It was at the unveiling of yet another new coach that Paris St.-Germain’s president made his first public statement on the future of his team’s best player. He did not equivocate and left little room for compromise.
Kylian Mbappé, the marquee player for P.S.G. and France, must sign a new contract this summer or leave, Nasser al-Khelaifi told reporters, who were ostensibly gathered to hear the first pronouncements from the new coach, the Spaniard Luis Enrique, but eager to hear what the club planned to do about the uncertainty created by Mbappé after his public declaration last month that he wished to move on after next season.
Such a scenario would leave the club in the unenviable situation of losing, without compensation, a player in whom it has invested more than $500 million in transfer fees, bonuses and wages. That is something al-Khelaifi said would not be allowed to happen.
“We do not want him to leave for free in 2024,” al-Khelaifi said.
“Our position is clear,” he continued. “If Kylian wants to stay, we want him to stay. But he needs to sign a new contract.
“We don’t want to lose the best player in the world for free. It’s impossible.”
And that was that. Al-Khelaifi, as he stood to leave the raised platform he had shared with Enrique, told the assembled members of the news media that he expected they had gotten what they came for. The new coach, for his part, declined to say whether he expected Mbappé to be in Paris when the new season gets underway this summer.
What is clear is that for a second straight summer, the fate of where Mbappé plays is going to overshadow P.S.G.’s efforts to prove that it is now a serious contender for soccer’s biggest prize rather than once again the central stage for the sport’s biggest intrigues.
Enrique, who most recently coached Spain’s national team, arrived on Wednesday and is charged with bringing order to a club that has been characterized by disorder in recent seasons. Just this week, his predecessor, Christophe Galtier, who arrived just last summer, became the latest P.S.G. coach to be shown the door before completing his contract.
No club in soccer has spent more money on talent since Qatar Sports Investments acquired P.S.G. about a decade ago. Few top clubs have cycled through as many coaches, and fewer still have wasted as much time and money trying to find an identity and a style underpinning all that largess.
Last summer, P.S.G. persuaded Mbappé to sign a new contract rather than sign with Real Madrid, the Spanish super club he has long dreamed of playing for. P.S.G. had wanted to build a new model, with Mbappé as the central star in a constellation of mostly young, mostly French talent. Without him, that master plan would once again require reimagining.
Later on, al-Khelaifi was even more strident. Sitting down with members of the domestic news media, he said Mbappé had a “maximum” of two weeks to decide whether to sign a new contract. The club, he said, would not allow such a valuable asset to leave for nothing in 12 months. Mbappé could, it was pointed out to al-Khelaifi, just decide to stay, making it impossible for the club to dictate his fate.
Al-Khelaifi said that would be unthinkable — that Mbappé would be breaking an unwritten convention of some sort, by doing something that the world’s best players simply do not do. He did not mention that P.S.G. had done that very thing two summers ago, signing the Argentine great Lionel Messi as a free agent when Barcelona, the team Messi had played on for his entire career, could no longer afford to keep him.
“If he doesn’t want to sign,” al-Khelaifi said, “the door is open.”
Privately, the club has been exchanging letters with Mbappé’s management team, which is led by his mother, Fayza Lamari. This week, the latest missive, running to three pages, expressed disappointment with the position Mbappé had taken and reminded the player and his family how much P.S.G. had invested in the forward since his teenage years.
In signing his contract, Mbappé was allowed a rare level of influence over the club’s activities, including a say over recruitment of the players who would line up alongside him. The club’s letter, which expressed a demand for an urgent meeting, said as much, acknowledging that while the club had not been able to fulfill all his requirements for reinforcements, it had done as much as it could given the constraints placed upon it by European soccer rules on spending.
P.S.G. resumes practice on July 10, but Mbappé, along with others who played for their national teams in June, will return on July 17. By then, the club hopes to have clarity on whether he will accede to its demand to sign a new contract. It hopes he will, even though his doing so would not reduce the possibility that he would leave next summer. A new contract dated beyond the end of next season would allow P.S.G. to recoup a fee. Shortly after signing his current deal last summer, Mbappé told The New York Times in an interview that it would not have felt correct to leave the club via free agency.
In the rarefied world Mbappé inhabits, for both his talent and his earning potential, the pool of clubs he could sign with is a shallow one and may actually be limited to one: Real Madrid.
That club is searching for a marquee forward, having lost the veteran striker Karim Benzema to Saudi Arabia’s soccer land grab, and Mbappé has spoken of playing there one day. For the stars to align, the club would have to be convinced to make P.S.G. an offer for a player it knows it could bring in without a fee next year. So far, it has remained tight-lipped about its plans.
In her time representing her son, Lamari has become an experienced hand in securing the best possible deal. Last summer, with a deal with Real Madrid in hand, and the suggestion that the Premier League club Liverpool, an unlikely suitor, also had a firm interest, she managed to secure a huge new contract. It guaranteed a bonus of more than $100 million just as a re-signing fee even before his stratospheric new salary was included.
P.S.G. announced that the deal would run through 2025, and it even had Mbappé wear a jersey emblazoned with the year on his back. Only later did it transpire that the third year was an option that only the player could exercise.
Lamari will once again take center stage as face-to-face talks with club executives take place over the next few days. Only then will it become clear whether, as al-Khelaifi told reporters, “No one player is bigger than the club.”