PARIS – Kylian Mbappé finds himself in the unique position of training alone at home while his Paris Saint-Germain teammates are playing abroad.
Speculation is mounting as to where Mbappé will play his first game of the season. Will he stay at PSG, go to Real Madrid or fly far away to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal?
While soccer fans in Japan are disappointed not to see the superstar after he was left out of the club's pre-season tour, PSG fans may have to brace themselves for a similar scenario when the French champions open their league campaign on Aug. 12.
The 24-year-old Mbappé is locked in a contract standoff and neither side seems prepared to give ground.
PSG is finally standing up to one of its big-name stars — after years of pandering to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar — while Mbappé is determined to do things on his own terms.
Mbappé has already told the club he won’t trigger a 12-month extension on his contract, which expires at the end of next June. He has until Monday to change his mind and sign the extension, but that looks increasingly impossible.
Mbappé has already made it clear he intends to play only this season with the French champions, and then leave. That means he could join long-time suitor Real Madrid for free. With no transfer fee involved, Madrid can offer him a lucrative signing bonus and a massive salary.
PSG is having none of it, and says the top scorer at last year's World Cup will either sign the current extension offer in place, sign a new contract altogether, or prepare to be sold.
That has opened the door for Saudi team Al-Hilal to make a world record $332 million bid for Mbappé — a huge amount under any circumstances, but even more so for a player in the final year of his contract. By comparison, Madrid offered 180 million euros ($200 million) for the striker in 2021.
But money is seemingly no object in the oil-rich kingdom and the promise of inflated wages means players are flocking there from Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly earns up to $200 million a year, despite being close to 40 years old, while the Saudi-funded LIV Golf tour has shaken up professional golf and the country hosts a glitzy Formula One race.
The moves are part of efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to leverage the kingdom’s oil wealth to provide new jobs and opportunities at home. However, critics have dismissed the efforts as “sportswashing,” attempting to leverage professional sports to clean up the kingdom’s poor human rights image.
Al-Hilal failed to sign Lionel Messi. The Argentina great instead joined Inter Miami, so the Riyad-based club has turned its attentions to Mbappé.
It seems unlikely, however, that Mbappé will be lured just yet. Unlike Ronaldo or Messi, he has never won the Champions League, let alone the Ballon d'Or — Ronaldo and Messi have won 12 Ballon d'Or trophies and nine Champions League titles between them.
Mbappé became only the second player in history to score a hat trick in a World Cup final last year in Qatar, and he seems to have unfinished business at the highest level of European soccer. So that makes Madrid the favorite to sign him.
He would join the most decorated club at European level with 14 European Cup titles, and fans would see him as an ideal replacement for Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema.
PSG could try pressuring Mbappé to sign a new contract by leaving him out of the team when the season starts. But given that PSG only won the league by one point last season, that appears to be a risky strategy and might displease fans. It would also create a potentially toxic atmosphere for new PSG coach Luis Enrique.
While Mbappé waits for his teammates to return, he works out alone at the training complex in the quiet suburb of Poissy.
The noise surrounding his transfer will keep getting louder, however, until a final decision is made.