European Football

La Décision: Money, Politics, Legal Challenges, and Rules That Do Not Matter

On…well…everything else surrounding Mbappé’s decision…

For all of the sporting stories that can be spun from Mbappé’s decision, from all of the specifically on-pitch ramifications that come from Mbappé staying in Paris and not going to Madrid, there is something that is still hanging over this whole saga. An ugly, dark truth lurks in the background whenever this is brought up.

This is simply not just a football story. This is a global story, a political story, a financial story. It is the epitome of everything bad and ugly within football.

So let us talk about this on the smallest level first: individual money. Kylian Mbappé’s new contract has gotten quite a bit of attention, and rightly so. Mbappé is now the most well-paid footballer in the world, earning simply staggering amounts of money on a weekly basis on top of a whopping nine-figure signing bonus. The perception is obvious and can be problematic depending on your viewpoint.

To preface, I thoroughly support Mbappé’s right to pursue payment that he believes reflects his value to his team. Footballers have very short careers, and “chasing money” is a very naïve narrative largely used to criticize footballers for looking out for their own best interests. While I can question the relative value of being, say, the fourth or fifth highest-earning player in the world compared to the top earner, it is still very much within Mbappé’s right to pursue what he believes is his fair financial value.

But the way that this all unfolded sure does not look great. Mbappé is within his right to take as much time as he needs and to handle these negotiations in the manner in which he sees fit, but the way he largely flirted with Real Madrid to leave them at the altar does feel a bit…well…not great. Much of the public statements, appearances, and work from Mbappé and his family felt very organized, very calculated. They were expertly weaving a narrative, playing both sides and playing the media very well. It truly was expert negotiating, I do tip my cap, but I can understand some of the reactions to this. It seems clear that money was a motivating factor despite the efforts of Mbappé and his family to deflect away from this, even insisting on the likely false claim that the financial offers from both teams were nearly identical. I would not fully object to the viewpoint that Mbappé used the interest from Real Madrid to get as much money as he could from PSG, not truly intending to leave the French capital. It feels incredibly manipulative and, to a certain extent, I do understand some of the anger from the Real Madrid perspective. I do not think it is completely wrong for them to feel used.

And this idea of money is a very complex part of this story, extending far beyond the bank account of one 20-something athlete. As you likely have seen, LaLiga are issuing a legal challenge to this deal, questioning how PSG could feasibly pull this off. It was a statement that felt very surreal. I cannot say that I have ever seen a LEAGUE, not a team, react to a player not leaving a club in this manner. And there are multiple ways that you can react to this. On one hand, it is largely sour grapes and bitterness from LaLiga and league president Javier Tebas. They are, understandably, quite angry that one of their most marketable clubs is not able to sign one of the world’s top young talents. This is also, admittedly, largely hypocritical. I do not have to think back long in my memory to remember the Spanish government being found guilty of providing state financial aid to Barcelona and Real Madrid. Both clubs are also in quite a bit of debt themselves and have spent their fair share of money on player acquisitions.

There are also very valid points being raised in this statement, however, and this simply cannot be ignored or denied.

Paris Saint-Germain’s financial situation is not in the “gray area” that clouds Manchester City’s largely accepted to be but not officially stated state-backed ownership. You can draw a straight line between PSG and the Emir of Qatar. The ownership is very known and very official. Their financial reporting is also, more than you would think, largely public knowledge. The Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion, or DNCG, is an official watchdog that monitors and reports on the financial state of French football. Their yearly reports are publicly published, and you can find them by searching on Google right now. So when LaLiga claims that PSG has registered a loss of over €220 million in the 2020/21 season, as well as losses of nearly €700 million in total over previous years, those claims are largely accurate due to DNCG reporting. And these losses beg quite a few questions.

How are PSG able to register these level of consecutive losses while maintaining and adding to the most expensive payroll in football? How can they register nine-figure losses in a fiscal year and then give a player one of the biggest contracts in football history the summer after signing Lionel Messi, among several others, to substantial contracts? Are PSG exposing the loopholes of Financial Fair Play through the structure of their signing bonuses and sponsorships? Are we sure we can trust the legitimacy of some of the sponsors that they used to minimize the losses, especially given that PSG will have Qatar Airways and the Qatari National Bank as kit sponsors for next season? Why are we not at least asking questions of the ability for PSG to do this? AC Milan, for instance, have been punished far greater for doing far less.

For whom do any of these rules apply?

This is the reality of sports-washing, of the state owned football clubs’ takeover of the sport. Spending within the sport is being ratcheted up by entities who do not care about profit and loss, and nothing is stopping them. Despite trying to put checks in place in order to protect the financial stability of football clubs, we now live in a reality where most clubs are spending beyond their means and digging themselves into deep holes in order to keep up with clubs, including but certainly not limited to PSG, that do not view money as an obstacle. The life of this sport is being greatly put into question the longer we allow clubs like PSG to keep doing things like this. We are simply getting to a level at which very few can keep up, one that will require significant and likely state-backed investment to keep up with PSG and the Premier League. We have entered a Super League era without a formal Super League, one where the price of entry means there are really only around a dozen teams in the world that actually matter when it comes to the top competitions in Europe. Financial Fair Play does no good if it is not actually enforced, and while I am not personally accusing PSG of violating FFP in this deal, I certainly question why there is no inquiry into this…and then I remember that PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi is one of the most influential people within UEFA and completely understand the world we live in.

