SWhose side are you on in the fallout following Kylian Mbappé’s decision to stay at Paris Saint-Germain? Watching the extraordinary outrage in Spain, with the press accusing the Frenchman of lacking class and La Liga branding the deal “scandalous”, has raised eyebrows. But not as many as PSG can muster a €200m-plus package for the best player in the world – despite a €224m loss last year.
There are no good guys here, just a nagging unease that the laws of economic gravity are being flouted to the further detriment of the game we love. As La Liga put it in an unprecedented attack, the transfer showed state clubs like Qatar-led PSG “do not and do not want to respect the rules of a sector as important as football” and that “sporting integrity” was at stake .
They are big claims and La Liga has backed them up with a vow to lodge a complaint with Uefa and the EU. But Real Madrid are not a prime example of virtue in this area. Last year they were at the heart of the European Super League project, which threatened the sporting integrity of European football far more than Mbappé’s stay at PSG. They were also recently one of four Spanish clubs ordered to repay millions of euros by the EU’s highest court after it ruled they had received state aid.
PSG have privately fended off La Liga attacks, with an executive insisting to me the €224m loss was allowable under current Uefa financial fair play rules, which have been relaxed because of the pandemic. It is also understood that at a PSG board meeting this month, it was revealed that Lionel Messi netted the club €15m last season, even after all his costs have been taken into account.
The message was clear. Yes, Mbappé’s deal is insanely expensive. But the club believe they can get that money back and comply with Uefa’s new financial fair play rules, which 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 the culprits. There are also legitimate fears that state clubs are creating inflationary pressures in the transfer market, while PSG boss Nasser al-Khelaifi’s huge influence over Uefa and the European Club Association cannot be ignored either.
In my opinion, however, the reaction to Mbappé’s new deal goes beyond the understandable squeamishness towards sovereign wealth funds running clubs. It’s also about how easy it is for teams to cement their advantage and ruin leagues. Would anyone bet that PSG, who have won eight of their last ten Ligue 1 titles, will win next year? And the year after? Or FC 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 a dramatic final day proved again, Manchester City have still won four Premier League titles in five years and just eight clubs have made it into the top three over the past 25 years made. 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 were all in contention for the title.
Data from website Sporting Intelligence, which tracks player salaries across multiple leagues and sports, shows that there is a strong correlation between a club’s salaries and where it sits in the table. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the US, where salary caps, luxury taxes and collegiate drafting keep the big leagues sharp and hot, the difference is stark. Major League Baseball has had eight World Series winners and five other runners-up teams over the past decade. In other words, 13 of MLB’s 30 teams have competed for the sport’s greatest prize over 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, it’s 13 out of 32, with some teams going from also-rans to Super Bowl contenders in minutes of years.
Curiously, however, this lack of competitive balance in football hasn’t detracted from the game’s popularity. A statement based on a detailed analysis of data by economists Dr. Babatunde Buraimo and Dr. Rob Simmons, is that TV viewers are far less interested in watching competitive games than they used to be – and instead want the big names, regardless of the competition.
And there is currently no one taller than Mbappé. According to a football executive I spoke to, the deal emphasizes an even greater power shift in favor of players, more of whom are content with intentionally terminating their contracts so they can get all the money from a new deal.
This manager also pointed out that it made sense for Mbappé to wait and play off against PSG and Real Madrid. And also for PSG to pay a huge sign-up fee instead of having to sign another player from a rival club.
It’s hard to disagree. But whether football’s creepy freakonomy is just as beneficial to the rest of us is another matter entirely.