I’ve been to Paris once. It was in June of 2008 during a summer trip organized by my high school. The first day spent in the capital I walked around one of the older neighborhoods and came across a McDonald’s restaurant. In the window was a full length picture of France’s marquee footballer of the moment, Thierry Henry. It was slightly eye-opening in that I had never seen a footballer used so prominently in a marketing campaign in the United States. The beautiful game’s monolithic world appeal for the first time was made apparent to me. It must have been the same way for Zinedine Zidane in 1998, and Michel Platini in the 1984. Neither of those players ever wore a Paris Saint-Germain jersey, nor did Henry who in 2008 was starring at FC Barcelona.
Sure, PSG have had great French players over their first 47 years. FIFA World Cup winner Youre Djorkaeff for 1 year, David Ginola for 3, and Dominique Rocheteau from 1980 to 1987, a great stretch for the Parisians. More recently, players like Nicolas Anelka, and Blaise Matuidi have represented both Les Rouges et Bleus, and Les Bleus. Currently, PSG’s youth academy has produced Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku, Adrien Rabiot, and Alphonse Areola, all players poised to make some sort of impact for the national team in the coming years. However, with all of those names the fact still remains that Paris has never had the best French footballer in the world, the star of Les Bleus, play their club football in the city of lights.
This is why acquiring 18-year-old forward Kylian Mbappé from AS Monaco was nearly as essential as the Neymar Jr. acquisition. From a purely footballing perspective, the Bondy, France, native enters a crowded attacking front with a coach who is notoriously late to pull the trigger on substitutions. This situation may not be ideal for the coming season but sometimes football isn’t always about football. Sometimes, the sport must come second to the business side of things. For PSG, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When is the next transformative young French star going to have the desire to spend his formative years at your club alongside a player the caliber of Neymar? For that matter, when is the next time PSG will have the chance to sign both Neymar and Mbappé in the same window? The question is rhetorical because it will never happen again.
Mbappé in this circumstance is more than a player who can win PSG games. He is a symbol. Nasser Al-Khelaifi in the press release touting the move stated something along the lines of it being important to keep a player like Mbappé in “our championship”. This statement is interesting on many levels. First, it is a not so veiled swipe at other French teams for selling their young potential stars to foreign clubs at the first inkling of a potential profit. Second, it frames Le championnat as PSG’s competition to lose, like the Bundesliga is FC Bayern Munich’s to lose, and Serie A is Juventus FC’s to lose. But more importantly, it establishes a precedent that the great French players should stay in France. Something that hasn’t happened since the 80s–hell, maybe the 70s. Al-Khelaifi made it clear that he wanted the next great French legend to play for Paris, in the old national stadium, in front of the children who some day may become the next great French legend.
As much as Ligue 1 fans stomp their feet with indignation over PSG destroying any semblance of competitive balance, they should maybe look at it another way. If Mbappé wasn’t going to stay at Monaco, wasn’t going to PSG the next best option? Why let another great French-bred talent leave for another league way too early for them never to return? Yes, eventually Mbappé will leave for another club, most top talents do, but now you get 4 to 5 more years of having the next French sensation in your domestic league, in your stadiums, making your clubs money. A win/win proposition.
Something else to take into consideration is that three major international tournaments take place during Mbappé’s contract at PSG–the 2018 World Cup, the 2020 UEFA European Championships, and the 2022 World Cup. This is a major coup for Les Parisiens because Mbappé could be the breakout star of 2018, and the face of the national team in 2020 and 2022. This potential plus the Nike connection played as big a role in this deal as anything else on both sides of the table.
While this deal has a lot to do with marketing and profit, a bit of sentimentalism creeps in. Years ago, Kylian Mbappé took a picture in the Parc des Princes as a young child. In a few weeks, he will take the field again at the Parc but this time as a player charged with creating that French connection that the club desperately needs. Paris est magique, but so is France, and so are the dreams of little boys in Paris who one day dream of doing exactly what Mbappé is doing right now.