Kylian Mbappé and Real Madrid, a match made in footballing heaven


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - France Training - Clairefontaine, France - May 30, 2024 France's Kylian Mbappe during training REUTERS/Abdul Saboor

Kylian Mbappé to Real Madrid, the galactic transfer finally finalized Sunday, was a slow-drip saga of power, money, politics and ambition.

It began years ago with flirtation and courtship. A presidential intervention and Qatari wealth prolonged it. But an explosive 2023 letter reignited it. And throughout 2024, a crescendo of rumors and reports, each more firm than the last, turned a likely outcome into a foregone conclusion. Mbappé had decided to leave Paris Saint Germain; then he’d communicated his decision to the club; then he reached an agreement with Real Madrid; then he announced his impending departure. He’d even lined up his new house in Spain.

That he was heading to Madrid became the worst-kept secret in all of sports, one that loomed over him and two entire countries.

Now, though, it is simply a match made in footballing heaven.

It’s the rare compatible marriage between superstar and superclub.

And, with contracts now officially signed, and official announcements to follow soon, it’s a childhood dream come true.

This was the saga’s only sensible outcome, even after Mbappé rebuffed Real Madrid in 2022. This time around, he never seriously considered or negotiated with any other club. Because there was only one that could match and amplify his ambition.

Madrid, of course, was also the club that adorned the walls of his childhood bedroom. That’s the romantic story, and one that will surely be spun to distract from the more cynical view — the charge that this is something of a competitive cop-out. Mbappé failed to win the Champions League in seven seasons at PSG. That he’s joining the squad who seemingly always win it, à la Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, is not lost on anybody.

But the real story here is a more pragmatic and rational one. The fit is seamless. Real Madrid, tactically and culturally and commercially, was really the only club capable of accommodating Mbappé’s talent and celebrity.

His move will prompt comparisons to his previous superteam, and to the Lionel Messi-Neymar-Mbappé trident that defined 2021-23 PSG. Their failures, of course, will pose a provocative question: Are we sure Mbappé at Madrid will work?

But his new attacking trident — Mbappé, Vinicius Junior and Jude Bellingham, arguably the three best players in the world today — will look very different.

Messi and Neymar were (and are) ball-dominant stars around which a team has to revolve. Neither defends. Messi hardly runs. Both are superb as a singular focal point, but when there were multiple focal points in Paris, the team’s balance and chemistry went awry.

In Madrid, it won’t, because Mbappé, Vini and Bellingham are all flexible.

Whereas PSG had to build a team around certain players, Madrid will welcome Mbappé into one that’s already been carefully built.

In fact, the team’s structure will hardly have to change. Madrid conquered Spain and Europe this season in a somewhat unconventional 4-3-1-2, with Vini and Rodrygo as fluid forwards drifting from sideline to center, and Bellingham behind them. Mbappé, at worst, will simply slide into Rodrygo’s position — one for which he seems ideally suited — and augment the team’s dominance.

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 09: Rodrygo of Real Madrid celebrates with teammates Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Jr after scoring his side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester City at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 09, 2024 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images)MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 09: Rodrygo of Real Madrid celebrates with teammates Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Jr after scoring his side's second goal during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final first leg match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester City at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 09, 2024 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images)

Jude Bellingham, Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo will soon welcome Kylian Mbappé to their All-Star team. (Photo by James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

At best, he’ll arm Madrid’s shrewd manager, Carlo Ancelotti, with newfound options and dynamism. Mbappé can play at the center of a three, as part of a front two, or out wide. He could play as a classic striker in a 4-3-3, with Vini left and Rodrygo right and Bellingham deeper. Or he could slot into the 4-3-1-2 and offer more direct attacking thrust, more pace, more goals, more … everything.

That “clinical [number] nine,” Bellingham said Saturday after a 2-0 Champions League final victory over Borussia Dortmund, is “the only little thing that maybe [the current Real Madrid team were] missing.”

“If he was to come and give us that,” Bellingham said of Mbappé, “we’d be in a really, really great place. He’d take us to another level.”

And his arrival won’t, or at least shouldn’t, disrupt the Real Madrid dressing room. Players, according to reports, have reacted to the Mbappé news with enthusiasm, not skepticism or unease. And Mbappé is not your typical megastar; he is, by all accounts, humble and personable. With Vini and Bellingham, and his fellow Frenchmen Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga, and with many others, he should fit right in.

And his salary will help him do that. It is, according to reports, not the stratospheric salary that he was offered two summers ago by both Real Madrid and PSG. His yearly wage, some $16 million, will be more in line with Vini’s and Bellingham’s. He will receive a massive signing bonus — reportedly well over $100 million — and retain certain image rights. But the structure of the contract will, in a way, help him blend in.

And whereas Messi and Neymar were bigger than PSG, nobody is bigger than Real Madrid. Mbappé will step into a club with infrastructure and well-drilled systems accustomed to supporting and managing players like him. He will lift the club’s soccer ceiling; but the club might actually raise his profile more than he’ll raise theirs.

And the rich will get richer.





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