For Real Madrid, the next seven days were intended to be a dream come true.
At the outset of the week, announce the signing of Kylian Mbappe, probably the most sought-after player in the world, and at the conclusion of the week, win the Champions League.
That was the anticipation of club president Florentino Perez, who had been extremely optimistic about completing a deal for the World Cup-winning France attacker.
Mbappe’s decision to stay at Paris St-Germain has not been well received. The Madrid press have been enraged, to the point that all coverage this week has been focused on the non-deal rather than the little matter of Saturday’s final against Liverpool.
Karim Benzema has courted controversy as a result of the aftermath, but it may really be good news for some of the Bernabeu club’s important players.
In any case, Real Madrid’s build-up to their pursuit for a 14th Champions League victory has not been what they had hoped for.
While Liverpool’s preparations for the Paris final have included coming to grips with the disappointment of losing the Premier League title to Manchester City by a point, Real Madrid has had to deal with a completely different setback.
Many in their camp were looking forward to the chance to play with Mbappe, not least since they had been assured his arrival was a done deal.
The Madrid media shared this sentiment, and the fundamental cause of the uproar was that all they had just heard – or believed – was Perez’s version of events.
Everything was agreed upon, according to people close to the president. Mbappe had begun looking for a home in Madrid, his presentation to the adoring fans was in the works, and Perez had stated in private meetings and meals that everything was in place.
Perez told everyone that the player was counting down the days until he arrived, and PSG’s rejection of a new contract offer over the last eight months further confirmed their suspicions.
Mbappe, on the other hand, has consistently stated that he will make his decision at the end of the season.
Real Madrid told him he had to pick between money and glory, and this week there has been a lot of speculation that he chose money.
However, his motivation was more than just financial.
Despite what you may have read or heard, Mbappe believes he said “yes” to PSG and staying in his own France, not “no” to Real Madrid.
In the end, there was nothing to pick between the two teams’ offers, and the player believes he still has unfinished business in Paris.
Money was obviously a role for the 23-year-old, but it was also about love – which he had in spades in Paris – and power, the three things that people want. The player will suddenly become the club’s main point, and everyone will have to adjust to this. And yeah, Lionel Messi is one of them. Let’s have a look at how that goes.
Mbappe is also well aware that towards the end of his lucrative new contract, he will be just 26 years old and probably at the top of his game. Then anything could happen; never say never.
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid’s current standout player, is 37 years old and may not be with the club when his contract expires. Perhaps this explains his strange Instagram post of a picture of Tupac Shakur with an image in the backdrop of a ‘friend’ of the rapper who allegedly betrayed him before his 1996 murder. This was interpreted as a less-than-subtle hint intended to draw attention to Mbappe’s personal ‘betrayal.’
Of course, the two are France teammates, and Mbappe was keen to point out that, in his perspective, Benzema’s childish retort had more to do with the powers that be at Real Madrid causing havoc than with Benzema himself.
Benzema has been less than pleased with his involvement in the affair, and it required his intervention this week to shift the atmosphere.
During a Champions League media day on Tuesday, he effectively punched the reset button, saying that the time for discussing these trivial details had passed and that it was now time to focus on the game.
Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, both of whom are engaged in Saturday’s final, are unlikely to be disappointed by Mbappe’s absence in Madrid.
Vinicius has played more minutes this season than any other Real Madrid player and has excelled in the Champions League. Rodrygo has seen less action this season, but he provided one of the most memorable moments in European football when he scored twice in the dying minutes of their Champions League semi-final against Manchester City to keep the tie alive.
More support for Vinicius, who was told as a 16-year-old that the club saw him as the club’s future rather than Mbappe, is now unavoidable. His potential relevance to the Spanish champions has suddenly increased dramatically. Vinicius will most likely profit from not having to look behind him.
New contracts for him and Rodrygo are being discussed. Although neither is a “Mbappe,” Real Madrid has realized that this is the coat to which they must cut their cloth. They will have to sign prodigiously gifted teenagers, such as the aforementioned pair and Eduardo Camavinga, and transform them into superstars because they can no longer compete in the purchase of superstars.
The key question today is where Real Madrid and its president stand after this off-field saga.
There’s no denying that Perez and the club as a whole are in desperate need of a reality check. Both aren’t used to coming in second place in transfer negotiations, but they must accept that the timing of these massive deals is now in the hands of the players, thanks to Mbappe’s handling of the situation, which included letting his contract run down and waiting until the end of the season to announce his decision.
Perez is a brilliant leader with a killer instinct, and previous transactions have demonstrated to the footballing world that he and Real Madrid always get what they want.
But that is no longer the case.
The emergence of state-owned clubs such as Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) and PSG (Qatar) has shifted the landscape of European football. On and off the field, the pecking order has shifted, with the game’s two young superstars opting to entrust their futures to these clubs – Erling Haaland to Manchester City and Mbappe to Paris Saint-Germain – rather than Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Real Madrid’s failure to complete the Mbappe deal has cost them not just money and prestige in the eyes of the market, but most importantly, face. That is not a pleasant feeling for a club that prides itself on being a leader in its field.
However, the disappointment of missing out on Mbappe should not obscure the fact that Real Madrid is still a well-run club, with manageable debt despite the stadium’s reconstruction, and a roster that is evolving and will become younger this summer.
Not to mention the fact that they are one game away from achieving a double in La Liga and the Champions League.
They seemed to have the tranquility of serial winners, the cool heads of those used to appearing in major finals. The players approached the season’s most important week as though they were wandering around on a beach in flip flops. It isn’t arrogance at all. It’s the sensation that they have nothing to lose, but also that they have a strong chance of winning.
Yes, in the commercial world, they lack the extra dimension that a Galactico would provide.
But how important is it to have one on the pitch? On Saturday, we might find out against Liverpool.