Messi, Mbappé and Running Out the Clock
Real Madrid’s first offer for Kylian Mbappé arrived, in writing, on Tuesday afternoon. It did not come as a shock to anyone at Paris St.-Germain …
Real Madrid’s first offer for Kylian Mbappé arrived, in writing, on Tuesday afternoon. It did not come as a shock to anyone at Paris St.-Germain, not really. Mbappé had only a year left on his contract. Negotiations over an extension had long ago hit an impasse. It was an open secret he had eyes only for Real Madrid. Clumsily, the Spanish club had made clear it reciprocated his affection.
The only source of surprise was the figure attached to Real Madrid’s opening bid. It was prepared to pay $188 million, or thereabouts, for a player who would be available for nothing — other than his astronomical wages, and a bloated signing-on fee — in a year. P.S.G.’s executives were astonished. At that price, there was no choice to make. They had to reject the offer.
This summer, the summer when Lionel Messi joined P.S.G. and Manchester City spent $137 million on Jack Grealish and Chelsea made Romelu Lukaku, cumulatively, the most expensive player of all time, and this week, the week when Mbappé may join Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo might sign for City, may come, in hindsight, to stand for many things.
It will mark a definitive shift into an era in which the transfer of players is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, where what matters most is not what those players do or how much they win or how they perform for new club, but the act of signing them, the fact of possessing them. They are not being signed to win trophies: that is just a happy byproduct. The signing is the trophy, and the trophy is the signing.
Real Madrid does not have a particular vision of how it will use Mbappé, 20, one of the two most blistering talents in soccer’s new generation. Will he displace Eden Hazard on the left? Will he usurp the apparently ageless Karim Benzema, 33, as a pure, straight No. 9?
Real has, quite probably, not thought that far ahead, just as nobody at P.S.G. paused and wondered where, exactly, Messi would fit into the intense pressing game preferred by its coach, Mauricio Pochettino. Real has not thought any further than the number of fans Mbappé’s name recognition will pull into an overhauled, over-budget Santiago Bernabéu.
Ronaldo, of course, is an even more extreme example. He is, without question, one of the two finest players of his generation, and one of the finest of any generation. But for all that class and all that quality, it takes a leap of imagination to see how he fits into a team coached by Pep Guardiola.
At age 36, Ronaldo does not lead the press. He does not subjugate himself to a system. He does not smoothly and easily interchange positions with his teammates. Instead, he is the system: To elicit the devastating best from Ronaldo now is to build a team in his service, one that allows him to roam as he wishes, to take up the positions where he feels he can be most effective.
That is not to say, of course, that either move will come to be seen as a gratuitous mistake. Adding Mbappé turns an aging, somewhat listless, chronically unbalanced Real Madrid team into a force. Guardiola may well have some scheme in his mind for how to make the most of Ronaldo; even if he does not, the consolation prize is that Ronaldo remains a goal-scorer of almost unparalleled efficiency.
That the moves may go through anyway, though, suggests that soccer has moved into a new age, one in which the system is secondary to star power. For a decade, the game has been defined by its most prominent coaches — Guardiola, Pochettino, Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and the rest — all of whom, at heart, believe that the idea comes before the individual.
For a handful of teams, that has been inverted. Pochettino’s task at P.S.G. is no longer to outwit his peers to lift the Champions League trophy, to have a better idea than Guardiola; it is to provide a platform on which Messi and Neymar can express their abilities, lift fans off their seats, captivate an audience.
That it is only a handful — P.S.G., Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, and possibly, somewhat unexpectedly, Real Madrid, too — should not go unmentioned. It is not insignificant that the whirlwind chaos of this week has come after a summer in which most teams, even in Europe’s big leagues, have been trying to cut costs, rather than opting to incur new ones.
It is not just on the field that a new era has been born. The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and its related shutdown, has sent soccer headlong down a path it was taking anyway. As has been noted before, the financial advantage enjoyed by a handful of sides may come, in time, to make the proposed, abortive Super League look like an exercise in open competition.
And that, perhaps, forms part of the most telling conclusion that can be drawn from this summer, and from this week. It will be remembered for the deals that did happen, of course — for Messi standing on the field in Paris, looking as if he had only just realized quite how far his adoration had spread; for the prospect of Mbappé in Madrid white, and Ronaldo in City sky blue — but just as significant were the deals that did not.
Not long after P.S.G. turned down that first offer for Mbappé, Harry Kane declared that he would be remaining at Tottenham, rather than continuing to seek his own $200 million move to Manchester City. (City itself moved on quickly: By that night, it was already discussing whether to sign Ronaldo.)
Spurs had received an offer, too, a few weeks ago, reported to be worth around $140 million. It had turned it down, despite the damage done to its finances by the pandemic. Unlike P.S.G., it did not treat the play for Kane as an opening bid. It did not use it to maintain a dialogue, to haggle, to hash out a deal. It just said no. Kane, with three years left on his contract, eventually had little choice but to stay.
Kane, the player who did not move in the summer when everyone did, will come to be seen — by other elite players, and by the agents who steer their careers — as a salutary lesson in the danger of what happens when you lose leverage.
