Kylian Mbappe was 18 years, eight months and 11 days old when Paris Saint-Germain did a deal to make him the second-most expensive player of all time. He had scored 27 goals in 59 senior club appearances. And he had starred in the Champions League, under the global spotlight.
Benchmark that against the two greatest players of our time — Lionel Messi had eight goals in 29 games and Cristiano Ronaldo eight in 34 at the same age — and it’s pretty obvious we’re talking about something special.
Special enough to justify spending €180 million — almost $215 million — for his signature? Particularly when it means immediately becoming the object of a Financial Fair Player investigation by UEFA’s Club Financial Control Body, one that potentially could lead to a ban from the Champions League?
PSG think so. We’ll get to FFP in a minute — bet you can’t wait! — but it’s important to understand that the size of this deal is a perfect storm of concurring factors. And, equally, that there are unanswered questions.
Mbappe represented a unique opportunity to secure not only one of the most highly rated teenagers in history and a guy who also happens to be not just French, but Parisian. You pay a premium for that, just as you do for the way the deal was structured. The loan-plus-option-to-buy approach also drove up the price; Monaco would, no doubt, rather have had cash up front.
Some have suggested that PSG’s heavy spending this summer is directly related to some geopolitical soft power machination from their Qatari owners, who seek to gain power and influence on the global stage, particularly set against the backdrop of allegations surrounding the 2022 World Cup, as well as rising tension with their Gulf neighbours and ensuing blockade.
But Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), which also owns the beIN Media Group, took over PSG in 2011 and tried to turn into a super club, yet only now has spending reached these levels. Why? What’s more, if this is some kind of power play/charm offensive, how does throwing money around and appearing to flout FFP rules help?
A more plausible explanation is that someone convinced either QSI chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi or, more likely, the Qatari royals who employ him that the Neymar/Mbappe gamble was worth taking. And, make no mistake about it, it is a gamble.
Al-Khelaifi said at the time of the €222m Neymar deal that FFP wouldn’t be a problem and those who worry should “have a cup of coffee” (which is kinda funny since caffeine generally makes people more, not less, nervous).
PSG have been privately talking about renegotiating their kit deal with Nike, which runs through 2022, from the current €24m ($28.5m) to more than three times as much. They have also presented all sorts of projections which show a boom in broadcast and commercial income, as new markets are tapped (suddenly, 180 million Brazilians will become PSG aficionados). All of it sounds like voodoo economics and best-case scenarios. If you’re Nike, for example, and you’ve locked up PSG for another five years, why would you suddenly give them that much more money?
The issue isn’t whether PSG show a profit. They will, largely due to an inordinate amount of revenue from Qatari sponsors. The question is how UEFA’s bean counters view the value of those sponsorships for the purposes of FFP. Those deals are considered “related-party transactions” and, as such, are benchmarked at fair-market value. In 2014, that meant a mega-sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourist Authority was discounted by some 50 percent.
To put it bluntly, PSG are rolling the dice that, this time, UEFA’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) will consider the QTA deal and others to be worth much more than in the past. Just how much more will determine whether or not they’re in breach of FFP regulations; it’s as simple as that. Again, you have to assume PSG’s owners know this.
That they’ve gone ahead suggests one of two things. They either think their revenue — both real and the assessment of inflated backdoor sponsorships — will grow so much that it won’t be a problem. In which case, well done!
Or they think UEFA won’t have the guts to punish them when they assess in the fall of 2018 (a verdict would follow in spring 2019 and any punishment enforced in 2019-20.) Time will tell, but UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has been pretty adamant in that regard and Europe’s traditional big boys, who now have a seat at the UEFA Executive Committee table and are FFP compliant, have every incentive to see the rules enforced.
It’s as simple as that and other scenarios are far-fetched, starting with the theory according to which PSG are planning a lawsuit aimed at forcing UEFA to scrap FFP for “restraint of trade” violations. If that was the plan, surely they would have done it the last time UEFA punished them, back in 2013. What’s more, if they thought they could win such a case, why bother with making the Mbappe deal a loan-plus-option-to-buy? Why not just take it on the chin and tell Ceferin “see you in court”? (UEFA have faced challenges to — and won cases about — FFP in the past.)
Meanwhile, such has been the focus on PSG’s spending that two other aspects of their summer have been somewhat overlooked.
One is that the club — between wages and amortization — is going to spend at least a quarter of its revenue on Neymar and Mbappe, who, other than prodigious talent, have one thing in common: families hugely invested in their sons’ success.
The influence of Neymar Santos Senior is well-documented and, if he’s as shrewd a businessman as he comes across, forewarned is forearmed if you’re PSG.
But Wilfried Mbappe has overseen his son being tracked by Europe’s top clubs from the time Kylian went to the Clairefontaine academy. Indeed, a big part of the reason why Mbappe had so much leverage in this deal was that he refused to extend his contract with Monaco and, had he stayed, would have been entering the final two years of his deal.
Keeping the two dads happy is going to be imperative over the next few years and, what’s more, a family member isn’t like an agent. Agents know there will be more business down the road and whatever affection they may have for a client, there will be others. Not so with family. There, you’re talking blood.
The other aspect, refreshingly, is sporting. For all the investment up front, PSG look rather thin elsewhere. Thiago Motta is 35 and has started more than 30 league games just once in in the past 15 years, while Adrien Rabiot has never started more than 20 in the same campaign and Marco Verratti isn’t exactly the epitome of durability either.
All the other midfielders at manager Unai Emery’s disposal are attacking types, except for Christopher Nkunku, who is 19 and has nine Ligue 1 starts under his belt, and Romain Habran, who has played zero minutes of top-flight football.
The back four is good on paper but, other than Presnel Kimpembe, the reserves leave you wondering: Thomas Meunier, Yuri Berchiche and Alec Georgen, who has yet to make his top-flight debut. Oh, and it’s still a choice between Alphonse Areola and Kevin Trapp in goal.
Al-Khelaifi could probably go in goal himself and PSG would still win Ligue 1, but that’s not the point. The benchmark is Europe and this squad is top-heavy and unbalanced. It would be rather ironic if, more than Mbappe, Neymar and FFP, PSG’s season was defined by a lack of blue-collar serviceable players to support the stars.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.