When word came through that Kylian Mbappe was available this summer, Manchester United were surprisingly quick to insist they weren’t interested. The Old Trafford club are actively looking for a forward and are one of very few clubs that could afford the 24-year-old’s fee and wages. It has been insisted to The Independent that the United hierarchy are similarly willing to make separate funds available for Harry Kane should he become buyable, so they would surely see the commercial logic in securing Mbappe.
Instead, they have no current interest this summer and don’t see that changing. It was similar with Arsenal, especially as their budget isn’t as big as United’s.
This is one of many contradictions to Mbappe’s career that has left both Paris Saint-Germain and the player’s camp considering a world-record offer from Al Hilal in the Saudi Pro League.
It is difficult not to think it would be a waste; a needless squandering of a football great’s limited years in his physical prime, even if it is only for a season.
This is not to besmirch the Saudi Pro League itself, before you even get to all of the other debates about how it is used politically by Mohammed Bin Salman. That is another warranted discussion in this, in how Mbappe himself would be politically used. This is not too much different from Qatar’s ownership of PSG now.
It is more that he would be outside Europe, outside the Champions League.
The Saudi Pro League is aiming to be the second-best in the world after the Premier League, but it is clearly nowhere near there yet. It may have attracted a lot of headlines for its transfer business this summer, but it’s going to take a long time for that to translate into an actual audience. The legacy just isn’t there. The executives of one major broadcaster already confided this summer they would have no interest in paying for rights.
Will Mbappe be prepared to spend a year of his prime in the Saudi Pro League? (Getty Images)
The Saudi Pro League is still a football backwater, if a lucrative one. And yet it could well play host to a prime season for one of the greatest footballers who ever lived.
If that currently feels like an exaggeration given Mbappe’s career so far, it is how he is looking at things, and it plays into this contradiction.
While many footballers aren’t too bothered about the history of the sport, that isn’t the case with the 24-year-old. Mbappe is one of those obsessed with the lore of the game, and has consequently become obsessed with his own legacy within it. Those who know him say he was more anguished than most realised to lose the World Cup final in December, because that would have meant equalling Pele in winning his first two finals. This is how he sees his career. It is also why a move to Arsenal appeals, since he likes the idea of delivering such a great football institution to their first title in 20 years.
The same outlook explains his ultimate ambition to become one of Real Madrid’s great names, alongside Alfredo Di Stefano and his boyhood idol Cristiano Ronaldo.
He could instead play against the Portuguese for a season in Saudi Arabia, just when they were supposed to be going in opposite directions – and even if it is en route to Madrid.
Ronaldo would not have even considered that at the same age. It could well end up ‘Mbappe: the lost year’, no matter what he wins. Many in football would say that already applies to his time at PSG, mind. The Qatari sportswashing project are so likely to win the French league every season that it isn’t really seen as a proper feat and barely has much of a global audience. It also means such a great player only features in about eight consequential fixtures a season. If even that. All of this as Erling Haaland has made himself a global megastar in the Premier League, scoring in front of a TV audience of hundreds of millions every week.
Mbappe must surely envy that.
Erling Haaland’s brilliance being watched by millions every week may be the envy of Mbappe (AP)
In some ways, though, it isn’t a contradiction at all. That is for the same reason it just wouldn’t have been a consideration for Ronaldo. The game is very different than it was even in 2009. That point in its history was still the end period of an era where there was a remaining vitality to the European game. Clubs of genuine legacy and stature such as Lazio, Parma, Valencia and Borussia Dortmund would have at minimum been in the same financial sphere as one of the best players in the world, and at least offered him an option. It was only a decade before that point that Real Betis broke the world transfer record.
This was a period where people could genuinely talk of the “big five” leagues. That description is now an irrelevance.
The economic evolution of the game has meant it is now just the Premier League and a handful of other clubs in western Europe. They have just been buttressed by what is essentially a state competition in the Saudi Pro League, that in many cases offers a necessary financial counterbalance.
This is the true cost of a Champions League that is itself becoming a closed shop and a Premier League that is becoming a Super League.
This is what the global audience wants to see. And, without any checks or balances from football’s authorities, it could well mean not even getting to watch Mbappe for a prime season.
A final contradiction is that the Saudi Pro League may further fall into this. For all the necessary sportswashing criticisms of the competition, the other side of it is that the country’s sporting authorities are legitimately trying to build a sustainable – if super-funded – league.
They want it to become the next best league after the Premier League, and the plan was to go from great old names like Ronaldo to that next tier of good quality players like Ruben Neves in order to offer that substance.
That has happened quickly but Mbappe would represent a drastic acceleration. Maybe too quickly. As excited as Al Hilal have been about the prospect of the signing in the weeks they have sounded it out, that isn’t quite shared within the rest of the Saudi Pro League. There is an argument it would look bad if he just departed for Madrid after a season, and that it would then leave a vacuum. The league would already be looking to constantly catch up with one season it had.
And what a season it might be for Mbappe, even if one argument within his camp that these years will mean his career will be able to go on for longer. It is not like he has been suffering the physical rigours of the Premier League in his early twenties.
It may all play into him becoming a Real Madrid legend, in exactly the way he wants. It might just play into something bigger too.