Players have, for decades, favored longer contracts, believing that what is sacrificed in control will be more than made up for through financial security. Money, in elite soccer, is rarely money as we understand it. It is better understood not as a currency used for the trade of goods, but as a gauge of status. The more a team pays you, the more it values you.
The same goes for contract length: The longer a team says it will pay you, the more you mean to that team. That view has been encouraged by agents, either because they recognize that a career is brief and fragile, vulnerable to a single injury or a loss of form, or because they earn a proportion of the player’s salary, or both.
The pandemic, though, may have changed that. Only a few clubs can now afford to pay premium transfer fees. A handful of others, as indicated by Tottenham, are sufficiently financially robust to resist all but the most lavish of offers. Suddenly, a long contract looks less like security and more like a shackle.
It is more than a decade, now, since LeBron James revealed that he would be “taking his talents” to South Beach. It is three years since Antoine Griezmann, then of Atlético Madrid, produced his own, somewhat anti-climactic version of the show that became known as The Decision.
And yet it may well be that this summer, this week, is what changes soccer’s approach to free agency, bringing it into line with the American model, where it is an opportunity to be seized, rather than a purgatory to be avoided.
For players at elite clubs, increasingly, running down your contract may be the only way to get a move. It is not a coincidence that both Mbappé and Ronaldo had only a year left on their current deals. For players hoping to get a move, it may be the only way to make that a reality: When nobody can pay or nobody will sell, when the transfer market has ground to a halt, there is little other choice.
It is that, ultimately, that this summer, and this week, may come to stand for. The year when Messi moved, when Mbappé moved, when Ronaldo moved: It sounds like a transfer window to end all transfer windows. And in a sense, perhaps, as players realize that they have to take control of their careers, rather than letting clubs trade them at their will, that is precisely what it will prove to be.
Change Is as Good as a Reset
The answer, it turned out, was there all along. UEFA has been fretting for years over how to make the group stages of the Champions League more interesting. Too often, the first three months of the tournament that serves as club soccer’s crown jewel was little more than a phony war, a box-ticking exercise, a predictable, idle procession for the great and the good.
It has been only a few months since it arrived at last — and at the cost of a brief, furious civil war that threatened to tear soccer apart — at a solution. The Champions League as we know it has just three editions remaining. From 2024, the group stage will be replaced by a so-called Swiss Model system, one that guarantees more meetings between the elite and fewer dead-rubber fixtures.
After all that work, then, it is a bit of a shame that the draw for this year’s group stage proved rather neatly that there was a workable alternative. The problem with the Champions League, it turns out, was not the format of the tournament itself. It was, instead, the nature of the leagues that feed into it.
Of this year’s eight groups, only three — those involving Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid — feel immediately predictable, and even they are not without their charm: Chelsea will face Juventus twice, Bayern will play Barcelona, and Real Madrid will meet Inter Milan.
The other five, though, all contain precisely the sort of intrigue that UEFA — as well as Europe’s most vocal, most self-satisfied clubs — have been craving. Manchester City not only has to face Paris St.-Germain, Lionel Messi and all, but RB Leipzig. Liverpool has been paired with Atlético Madrid and A.C. Milan. The groups containing Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla look completely open.
The reason for this is easy: Last year, Europe had several unlikely champions. Lille lifted the title in France, Atlético in Spain, Inter in Italy, Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. Villarreal won the Europa League, rather than a team that had dropped out of the Champions League. All of them were placed in the top group of seeds for this year’s Champions League.
The result is an unusually compelling group stage. Had P.S.G. claimed the Ligue 1 title, for example, both the French club and Manchester City would have had a far more straightforward path to the knockout rounds, and the next three months would have had far less to commend them.
And the lesson? Well, the lesson should be obvious to everyone. Stronger domestic leagues lead to a better Champions League. The way to increase interest is not to guarantee more meetings between the elite, with little or nothing riding on them, but to ensure the “elite” is as broad a category as possible. What the competition needs is not height, but breadth. For once, for one of the last times, it has that.
This week’s entire final section could have been dedicated to the proper usage of the word “prevaricate,” which several of you got in touch to discuss. That would not, though, make especially compelling content, so let’s all agree that I got it right once and could, in a certain light, have meant “equivocate” once in last week’s edition and move on.
More interesting was the note from Paul Bauer, wondering what happens if the sovereign states that absolutely do not run various soccer teams as a way of embedding themselves in the global consciousness “lose interest in this grand scheme? The financial implications of Inter that you wrote about will repeat on a larger scale.”
There must, presumably, be a point at which these teams have served their purpose — whether you want to dress that purpose up as an advertising vehicle or as something more sinister — and are no longer seen as pet projects. When that point is, I have no idea. What happens afterward, though, can be narrowed down to three possibilities.
One is, effectively, what has happened to Chelsea: The club is run with the general aim of being self-sufficient, but with a benefactor on hand to inject capital whenever it is needed/they have some lying around.
The second is that the club is sold: These are not investments designed to make a profit, of course, but — because, as ever, money in soccer is not really about money — a couple of billion dollars would both vindicate all of the work put in and provide cover for a change in policy.
And third? Well, the third is the one that fans of the teams to whom this applies would probably rather not contemplate: the money dries up, the interest wanes, and what has happened at Inter happens again. That is not, I think, desperately likely, but we have seen this summer that it is not impossible.
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