Champions League final: How Kylian Mbappe fallout has affected Real Madrid’s build-up
This was supposed to be a dream seven days for Real Madrid.
Announce the signing of Kylian Mbappe – arguably the world’s most coveted player – at the start of the week, and win the Champions League at the end of it.
That was the expectation from club president Florentino Perez, who had been ultra confident a deal for the World Cup-winning France forward would be done.
That Mbappe chose to stay at Paris St-Germain has not gone down well. The Madrid press have been apoplectic, to the point that in the early part of this week all coverage was about the non-deal rather than the small matter of Saturday’s final against Liverpool.
The fallout has involved Karim Benzema courting controversy, but may actually end up being good news for some of the Bernabeu club’s key players.
Either way, it has certainly not been the build-up to their bid for a 14th Champions League title that Real Madrid had been expecting.
While Liverpool’s preparations for the Paris final have involved coming to terms with the disappointment of missing out on the Premier League title by a point to Manchester City, the Real Madrid squad have had an entirely different setback to contend with.
There is certainly an element of disappointment coming from within their camp at the failure to sign Mbappe, because many of the group were looking forward to the chance of playing with him, not least because they had been assured his arrival was a done deal.
The Madrid media felt the same, and the main reason for the subsequent furore is that all they had heard recently – or believed – was Perez’s version of events.
According to sources close to the president, everything was agreed. Mbappe had started to look for a property in Madrid, his presentation to the adoring fans was already being organised and Perez had actually said in private meetings and dinners that it was all done.
Perez told everyone the player was counting the days before he came and the rejection over the past eight months of a new contract offer from PSG only served to confirm their beliefs that this was in fact the case.
But Mbappe always said unequivocally that he would make his decision at the end of the season.
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Real Madrid told him he had to choose between money and glory, and there has been plenty of talk this week that he opted for money.
His motivation was certainly more than just financial, though.
Despite what you may have read or heard, in Mbappe’s mind he did not say “no” to Real Madrid, but rather “yes” to PSG and to staying in his native France. That was clear to me when I met him in Paris this week to interview him for BBC Sport.
In the end there was very little to choose between the offers on the table from both clubs, and the player firmly believes he has unfinished business in Paris.
For the 23-year-old, money was of course a factor, but it is also about love – which he has in abundance in Paris – and power, the three things humans crave. The player will now become the focal point of the club and everyone is going to have to adapt to it. And yes, that includes Lionel Messi. Let’s see how that works.
Mbappe is also more than aware of the fact that by the end of his lucrative new contract he will be just 26 and presumably at his absolute peak. Anything can happen then; never say never.
Real Madrid’s current star man, Karim Benzema, is 37 and might not still be at the club when that deal expires. Perhaps that helps explain his bizarre Instagram posting of a picture of Tupac Shakur, with an image in the background of a ‘friend’ of the rapper who supposedly betrayed the artist before his murder in 1996. This was seen as a less-than-subtle signal to highlight Mbappe’s own ‘betrayal’.
The pair are France team-mates, of course, and Mbappe was quick to point out that in his opinion this infantile response had more to do with the powers that be at Real Madrid making mischief than something that had emanated from Benzema himself.
Certainly, Benzema has not been impressed with being embroiled in the saga and it actually took his intervention to change the mood this week.
He effectively pressed the reset button on Tuesday during a Champions League media day, saying the moment was long gone for discussing these minor matters and it was now time to concentrate on the match.
There are two people involved in Saturday’s final who probably won’t exactly be heartbroken at Mbappe’s no-show in Madrid, namely Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.
Vinicius has played more minutes than any other Real Madrid player this season and has been a standout performer in the Champions League. Rodrygo has been used less regularly, but delivered arguably European football’s moments of the season when he scored twice in the dying moments of their Champions League semi-final against Manchester City to keep the tie alive.
More backing for Vinicius, who incidentally was told as a 16-year-old that the club were looking to him rather than Mbappe as its future, is now inevitable. Suddenly his potential importance to the Spanish champions has grown significantly. Vinicius will probably benefit from not having to look over his shoulder.
New contracts for him and Rodrygo are being negotiated as I write. Neither are ‘an Mbappe’, but Real Madrid now realise this is the coat that they must cut their cloth to. They can no longer compete in the buying of superstars and will have to go down the road of signing prodigiously talented youngsters, like the aforementioned pair and also Eduardo Camavinga, turning them into superstars.
The big question now is where does this whole off-field saga leave Real Madrid and its president?
There is no doubt it is time for a reality check for Perez and the club as a whole. Neither are accustomed to coming off second best in any transfer negotiations, but even they have to accept the timing of these huge deals is now in the hands of the players, because Mbappe’s handling of this situation – letting his contract run down and waiting until the end of the season to announce his decision – has changed the transfer landscape.
Perez is a supremely astute leader with a killer instinct, and previous dealings have shown the footballing world that what he and Real Madrid want, they invariably get.
But not any more.
The arrival on to the scene of state-linked clubs like Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) and PSG (Qatar) has brought a seismic change to European football. The pecking order has been transformed both on and off the pitch, with the game’s two young superstars deciding to trust their future for the time being at least to these clubs – Erling Haaland to Manchester City and Mbappe to PSG – rather than the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Real Madrid’s inability to get the Mbappe deal over the line means they have not only lost weight and prestige in the market in the eyes of the watching world, but most importantly they have lost face. That is not a nice feeling for a club that regards itself as the most important in the world.
But with all that said, the disappointment of missing out on Mbappe shouldn’t hide the fact Real Madrid are still very well run, with manageable debt despite rebuilding the stadium, with a squad that is evolving and which will get younger this summer.
And let’s not forget they are one game away from completing a La Liga and Champions League double.
When I spent time with them in Madrid on Tuesday they seemed to have the serenity of serial winners, the calm heads of those used to being in major finals. The players entered the biggest week of the season as if they were walking around a beach in flip flops. It is not arrogance. It is the feeling that, in a way, they have nothing to lose – but with the confidence they have a good chance to win.
Yes, they lack that extra dimension that a Galactico would give them in the commercial world.
But how much do they even need one on the pitch itself? We might find out against Liverpool on Saturday.