What Kylian Mbappe leaving PSG means for Macron, the French and Qatar – The Athletic

Adam CraftonMar 5, 2024

It is now almost two years since the French president Emmanuel Macron secured a second term, an election in which he defeated his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen by claiming more than 58 per cent of the vote.

Yet in Tallenay, a small town in eastern France, 10 voters despaired altogether at the option of either Macron or Le Pen, and instead spoiled their ballots by putting forward the name of Kylian Mbappe, the French international footballer and Paris Saint-Germain striker. It may have been a novelty protest vote, rather than a sincere campaign for power, but it made some headlines nationally and signposted Mbappe’s prominence in French public life.

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In political life, too, Mbappe has emerged as a visible figure in France. Just last week, he was a guest at a dinner held by Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris during a visit to the French capital by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatar, of course, is the de facto owner of PSG under the umbrella of Qatar Sports Investments, which was established by the emir in 2005.

Mbappe, left, greets Brigitte Macron, Emmanuel Macron and the emir (Yoan Valat via Getty Images)

As soon as news emerged of Mbappe’s involvement in a state occasion between Qatar and France, reports popped up in France claiming the Qatari leader was on a mission to reverse Mbappe’s decision to leave PSG, with the player expected to join Real Madrid this summer after seven years in Paris.

All sides denied this to be the case and said the purpose of the state visit was an attempt by the French and Qataris to advance conversations around a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This all left PSG’s communication officials, rather bizarrely, needing to clarify that neither Mbappe nor the club’s president Nasser Al-Khelaifi (who was also invited to the dinner) was involved in conversations as to how the Israeli president, Benjamin Netanyahu, might be dissuaded from an advance into Rafah, or how Hamas may be convinced to return further hostages.

Yet it is also the case that Mbappe, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro, found himself seated at the top table of the dinner, at an event attended by the French presidential couple, the emir, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and, among others, Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LMVH, the luxury goods company that owns brands such as Moet and Louis Vuitton. Over several hours, the guests enjoyed grilled asparagus, caviar and the finest lobster from Brittany.

Macron and the emir greeted Mbappe upon arrival and perhaps it crystallised in that moment quite how significant this 25-year-old footballer has become to the image both leaders have wished to portray for their countries. It was an indication, too, of Mbappe’s own soft power — at home and abroad.

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Macron has long recognised the value of sport to his leadership, sensing its capacity as a unifying tool in a country that has been overshadowed by protests over pension reforms over the past year.

Macron pledged to bolster sport when he first became president in 2017. This summer’s Olympic Games will mark the 100th anniversary of the previous edition in Paris and the 2024 Rugby World Cup was also held in France.

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Macron’s love for sport may be authentic but he has also demonstrated political acumen to ally himself with French sporting success, all of which enhances his relatability to some voters. A video emerged of Macron necking a pint of beer in 17 seconds with the French rugby champions Toulouse last summer. He has often spoken about his support of the French football team Marseille, while many will remember how he jumped in the air from the VIP suites to celebrate the men’s football World Cup win in 2018, before heading to the dressing room for a dab with Paul Pogba. Others may recall the rather more cringeworthy attempts to console Mbappe on the field following the World Cup final defeat by Argentina in December 2022 in Qatar.

Mbappe arrives at the dinner (Christian Liewig – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Jean-Baptiste Guegan, a French geopolitical expert who this week publishes his book Revolution Mbappe, says that “the relationship between Macron and Mbappe is typical of the footballisation of politics in France”.

He tells The Athletic: “Mbappe is a national figure capable of increasing the noise around the France-Qatar summit and adding glamour and dynamism to a formal state dinner. And then Mbappe is a marker and an actor in the France-Qatar relationship. He knows it and the actors know it. Like any good politician, he responds to the invitation.”

On the international stage, the extent of Mbappe’s relevance is debatable. The Qataris who run PSG will always protest that their acquisition of the Parisian club in 2012 for €70million (£59.9m; $75.8m) represented an investment project — the club has been valued at close to £4billion — with the overall aim of seeking to diversify its economy away from oil and gas.

Guegan adds: “There was also the reputational opportunity to develop the international image of Qatar, a nation branding impact by associating itself with the capital of fashion in Paris. Here is a premium club, centred on the stars — all of which build a positive and virtuous lifestyle image.

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“Then there was a political and geopolitical opportunity. By buying PSG and saving French football via beIN Sports (the Qatari broadcaster that became a major investor in French sporting television rights), Qatar offered itself the possibility of becoming closer to France; a European power, with a defence industry and a seat at the United Nations Security Council.

“Such an investment is useful given the complex geopolitical context of Qatar in the Arab-Persian Gulf and it strengthens the links between two historically close countries (the Al-Thanis are French-speaking and Francophile). And a final interest: this position offers significant economic opportunities in Qatar. The interpersonal relations achieved by the VIP connections at the stadium allow Qatar to invest more in Paris and to strengthen its position.”

