On Saturday night at the Parc des Princes, Kylian Mbappé was in a good mood. Not because his team, Paris Saint-Germain, were struggling to score without him against Lorient in their Ligue 1 opening game of the 2023-24 season. Not because one of his best friends in football, Ousmane Dembélé, was sat next to him in his box. No: most of all, Mbappé was happy because he knew that his punishment was finally over.
Since Aug. 1, the 2018 World Cup winner was seemingly a football player in name only. Sure, he was training, but not in the way he has been used to through his career. PSG had decided to drop him from all first team activities because he wanted to run down his contract and leave as a free agent next season, which the club would not accept.
The sanction meant no preseason tour in Japan, where he is a huge star and has many business interests and partnerships. No training with manager Luis Enrique and his teammates. No sharing the same dressing room as the senior players. No friendly matches, either -- only some basic training sessions with the "unwanted" players, like Julian Draxler, Leandro Paredes and Gini Wijnaldum, whom PSG also hope to send packing.
So while PSG could muster only a scoreless draw, Mbappé was happy. Earlier on before the game, in the secrecy of the stadium, he met with club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, a conversation that turned out to be at once positive and constructive to the point that, after months of recriminations between player and club over whether he would leave the French capital, Mbappé was in talks to extend his contract. Following the game, he was also reinstated to the PSG first-team squad.
For weeks, the relationship between the two had been broken, talking to each other only through lawyers and letters.
When PSG decided to entertain offers for Mbappé, the first one came from Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia's Pro League. The €300m bid was accepted by Al Khelaifi, but Mbappé was not interested: he didn't even pick up the phone to discuss. All he wanted was to play, preferably in Spain for Real Madrid, and he already had an agreement with them to join on a free transfer next summer, with a massive €100m signing fee. But he was hoping for Real Madrid to push up the timeline and sign him now. Los Blancos didn't come calling.
Club president Florentino Perez wanted Mbappé to act first by declaring publicly that he was ready to make the move. Except that didn't sit well with Mbappé. He knew that going public with his desire to join Real Madrid would only anger PSG and their fans, tarnishing his image.
As for staying at PSG? It seemed to be another dead end as the Qatari owners were ready to go far in this game of brinkmanship. Unless he changed his mind, they were threatening to bench Mbappé all season like they did with Adrien Rabiot when he was in a similar position a few years ago. They even thought about banning Mbappé from coming to the stadium to watch the team play.
But the superstar was determined, too. Every new thing PSG tried, he rejected. A short contract extension? Not happening. A new, longer-term contract with a big signing-on fee? Still no. And yet, during this protracted contract crisis, two key things happened to create another big, unexpected twist.
One of the reasons the Frenchman was not happy at the club for most of last season -- remember back before the World Cup, we reported on him wanting to leave in January -- was because he had been promised a competitive team around him and he didn't think that was the case. To make him happy, PSG tried, unsuccessfully, to sign Dembélé from Barcelona last summer.
Mbappé and Dembélé have always wanted to play club football together, and their brother-like relationship goes beyond football. They go on holidays together. They speak on the phone all the time. Attracting the French international winger to the Parc des Princes would be a positive step toward tempting Mbappé to stay without running down his contract. So when PSG signed Dembélé on Aug. 12, things started to change.
The other factor of the Mbappé U-turn, and maybe the most important one, was Neymar. The Brazilian's departure to Saudi Arabia was an absolute blessing, as Mbappé didn't want Neymar at the club anymore. It was the case last summer, but PSG didn't find anyone to take him. It was even more the case this summer.
After being very close when they both arrived in Paris back in summer 2017, the two players had grown apart. Mbappé could not bear the discipline issues with the Brazil international, nor the fact that he was usually missing half of the season every year, mostly through his many injuries (metatarsal, ankle, hamstring). They were also fighting for the same position. Mbappé wants to play off a striker on the left-hand side, yet Neymar has always played on the left-hand side. There was space for only one of them; PSG had to choose.
In the discussion between Mbappé and Al Khelaifi on Saturday, the Frenchman promised not to leave as a free agent in 12 months' time, which was the biggest stumbling block in all of this. PSG were OK with the concept of seeing him leave, just not as a free agent. Now, he has committed himself to the club and vowed that PSG would get something when he leaves.
So what will this compromise look like? It is still to be negotiated and agreed. It could be a short contract extension with a release clause. It could be an agreement in which the 24-year-old doesn't renew his deal but does waive some of his bonuses to save PSG money (we are talking between €70-100m) before leaving at the expiration of his contract.
In other words, there are options, but at least now, the two camps are friends again. Mbappé is training and will play at Toulouse this weekend. Dembélé and him are inseparable, while Neymar has moved on. PSG even promised to try again for Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva, another signing that would strengthen the team and make Mbappé even happier.
Aug. 1 seems a long time ago, almost a different life.