Kylian Mbappé saga shows football’s power lies with players, not clubs

So whose side are you on in the fallout following Kylian Mbappé’s decision to stay with Paris Saint-Germain? Watching the extraordinary outrage in Spain, with the press accusing the Frenchman of lacking class and La Liga branding the deal as “scandalous”, has raised eyebrows. But not as many as PSG being able to stump up a €200m-plus package for the world’s best player – despite making a €224m loss last year.

There are no good guys here, only a gnawing unease that the laws of economic gravity are being defied to the further detriment of the game we love. As La Liga put it in an unprecedented attack, the transfer showed that state-owned clubs, such as the Qatar-run PSG, “do not respect and do not want to respect the rules of a sector as important as football” and that “sporting integrity” was at stake.

Related: Kylian Mbappé decides to stay at PSG instead of joining Real Madrid

They are big claims and La Liga has backed them up with a vow to file a complaint to Uefa and the EU. Yet Real Madrid are hardly paragons of virtue in this area. Last year they were central to the European Super League project, which threatened the sporting integrity of European football far more than Mbappé staying with PSG. Recently they were also one of four Spanish clubs ordered by the EU’s highest court to pay back millions of euros after it ruled they had benefited from state aid.

PSG have privately brushed off La Liga’s attacks, with one executive insisting to me that its €224m loss was allowed under the current Uefa financial fair play rules, which were loosened because of the pandemic. It is also understood that at a PSG board meeting this month it was revealed that Lionel Messi made the club €15m last season, even after all his costs were taken into account.

The message was clear. Yes, Mbappé’s deal is crazily expensive. But the club believe they can make that money back and abide by Uefa’s new financial fair play rules that come into effect in 2025.

Perhaps. But cynics will hope the rules are more robust than the previous incarnation, which proved easier to circumvent than the Maginot Line – with PSG and Manchester City among those found guilty. There are also well-founded fears that state-run clubs are creating inflationary pressures in the transfer market, while PSG’s chief executive Nasser al-Khelaifi’s enormous influence across Uefa and the European Club Association is also impossible to ignore.

To my mind, though, the reaction to Mbappé’s new deal goes beyond the understandable squeamishness about sovereign wealth funds running clubs. It is also about how easy it is for the teams to entrench their advantage and ruin leagues. Would anyone bet against PSG, who have won eight of the past 10 Ligue 1 titles, winning next year? And the year after that? Or Bayern Munich, who have won 10 Bundesliga titles in a row, another procession?

Of course there are exceptions – look at Manchester United. But while English football is certainly more unpredictable, as was seen again on a dramatic final day, Manchester City have still won four Premier League titles in five years and just eight clubs have finished in the top three in the past 25 years. Eight! – the same number as in the first five years of the Premier League between 1992-93 and 1996-97, when Norwich, Blackburn and Aston Villa all challenged for the title.

Data from the website Sporting Intelligence, which tracks player salaries across multiple leagues and sports, shows there is a strong link between the amount a club spend on wages and where they finish in the table. But it does not have to be that way.

In the US, where salary caps, luxury taxes and drafts for college players ensure that the major leagues are kept spicy and dicey, the difference is stark. Major League Baseball has had eight World Series winners in the past decade and five further teams finishing as runners-up. In other words, 13 of the MLB’s 30 teams have fought for the sport’s biggest prize in the past 10 years.

In the NHL, meanwhile, 14 of the league’s 32 clubs have played in a Stanley Cup final since 2012. In the NFL the figure is 13 out of 32, with some teams able to go from also‑rans to Super Bowl contenders within a couple of years.

Curiously, though, that lack of football’s competitive balance has not dented the game’s popularity. One explanation, based on detailed analysis of the data by the economists Dr Babatunde Buraimo and Dr Rob Simmons, is that TV audiences are far less interested in watching competitive matches than they once were – and instead they want the big names, regardless of the opposition.

And there is no one bigger than Mbappé right now. According to one football executive I spoke to, the deal emphasises an even bigger shift in power in favour of players, more of whom are content to run down their contracts deliberately so they get all the money from a new deal.

That executive also pointed out that it made sense for Mbappé to wait and play off PSG and Real Madrid. And also for PSG to pay a huge signing-on fee rather than have to sign another player from a competitor club.

It is hard to argue with that. But whether football’s ghoulish freakonomics is as beneficial for the rest of us is another matter entirely.

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