Mbappe with PSG’s Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in 2017 (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, explains: “Historically, it’s always been a close tie, especially in the defence sector. France has always been a major exporter of defence equipment to Qatar behind the United States. There’s been a close relationship in the energy sector as well for decades. Defence and energy are the pillars of the relationship.”

At the Elysee Palace, there may have been one further diplomatic item on the menu with the Qataris. The French top flight, Ligue 1, is still to sell its international and domestic broadcasting rights for the upcoming 2024-29 cycle, with beIN Sports (also chaired by PSG president Al-Khelaifi) among those the French authorities would like to rival British sports streamer DAZN. Few will be surprised if beIN once again dives in to save the day, even though DAZN is seen as the favourite for the domestic rights. A beIN bid has been made for the international package.

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Those ties between France and Qatar were strengthened in February when the two countries sealed a strategic partnership under which Qatar has agreed to invest more than $10billion into start-ups and investment funds in France between 2024 and 2030. As such, there is little sign of an exit for Mbappe soiling this relationship.

That may be because Mbappe has served his geopolitical purpose to Qatar. For the first decade of PSG’s Qatari ownership, the club appeared to be focused on a star-studded strategy, aimed at attracting eyeballs. Money appeared to be no object. The club signed a litany of famous names, including David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Mbappe. This attracted plenty of scrutiny, as some critics argued it was about using famous names to distract from questions about how Qatar secured its World Cup (it denies wrongdoing) and then the human cost of constructing the tournament’s infrastructure.

The summer of Mbappe’s arrival was particularly fascinating, because in June 2017, a Saudi-led coalition, with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, issued 13 demands to Qatar and accused the country of fostering terrorism and destabilising the region. When Qatar rejected these demands, borders were sealed, airspace was denied to planes and diplomatic ties were cut. For more than three years, relationships hit a fresh low and all manner of dark arts were undertaken regionally as part of a blockade that was only lifted in January 2021.

Mbappe has been a useful symbol for Qatar (Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images for Qatar Airways )

In that same summer of 2017, PSG made arguably their greatest splash in the transfer market, acquiring Neymar for a world-record £200m from Barcelona and then also signing Mbappe from Monaco.

Ulrichsen argues Qatar’s motivations for this investment went beyond football: “Neymar certainly made a statement that Qatar was not cut off by the blockade. An initial aim of the Saudis was to try to isolate Qatar and show that the world wasn’t willing to deal with them — but then you suddenly had the Qataris paying a world-record fee, showing that they were still there despite the blockade and also that people weren’t buying the Saudi narrative.”

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Mbappe, still only aged 18, was initially signed as a secondary star, as the great young hope of French football. His profile at the time was much lower than Neymar’s, yet within a year, he had propelled France to a World Cup trophy in Russia and PSG (and, by extension, Qatar) had found themselves with a superstar on their hands.

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As their World Cup in 2022 edged closer, it became a matter of pride that the Qatar-funded club should have a staple of ‘galactico’ names. PSG retained Neymar and added Messi but, on several occasions, summoned all their financial and political firepower to keep Mbappe away from Real Madrid, spurning offers worth more than £150m in the summer of 2021 and then convincing Mbappe to sign fresh terms in Paris in 2022 (the year of the World Cup) when everyone had expected him to walk away. As Mbappe became a matter of Qatari ego, the French establishment also rallied.

The journalist Guegan says: “In 2022, Qatar said no and mobilised money, networks, and key players — right up to Sarkozy and Macron, who advised Mbappe (to stay).”

The Athletic has also been told that officials from the French Football Federation, Ligue 1, France’s Olympics organisation, fellow PSG players and other politicians from the sports ministry have been enlisted to impress on Mbappe the need to stay in France, at least until the Olympic Games in 2024, where Mbappe is expected to represent his country.

In early 2022, the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said on French television: “He’s so important, so useful to give hope to our young people. That’s why I want him to stay. We love him so much — just love, affection, and tell him that he is, in our country, in this city, a huge example for so many young people.”

PSG ‘galactico’ era peaked with Messi, Neymar and Mbappe (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

In return for staying, Mbappe received extraordinary money — the contract was worth $250m over three years from 2022 — but he is likely to forgo some bonuses to leave this summer, as the deal turned out to be a two-year agreement with a one-year extension option. He also appeared to receive a level of influence within the club that is unusual for a footballer, notably when his former Monaco mentor Luis Campos arrived as a sporting advisor to lead the club’s recruitment, which led to Mbappe needing to deny that he was exerting undue power over the club’s transfer dealings.

Guegan says: “Mbappe imposed his law and his role exceeded that of Neymar and all the stars who came to the club before Mbappe. Even Zlatan. We started talking about ‘MbaPSG’ or even ‘Kylian Saint-Germain’.”