There is another aspect of this deal that is completely separate to the financial aspect, one that has made me equally as uncomfortable. There were quite a few reports after Mbappé signed his contract of him having influential conversations with political figures, namely current France president Emmanuel Macron and former France president Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is very famously, or infamously depending on who you ask, a PSG fan and someone who has a very…let’s say allegedly complex and deep-rooted relationship with Paris Saint-Germain and their current ownership. Macron, however, is very famously/infamously a Marseille fan, so the reasoning for their support of Mbappé staying in Paris could not be completely sporting, as I imagine Macron would like Mbappé to stop haunting his beloved Olympique de Marseille.

This, added onto the answers Mbappé gave in his first press conference after signing a deal and in the interview he gave Le Parisien where he discussed the importance of him staying in France and the pride of playing in France caught my attention. He did not just describe France as his home, but as his patrie, or “Fatherland”. Patrie is a word with a very strongly patriotic, if not a little bit militaristic, connotation to it. It is used in the first line of La Marseillaise for a reason. The fact that he specifically emphasized this, and the narrative surrounding this deal being great for France specifically as well as the aggressive defense of PSG that Ligue 1 has undertaken in and the al-Khelaifi quote about LaLiga being afraid of becoming worse than Ligue 1, makes me a little uncomfortable. It leads to two separate narratives.

First, it casts PSG as “France’s team”. They are suddenly now the team that the league and country want to fly the banner for France in European competition, likely knowing very well that, unless massive investment comes in or a minor miracle happens, no other French team has a chance of winning the Champions League. This feeds very strongly into the idea that PSG’s success leads to Ligue 1’s success, which I truly hate because there is very little evidence to suggest that it is true. In the near-decade of Qatari ownership in Paris, I do not believe there has been much, if any, direct correlation between PSG’s success and Ligue 1 thriving. PSG are possibly at the peak of their commercial power over the last 18-24 months and Ligue 1 as a whole has never been in a worse financial state while the league’s television revenue is massively lagging behind the other four major leagues in Europe. There was even a very brief moment where France’s UEFA Coefficient fell behind Portugal. PSG’s success does not help Ligue 1, and it becomes an excuse to ignore the issues within the league, its overall domestic and international marketing, and the desire to question the degree to which PSG and their Qatari owners are responsible for the current state of affairs in French football.

I do think Mbappé staying helps Ligue 1 in the immediate term when it comes to TV money, but I have yet to see a single reason to believe PSG’s continued domination of France is good for the league in the long term. I have yet to see anything that would definitively suggest PSG winning the European Cup in the next three years would directly help the league. CVC had to come in with a deal similar to the one they offered LaLiga in order to help keep the league afloat financially, and PSG still got a much larger cut of that deal than they should have. But the maintaining of that tired narrative, the one where mostly Parisian-based media chastise the other fanbases for not cheering for PSG in Europe, is something that grates me to my core. PSG are not France’s team, they are Qatar’s team. It is not in the best interest of Ligue 1 and of French sport for PSG to continue dominating and for their financial backing to continue to not be questioned. Nasser al-Khelaifi does not have the best interests of Ligue 1 at heart, no matter what he says to the media about LaLiga being afraid of Ligue 1.

The other aspect of this is the directly political one, the one that ties directly into the alleged conversations between Mbappe and Macron/Sarkozy. This is largely one of those intersections of sport and politics that are very uncomfortable to think about, the use of sports as political propaganda in some ways.

And this is completely ignoring the Qatari regime using PSG, and through the club, using Mbappé, to wash away the stains of human rights abuses in order to land the rights to host a World Cup and paint Qatar as a gorgeous resort nation that fans want to visit.

Macron would most definitely not be the first French president to use football to boost his popularity. Jacques Chirac very famously latched onto the 1998 French National Team in order to ride their eventual World Cup success to higher approval ratings and better publicity. The images of Macron wildly celebrating France’s World Cup triumph over Croatia in Moscow in 2018 also did much to boost his popularity in the early years of his presidency. Though I may be wrong, I cannot fully remember a president latching onto a player to the degree that Macron is with Mbappé. I imagine both Macron and Sarkozy emphasized the degree to which Mbappé’s success at PSG helped the country and boosted the international reputation of France, and I am very certain both of those conversations with Mbappé had the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris in mind. I imagine there is a strong desire for those in power in France to win their second ever Olympic Gold Medal in football at the Paris games, and Macron likely sees the image of Mbappé leading that team as a PSG player as being even more beneficial.

It feels very uncomfortable. It feels very Franco-esque.

Now I am not comparing Emmanuel Macron and Francisco Franco. I disagree with Macron politically, but he is a fairly elected democratic leader while Franco was a dictator and a murderer. It is similar in the sense of comparing their use of sport for political gain. Franco was not a Real Madrid fan, but he distinctly went out of his way to use Real Madrid’s success as a way to promote his ideas. It feels like Macron’s desire to keep Mbappé in France, paired with the narrative Mbappé used around playing in his patrie, feels almost to that degree of political influence within the sport. Mbappé’s success for PSG and for France during these three years is going to be used by Macron. And it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

All of this, as a whole, makes me very uncomfortable and very worried about the current state of our sport, to be frank.

But it has happened, and there is nothing I can do. There is a very good chance that my concerns are unfounded and are not going to be realized in the next three years, and I certainly hope that is the case. I am concerned, however, that this is the turning point in which the super clubs of the world truly run away from everyone else. This feels like a watershed moment, but it is just a question of in which direction will this take our sport.

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