was the case.)

Either way, there he was, clutching a jersey alongside Nasser al-Khelaifi, P.S.G.’s chairman, repeating the catechism that he could never leave his team, his city, his country so often that, by the time the news conference was over, Mbappé probably believed it, too. There is, as yet, no reason to believe that this scenario will not play out again over the course of the next four to six months.

And yet the fact that we are here again — and so soon — is worth assessing. It illustrates, first and foremost, how curiously loveless the union between Mbappé and P.S.G. seems to have been. When he joined the club, back in 2017, it was possible to detect a romance even amid the dizzying swirl of zeros and commas required to describe the figures involved.

He was, after all, the greatest of the boys from the banlieues, the prodigal Parisian son: born and raised in Bondy, in the city’s neglected hinterland, now returning home as a conquering hero, a superstar-in-waiting. He would be the symbol of not only what P.S.G. wanted to be, but of where it was from, too.

The overriding feeling of the last seven years, though, has been distinctly transactional. P.S.G. provided Mbappé with a permanent presence in the Champions League — only until the first knockout round, generally, but still — and also a slew of French championships and the sort of adulation and branding opportunities that befitted his status.

The presence of Mbappé, meanwhile, acted as proof of P.S.G.’s potency, its virility, its authenticity as the modern super club its Qatari backers had always envisaged it to be. There was something in the relationship for both of them, but it rarely seemed to run any deeper than that. Both sides spoke about an emotional bond. It appeared to exist rather more in theory than in practice.

That might, admittedly, have been different if the deal had fulfilled the hopes invested in it by both parties. In his time in Paris, Mbappé has emerged as one of the most marketable, most recognizable athletes on the planet. He is, without question, among the most talented players of his generation.

Looking back, though, it is hard to say — beyond his array of French championships, and his bank account — quite what he has to show for it. He has scored hundreds of goals, and created hundreds more. He has frequently proved decisive in games, most recently on Wednesday, when he swept his stuttering team to victory against Real Sociedad in the Champions League.

But choosing an iconic, defining moment is more elusive. Most of his domestic achievements are asterisked in some way by the fact that, well, P.S.G.’s success is essentially inevitable. Every single one of the club’s previous triumphs in the Champions League has proved no more than a way station on a road to disappointment.

The glorious interludes in Mbappé’s career — the things that, were he to retire tomorrow, he would be remembered for — have, instead, come with the French national team, both en route to victory in the 2018 World Cup and eventual disappointment in Qatar, four years later. There is no shame in this; Pelé is best remembered internationally in the yellow of Brazil, after all, rather than in the bright white of Santos.

Still, it is probably fair to assume it is not quite what Mbappé intended for his career; it is certainly not what P.S.G. had in mind when it made an 18-year-old the second-most expensive player in history in the summer of 2017. Mbappé, alongside first Neymar and then Lionel Messi, too, was supposed to establish the club as a genuine superpower, an equal of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and the giants of the Premier League.

It has not worked out like that. No matter how much money the club has thrown at the problem, no matter which coach it has appointed — Mbappé is now on his sixth — or what approach it has taken in the transfer market, P.S.G. has failed to gate-crash the elite. It has still never been a champion of Europe. It has, at times, drifted dangerously close to being something of a running joke. That certainly is not what Qatar had in mind when it first embarked on its adventure in soccer.

The temptation, then, is to read the story of Kylian Mbappé and P.S.G. as a cautionary tale. It might, simultaneously, be cast as a parable about mutual benefit not being the same as love, a morality play about the distorting influence of money, and a sporting case study in the limited functionality of stardust as a building material.

Or, maybe, it will turn out to be none of those things. We do not yet know how the story ends. We have, after all, been here before. Mbappé was serious then, too. His mind was made up. He meant it. He was going to fulfill his childhood dream of playing for Real Madrid. He was going in search of another love story.

And then, in the end, he stepped back. Real Madrid’s offer was not compelling enough to convince him, and no other team could come close. Even in the cash-soaked towers of the Premier League, the money required to make a deal for Mbappé work was just too eye-watering to consider. Mbappé wanted a contract that reflected his value.

But value is not a fixed figure. It depends entirely on context. It just so happens that Mbappé is worth more to his hometown club than he is to anyone else. It is that reality, in fact, which lies at the root of their relationship: an agreement, in broad terms, on what he is worth. Maybe, this time, it will be different.

