Kylian Mbappe drama continues to follow, overshadow PSG
With Paris Saint-Germain there is always an odd sense that football is secondary. This project is designed to promote Qatar’s interests and is watched by a lot of celebrities. For the record, PSG drew 1–1 with Benfica for a second straight week in the Champions League on Tuesday, a result that, coupled with Juventus’s surprise defeat away to Maccabi Haifa, leaves both just two points from the last 16. This was really about Kylian Mbappe. He became the club’s all time leading scorer in Champions League on Tuesday. There has been a deluge reporting that he wants to leave as soon as possible even though he signed a new contract. This is another chapter in his saga of a drama-filled club career.
This season had seemed to be going well. Christophe Galtier seems a better fit for PSG than most recent managers. He is capable of not only establishing a coherent tactical approach, but also of navigating the perilous politics at the club. PSG sits top of Ligue 1 having dropped just four points in 10 games so far. Lorient, one point behind, was not expected to be able sustain its challenge. Marseille, another two points back in third, is perhaps a more realistic contender, but still, this season should bring a record 11th domestic title. In the Champions League, which is the real test, there were excellent performances against Juventus in the first group game. Even if the away win over Maccabi Haifa and last week’s draw at Benfica were less impressive, there is no realistic prospect of PSG failing to make the last 16. PSG’s football, especially that of Lionel Messi during his second season, has been exceptional.
But PSG is not a club that inspires great loyalty. PSG’s wealth is vastly different from that of other clubs in the league. This means that the Champions League knockout rounds are the biggest challenge for them. Players go there less for the challenge and personal development, and more for the money and celebrity lifestyle. There seems to be very little team spirit. There are constant rumors of players arguing with each other and jockeying for favoritism.
It had been widely expected that Mbappe would leave for Real Madrid on a free transfer in the summer, only for him to stay after a major operation that included French president Emmanuel Macron and reportedly involved the payment of a signing-on fee of $120 million and a monthly salary of $5 million. Mbappe was unhappy that Neymar was not sold this summer, after a long-running relationship.
Mbappe made it clear that he wasn’t impressed by the club’s transfer activity. He also said that he felt frustrated that Neymar was playing more from the left than in the standard 4-3-3.
As well as securing Mbappe until 2025, PSG’s summer business also included around $160 million spent on midfielders Vitinha, Fabian Ruiz, Carlos Soler and Renato Sanches; defenders Nuno Mendes and Nordi Mukiele; and young forward Hugo Ekitike. Mbappe wanted younger French players and less egos than his own, so a proper pressing system could have been introduced. That was to an extent what Luis Campos, the sporting director, delivered. He is believed to have been sympathetic to Mbappe. However, Antero Henrique, the other sporting directors, struggled to sell players which led to tension. Mbappe’s immediate exit request was so polarizing that Campos went to Canal before the first kick against Benfica to deny any truth to the story.
But there have been signs leading to this, and the first one that something was not quite right came in August as Mbappe stopped running and turned away in disgust after Vitinha, leading a break in the 5-2 win over Montpellier, opted to pass to Messi rather than the 23-year-old. In that same game, Mbappe missed a penalty and was then furious when Neymar insisted on taking a second spot kick 20 minutes later. That, though, came amid a run of four games in which PSG scored 21 goals, Mbappe getting four of them. Since then, however, the goals have come a lot less easily and, with Messi hurt, PSG was held to an disappointing 0–0 draw against Reims. It became petulant after Sergio Ramos was sent off. Neymar and Mbappe were both booked late as tempers flared. PSG is a culture of indulgence, which is why Mbappe’s attitude may be the result of an ugly sense of entitlement.
Mbappe, who was withdrawn as a precaution late on Tuesday, got PSG’s goal, converting a first-half penalty and celebrating emphatically (he also had a sensational would-be winner chalked off for offside), but this was not the PSG of those early weeks of the season and, looking very flat, it was pegged back by a Benfica penalty, converted in the 62nd minute by Joao Mario. In terms of PSG’s progression to the last 16, the dropped points shouldn’t matter. Mbappe’s future and the spreading chaos of this week’s protest are far more important.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.