Kylian Mbappé finally joins Real Madrid as anointed heir to the greats | Sid Lowe

And so, at last, it ends. The longest-running transfer saga anyone could remember and no one was allowed to forget has finally reached its inevitable, overdue conclusion. The game’s, the world’s, worst-kept secret is out. Kylian Mbappé has joined Real Madrid. Yep. Shocking, isn’t it? Actually, for everyone else, it probably is. “He would take us to the next level,” Jude Bellingham said on Saturday night. While standing on the Wembley pitch. Having just won the Champions League. His team’s sixth in a decade.

The continent’s best club now has its best player. The signing, on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, was announced on Monday evening, just as Mbappé had told Emmanuel Macron it would be, cameras catching him that morning saying: “Ce soir, ce soir.” The scene felt appropriate somehow. His signing took seven years and became a question of state – of states– but it is done now. No false alarms, no jumping the gun, no “official” that isn’t official and no U-turns, not this time: it is 2024 and done is done. Now for that other bit which can feel secondary sometimes: the football.

It is time. There is a photo you will have seen often. In it, a young Mbappé lies on his bed at home gazing up at the posters of Cristiano Ronaldo on his wall. There are others of him from a little later, aged 14, although he still looks small, not least because this time he is standing next to his idol. He would be big one day, though, and they knew that already, which is why Mbappé had been invited to Valdebebas to train. They had to convince him as much as the other way round, so Zinedine Zidane had picked him up from the airport. In the car, nervous, he had asked if he should take his shoes off.

Identified early as the man, the kid, most likely to lead the next generation, Madrid had always wanted Mbappé to come and he had always wanted to go, too. His was a managed career from the beginning, the idea always that he would end up at the Santiago Bernabéu. Everything else over the past half a dozen years, the occasional rumours about other clubs, the presidents who claimed it was possible, was just white noise: lines to be laughed at, empty links to be clicked. Madrid was a question of when; what few expected was for that to be now.

Kylian Mbappé as a youngster admiring the Cristiano Ronaldo posters in his bedroom. Photograph: Offside/L’Equipe

Madrid had wanted him as a child – his family had wanted to find the best place for him and protect him from the pressure, which was already intense – and when he left Monaco for PSG on a €180m deal that was officially a loan first in 2017. Mbappé, though, had doubted that he had a place in the team with the BBC of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo around, unsure about moving to Spain just yet. Paris was home, a place where he could mature and achieve. The biggest objective of all, the Champions League, went unfulfilled in the end.

Madrid were not in that much of a hurry either. They had Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. They had just won their second European Cup in a row, the first team to do so in the Champions League era. And Mbappé was still a teenager, with time on his side and theirs. He wasn’t going to be at PSG for long; let him mature a little there, play. Stay in touch. He knew and they knew that he would go one day soon.

Soon? Somehow seven years passed. It has been about to happen for all of them, or so it goes. He has had more front pages in Madrid than anyone who actually played for them in that time, and by miles. A lot happened for nothing to happen. There have been offers and counteroffers, politics and strategy, pressure applied hard, and a lot of money. In 2021 PSG fans booed him because they thought he was going to Madrid. In 2022 Madrid fans were equally angry because they found out he wasn’t. In 2023 Le Parisien said he was again, and he called them liars.

In the summer of 2021, Madrid offered €180m. PSG turned it down, which Madrid knew they would, so they went up to €200m. The whole thing was deliberately played out in public, each step confirmed and designed to be consumed. A message to their fans, sure, but also to PSG and above all to Mbappé to show how serious they were. You wondered what would have happened had PSG called their bluff; with the way it unfolded, this final result, left with no player, no money, and no Champions League, they may have wished they had.

Kylian Mbappé is yet to get his hands on the Champions League trophy, which has eluded PSG. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/AFP/Getty Images

Again, Madrid thought time, and his contract, were on their side. OK, don’t have €200m; we’ll wait and take him for free instead. They had not expected him to extend his contract at PSG the following summer, and were furious that he had. Mbappé, aware of what he had done, called Florentino Pérez to apologise; Madrid’s president was stung. Pride might have meant ending it there for good, but this is Kylian Mbappé. Some supporters considered it unforgivable, but they have forgiven him. Elsewhere of course, they found it very funny, but they’re not laughing now.