Maybe, in order to burnish his legacy, he will have to sacrifice something else. Or maybe, once again, he will find that no matter how much he wants to leave, his price is just too high. Maybe, for all the lovelessness and the broken promises, arguably the best player of his generation has nowhere else to go.

It may, of course, have been entirely coincidental, one of those regular quirks that arises from the unexpectedly complicated business of scheduling soccer games: the two strongest contenders to win the Champions League this season were both in action on the opening night of the knockout rounds.

Happy accident or not, though, UEFA may well have regarded that first night card as a show of the competition’s enduring strength: Manchester City, reigning champion of everything, on one screen. Real Madrid, the aristocrat’s aristocrat, on the other. If anything, the effect was the opposite.

F.C. Copenhagen and RB Leipzig toiled assiduously against their illustrious opponents, but the results of both games were never really in doubt. UEFA has fretted for years about the perceived tedium of the tournament’s group stage — that is why it is being changed — but in truth the problem shifted to the round of 16 some time ago.

And it is not one that can be solved by fiddling with the format. The reason so much of the Champions League now feels like a procession is because it is. Ties are decided, essentially, by raw economics. The imbalances are, until at least the quarterfinals, often too great to generate competitive tension.

Indeed, no game over the next month will be nearly so decisive as the draw for the quarterfinals. There will be an injection of the unexpected only if Real and City are pitted against each other — or Arsenal, or Bayern Munich — rather earlier than UEFA might like. A random draw is the most intriguing aspect of the competition. And that is not exactly an indicator of robust health.

Thank goodness, then, for Bayern Munich, which appears to be gearing up for one of its increasingly frequent — and never less than entertaining — bloodlettings. In the space of four days, Thomas Tuchel’s team lost (convincingly) to Bayer Leverkusen and (narrowly) to Lazio.

There are several ways this ends. Bayern might roar back and snatch a 12th straight Bundesliga title from Leverkusen, or it might not. It will, most likely, squeeze past Lazio and into the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Regardless, the signs are not what you would call encouraging for the longevity of Tuchel’s reign.

The coach should take some responsibility for that; almost a year into his tenure, his team is still spluttering. So, too, must those who have overseen the club’s recruitment: Bayern’s squad is testament to an institutional uncertainty, simultaneously bloated and emaciated, a patchwork of styles and profiles.

But there is something bigger at play, too. Bayern’s approach for much of this century has been to sweep up the best talent from its domestic rivals and turn itself, in effect, into a Bundesliga all-star side. For the most part, it worked. Until, that is, Germany’s clubs decided they could get more money by selling players to England, with the added benefit that they would not then have to worry about facing them on their annual trip to Munich.

Bayern does not fit easily into the role of victim. It is very hard to have any sympathy for a club that has so coldly and so remorselessly undermined its own league’s competitive balance. That does not change the fact that its place in soccer’s ecosystem has been diminished, like so much else, by the game’s contorted finances.

This week’s inbox was an unexpectedly moving, heartening one, thanks to the number of you who chose to write in to offer your experiences of life as gay players and coaches. “I was one of the first openly gay high school coaches anywhere in the U.S.,” wrote Dan Woog. “I went on to become the head coach there, and stepped down last season after nearly 20 great years.”

His experience, he wrote, “was almost entirely positive. Players — including opponents — as well as my colleagues have been uniformly welcoming, starting from the day I came out and our co-captain warmly shook my hand in front of everyone, and said, ‘Congratulations.’ Coming out brought me closer to my players, who felt empowered to talk freely about whatever was going on in their lives.”

Brian Frasier’s email was a little more bittersweet. “I grew up playing and loving soccer in Georgia in the late 1970s and ’80s, with dreams of becoming pro, but I struggled with squaring being a college player and realizing that I was gay during my freshman year,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t play at a collegiate level after my freshman year out of fear and uncertainty. On the bright side, I co-founded a recreational gay soccer team in Atlanta in 1990, and played on gay and straight recreational teams on and off for the next 27 years in Atlanta and D.C.”

And Laurence Bachmann offered an alternative perspective to Collin Martin’s view that focusing on the ugly stories, the harrowing experiences, does not help to empower players wrestling with the decision as to whether to come out. “Sure it does,” Laurence wrote. “It prepares him or her for reality. Soccer is improving but queer players should expect a challenging environment.”

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