For Qatar, it gave them ownership over the headline stars of their own World Cup, as Messi and Mbappe faced off in arguably the greatest final of them all, while Macron has kept Mbappe in Paris until the Olympics.

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Why, though, is Mbappe so important to the French president?

Guegan says: “The two men have a common and comparable trajectory; they are young in comparison to their peers, and they are winners. They are hyperactive, individualistic and precocious characters.

“Mbappe learned a lot from Macron during their frequent lunches together and he is fascinated by politics, power and the world. And then Macron is a political animal who loves football.

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“One of the president’s motivations, apart from a fascination for the player, is also linked to politics. Mbappe has more than 146million followers (on social media) and these are mainly French and young. This is a group with which Macron struggles to connect. But another advantage of Mbappe is that he appeals to Macron’s preferred and preferential political clientele: the middle and upper classes, the entrepreneurs and the elderly.

“Mbappe is perceived as well-educated and invested. He is popular and unifying — he represents ‘the Frenchman we would like to see’, the Frenchman of the 21st century and the one who succeeds.”

Macron congratulates Mbappe in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup final (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Mbappe’s success cannot be in question. He won the 2018 World Cup and then scored a hat-trick in the final against Argentina in the 2022 edition, starring even as France finished as runners-up.

He has scored the most goals for PSG domestically and in Europe, as well as the most hat-tricks, the most ‘doubles’ and the most goals in a single game (five). If he wins the Ligue 1 Golden Boot again this season, he will have received that award six times in a row.

Little wonder that French politicians have sought to hang on the coattails of Mbappe’s success, or held him up as a role model. Sylvine Thomassin, the former mayor of Bondy, Mbappe’s hometown, once said: ‘Kylian demonstrates the success of a positive state of mind, which youngsters need to expand their world. They have to stop thinking that their future is only in Bondy.”

Against one concrete tower block in Bondy, Mbappe’s sponsor, Nike, funded an Mbappe mural, in which he is depicted as sleeping with a football and dreaming of a life as a superstar.

Mbappe’s upbringing was relatively comfortable, certainly compared to some of the more negative presentations of the Parisian suburbs, but Bondy is a commune in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, where unemployment is higher than 20 per cent and almost a third of residents live in poverty. One of the legacy promises of Paris 2024 is to use some of the €4.5billion pledged for regeneration to improve this area.

Mbappe’s relationship with Bondy has not always been straightforward, particularly in 2022 when death threats were scrawled in graffiti due to his family’s perceived links with the former mayor Thomassin.

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With Mbappe, little as clear as it may appear. Even within his relationship with Macron, he has been careful. Mbappe supported Macron’s desire to promote the vaccine against Covid-19, publishing images of receiving the jab on social media, but when 50 people from the world of sports published a memo in the French newspaper Le Parisien, requesting the French public vote for Macron over Le Pen, Mbappe was not among them.

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During the dinner at the Elysee Palace last week, Macron, seemingly referring to Mbappe’s summer exit from PSG and relations with Qatar, joked: “You are going to create more trouble for us.”

Increasingly, it is tempting to wonder whether Mbappe is of lesser importance to Macron as well as Qatar’s emir. Mbappe is no longer the young darling of French football. He has, at times, been booed by his own supporters in the Parc des Princes, first following his underwhelming performances at Euro 2020, which also corresponded with attempts to leave the club for Real Madrid.

This weekend, a group of PSG fans held up a sign saying “KM: Bring on June 30”, referring to the date when his contract is up, after tiring of the endless dramas surrounding his future.

Last summer, opinion polling in France, carried out by Odoxa, indicated that 63 per cent of the French population maintained a positive view of Mbappe but he dropped 21 points to 45 per cent from previous polling when the question asked about how humble Mbappe is deemed to be.

Relative to many famous people, such polling is still reasonably strong. Mbappe has established a charitable foundation for children in Paris and he has spoken out against racism in football, including rebukes for people at the very top of French football — but repeated transfer sagas have dimmed his glow. It is hardly surprising that a multi-millionaire sponsored by Nike, Hublot, Louis Vuitton and EA Sports has become a little detached from the real world.

Guegan explains: “Mbappe appeals to children and adolescents but he does not attract the support of PSG’s most passionate fans. He appears disconnected from the younger man of his early years, he has become a colder character. He remains popular but more divisive.”

Equally, it is not difficult to imagine Mbappe’s standing recovering by the time he is lighting up Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium or dazzling the world at the Olympics in Paris or the World Cup in the United States in 2026. If Macron is smart, he will soon realise the France of tomorrow may have cause to celebrate an outstanding export.

(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

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Adam Crafton covers football for The Athletic. He previously wrote for the Daily Mail. In 2018, he was named the Young Sports Writer of the Year by the Sports’ Journalist Association. His debut book,”From Guernica to Guardiola”, charting the influence of Spaniards in English football, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. He is based in London.

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