The pressure brought to bear upon Mbappé was intense and it came from the Élysée Palace and from Doha, PSG’s owners and the French state’s great investors. On the horizon: the Qatar World Cup and the Paris Olympics, and everything they symbolised, everything invested in them. What is it about footballers keeping out of politics? “It wasn’t an easy situation; I wouldn’t want anyone to go through that,” Mbappé said recently. “It was more than just staying at PSG. There were a lot of things around that situation. It was a big decision, a difficult one.”

He signed a three-year deal, or so they thought. There was an €180m bonus to renew, a salary of €72m a year. Loyalty bonuses of €70m, €80m, and €90m over the three years, which ironically became a point of conflict. That he was not convinced, maybe even that he was coerced, was revealed rapidly; it turned out this was not a three-year deal but two plus one and the following summer, June 2023, he announced that he would not be extending it. He said he had informed the club of that decision since 2022, not long after signing the extension.

PSG pushed him out of the squad, left him sitting in the stands. They tried to sell him, aware that their asset had slipped through their fingers and desperate to recoup something, anything. Madrid weren’t intending to move; they weren’t going to get their fingers burned again and didn’t feel the need to either. Mbappé said he was not going anywhere, not yet. This time he would go when the moment, and the conditions, were right for him.

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Mbappé celebrates winning the World Cup with France in 2018. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Now, a year on, he has. PSG have lost. There has been briefing and blaming, battles over the final payments, the bitterness inescapable. When he announced he was leaving, it was clear. It didn’t need saying, until Monday, after Madrid’s Champions League was won and celebrated. “You all know where,” his mother had said. Madrid have their player; they also feel they have won the battle, the signing. There’s a need to let that be known, too, in part because this hasn’t always gone as they would have liked, because there have been moments that exposed them.

During the spring, Madrid let it be known this wouldn’t happen at any price, that maybe they didn’t need him, that they could walk away if needs be. They weren’t going to: time and effort had been invested, and it was Mbappé on a free. If free is the word: he joins on a salary between €15m and €20m with annual increments, with a €125m signing bonus spread over five years of the contract, and with 80% of his image rights. A new favourable regime law for foreigners who invest, dubbed the Mbappé law, has been passed by the regional government. PSG have been left to pick up the pieces. “I have been at PSG seven years; it is a long time, especially in modern football,” he said.

It is longer than he had imagined, for sure, and it is tempting to see it as a waste, as meaningless. There may be a touch of arrogance, of dismissiveness in saying so from Spain, and it may not be entirely fair. He is the club’s all-time top scorer and at 25 he still has plenty of time to achieve more. But while he has chased the Champions League, Madrid have won it without him. Vinícius Júnior has emerged as a Ballon d’Or candidate ahead of him. He needs Madrid, perhaps, more than they need him. That may even help his integration, allaying fears of ego clashes. They have the medal he covets; maybe he can help them get more.

“It would be amazing,” Bellingham said after Saturday’s final. “You see tonight: it’s the only little thing that maybe we are missing: that clinical nine. If he was to come and give us that, we’d be in a really, really great place to take us to another level. He is one of the best players in the world, clearly.”

Yet Mbappé is not a typical No 9, preferring to play off the left, where Vinícius plays and where Rodrygo wants to play too. That at least is the theory, the apparent problem, and there has been a debate about how to fit them in. About what his arrival means for Bellingham’s position off the forwards, where Endrick, their other new signing, plays. Rodrygo has opened, and then quickly closed, the possibility of not continuing if there is not a role for him.

But Carlo Ancelotti has shifted things already, moving Vinícius inside. “I never imagined myself playing there,” the Brazilian said. “At first I told him I didn’t want to play there but he convinced me, he has made me a better player. I have completely changed my way of playing.” It is not that the manager was making space for Mbappé, but that may be a happy consequence; it is more that he has shown he can adapt players, fit them, build a team. Why not again? It’s going to be fun finding out, one way or another. Because there is a simple fact everyone has known for a long time: Kylian Mbappé is very good at football and so are Real Madrid. And now they are together at last.

The Guardian

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