Wednesday, January 19

Kylian Mbappé’s graphic desire for Real Madrid lays bare the sad state of PSG | Kylian Mbappé


THEOver the years, footballers advocating a transfer have concocted all sorts of schemes and tricks in an attempt to secure the play of their dreams. The well-placed press conference: classic. Refusing to report to preseason training: an old favorite. Yet few players have gone to the trouble of commissioning and writing a 220-page graphic novel for the sole purpose of earning a signing for Real Madrid.

It did not take a scholar of literature to glimpse the subtext of “Je M’Appelle Kylian”, the comic book autobiography published by Kylian Mbappé in November in collaboration with the 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 do maintenance exercises while Zidane hands him a freshly laundered white Real Madrid kit. Subsequently, Mbappé is invited to Real Madrid, an experience that he describes as “the best of his life”.

Still later, Mbappé is in Monaco when Paris Saint-Germain arrives with a record offer. “Are you sure of your choice?” Mbappé’s mother asks him. “You know that Madrid still want to sign you. Won’t you get bored in Ligue 1? At that time, Mbappé’s representatives inform them that they are close to an agreement with PSG that will make Mbappé earn 18 million euros a year plus bonuses. “Ummm, that’s not bad,” Mbappé grimaces, grudgingly accepting that the wheels of this high-level transfer have been irrevocably set in motion.

I mean, as the graphic metaphor says, Maus this is not. And yet, as Mbappé enters the final six months of his contract at PSG and his move to Real begins to take on a tone of inevitability, it is worth re-examining the basic absurdity of what he is proposing 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, partly because Ronaldo visited him in a dream. Someone here, you feel, is being mugged.

Seeing Mbappé in PSG’s 1-1 draw soaked by rain in Lyon on Sunday night offered some clues. Mbappé was not the best player on the pitch, or quite possibly the best player on his own team (it was probably Marquinhos). But while PSG, already a 10-point lead in Ligue 1, worked hard in a deserted Stade Groupama, somehow the moments when Mbappé received the ball were the only times the game seemed to mean anything. He dived, swerved, and came out of the three-man challenges. He hit the post with a free kick from a heroically unpromising angle. In his prime, Mbappé takes the game to new places, unknown places; places you didn’t think soccer could go to.

The contrast with what was unfolding around him was stark. Despite their bloodless excellence, PSG seem like a particularly unhappy club right now, both on and off the pitch. Every attack seems forced. Each victory feels like a temporary relief from agony. Every new week seems to bring new wardrobe reveals, a kind of sporty Great Gatsby where everyone is partying but no one is really having fun.

Kylian Mbappé's performance against Lyon on January 9 provided some of the few moments where the match seemed to mean anything.
Kylian Mbappé’s performance against Lyon on January 9 provided some of the few moments where the match seemed to mean anything. Photograph: Xavier Laine / Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, a major L’Equipe exhibition 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 victory, has been greeted with outrage. Keylor Navas and Gianluigi Donnarumma are currently involved in a gloriously malicious fight for 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 answer is: Didn’t he read the letterhead? Who, exactly, did he think was signing it?)

Few people capture this malaise like the increasingly desolate Mauricio Pochettino, the alchemist-trainer who seems more tangential with each passing week. Supposedly, he is the man in charge. In reality, he is little more than a spectator, the training equivalent of Rowan, the training instructor at The Office: watching helplessly as the infatuated Icardi bared her soul, Mbappé describes her latest fantasy in great detail (“Ronaldo. Zidane. I am just looking ”) and Neymar strums Freelove Freeway on his acoustic guitar.

This is, if you think about it, a great achievement. A 37-year-old Qatari billionaire buys a soccer club on an unlimited budget to attract the world’s best players to one of its largest cities. Over the course of a decade, he wins seven league titles by a combined margin of 101 points. On paper, and let’s put the morals of the thing aside for a minute, this sounds like the most wildly fun project in soccer history. And yet, for whatever reason, it isn’t. You feel unhappy and unsatisfying and overexcited and overly serious and completely joyless.

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Is that 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 as the fulfillment of an inexorable childhood dream. And yet whatever Mbappé’s motivations are, it’s hard not to see this as a judgment on PSG as well: a club that, despite all its riches, seems to have lost its way, lost itself, forgot why did he get into this in the first place. When you have all the money in the world, few players are truly irreplaceable. And yet, PSG may find that Mbappé is one of them.


www.theguardian.com

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