There’s a lot of schadenfreude at Real Madrid’s expense right now, but for those who are enjoying Los Blancos‘ extreme discomfort at losing out on Kylian Mbappe, after the Paris Saint-Germain star opted to stay in Paris this summer, the message is: Watch out; the Empire Will Strike Back.
The French World Cup winner is a phenomenon. There’s no better way to put it, and it’s no exaggeration. He profiles as becoming one of the best strikers in history. That’s how talented, bright, hungry and athletic he is.
The sting of feeling betrayed, which has brought a rosy flush to Madrid cheeks, won’t dissipate quickly — particularly as this constitutes a third time the club needs to suck up the “close but no cigar” sentiment. Worse, obviously, is the loss of what was planned as an absolute goal bonanza next season.
Given the state of their opposition right now, it wouldn’t have been presumptuous of club president Florentino Perez to calculate that signing the prolific 23-year-old, while keeping hold of his own key players, would have all but guaranteed Madrid retaining their LaLiga title next season.
Why? Mbappe has racked up 205 goal contributions (hitting the net and giving assists) for PSG in 173 matches in the past four seasons. It’s utterly remarkable, particularly when you recall that when that sequence began, he was just 19.
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Karim Benzema will surely regret his affable reply in a L’Equipe interview last month, when he said: “I’ve got a great understanding with Kylian in the national team, and I’d love to play with him at Madrid. We’d score double the goals, or maybe even treble!”
Given that the 34-year-old Benzema and young Brazilian winger Vinicius Junior have already contributed 100 goals and assists this LaLiga-winning season, the addition of Mbappe to that pairing would’ve been enormously threatening for Madrid’s rivals — domestic and European alike. So this is a setback not easily forgiven or assimilated, but one that Madrid, under Perez, have a history of soaking up, redirecting their fury and then, like all good empires, striking back.
That history starts in 2013. Technically it starts seven years before that, but the heart of that refocusing of fury begins in 2013.
Neymar had not only been on Madrid’s radar for several years, they’d even had him (like Mbappe) training with them at Valdebebas in 2006. A €60,000 transfer fee for a 14-year-old put the interim board off signing him there and then, which the coaches thoroughly recommended, but when Perez returned from his sabbatical in 2009, he made signing the lithe, mercurial Santos star an absolute priority.
Perez and those around him did due diligence and hard work, enough to believe that there was a clear pact with Santos, with Neymar’s father and with the player’s agent such that, in 2014, he’d be signing for Real Madrid.
The ascension of Sandro Rosell to the Barcelona presidency was a threat that Perez underestimated, though. The ex-Nike Brazil executive gradually convinced Santos, the Neymar family and the key agent that it was the Camp Nou, to partner Lionel Messi, where Neymar should head next.
Rosell made an awful hash of telling the truth about how much it cost Barca to wrench the Brazilian away from his planned destiny at the Santiago Bernabeu. (There were various governmental and tax office investigations, and the club were regularly forced to re-announce the sum they’d invested.) In the end, though, Neymar shone brightly, particularly with Messi and Luis Suarez when the Blaugrana stormed to their second treble.
You don’t become a billionaire construction magnate, as is the case with Madrid’s president, without knowing how to nurse your fury, unleash a torrent of revenge and, then, savour the act of striking back. I’d argue that it’s unjust that “what Perez did next” has been a story far less appreciated.
While publicly, the Madrid leader covered his dignity by claiming that signing Neymar had become financially unattractive, rather than admitting he’d been gazumped by Barcelona, Perez applied the remedy of “You sign one of ours, and we’ll hit back by signing five of yours.” Before Neymar had completed a season at Camp Nou, Perez employed Jose Antonio Calafat de Souza, who goes by the nickname “Juni.” Juni Calafat was given explicit orders: “Find me the next Neymar, and then the one after that too. Then repeat the process all over the world.”
Perez decided that revenge on Barcelona, on Rosell and, indirectly, on Neymar, wouldn’t be sufficient; he wanted to go on a spree of signing the best young talent in the world. It would be the sort of spree that defied his previous Galactico policy, the one that had carried him to power in 2000 and sparked a short era of glory with Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, after Luis Figo started the process.
In fact, it was a volte-face — not something a powerful, supremely self-confident magnate will often find palatable. The previous template of signing established, glamorous, coveted talents in their mid-to-late 20s, one after the other, was set aside.
What followed was bolstered by Madrid’s president having the fortune of finding that re-recruiting Zidane, allowing him to participate in the full range of Los Blancos‘ activities — corporate ambassador, director of football, coach of Real Madrid Castilla (their B team) and assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti — was another jackpot idea. While Calafat was diligently doing his work, which would result in extraordinary success, Madrid’s old guard were winning Champions League after Champions League, largely thanks to the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose arrival at the club was thanks to Ramon Calderon rather than Perez.
Nevertheless, this sort of fury — which Perez will undoubtedly channel again, now that Mbappe has turned his back on what was considered to be a done deal — had huge effect. Having been in charge of Brazilian operations, Calafat signed both Vinicius and Rodrygo.
If the former has grabbed headlines more consistently, and been part of a 100-goal partnership with Benzema this season, nobody who follows football will need to have Rodrygo’s importance in the past three months explained to them. Lower profile than Vinicius, and less explosive on the ball, he remains an extraordinary 21-year-old whose 10 goals in 26 Champions League appearances overshadow a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who needed 27 matches in the competition with Manchester United before hitting the net for the first time.
For those who enjoy schadenfreude no matter the inflictor or victim, please remember that Barcelona were so sure that they, and not Madrid, would sign Vinicius Jr. that Gerard Pique put in a “Welcome to our world” video call to the young Brazilian only to see the work that Calafat and Perez put in had been enough to convince the then-18-year-old that “there was a better plan for me at Madrid than at Camp Nou.”
Calafat’s promotion first put him in charge of South American operations, and now, he’s the lead figure in how Madrid scout and recruit across the world. It’s his direct work, or that of his team, that can take the kudos for signing 18-year-old Federico Valverde, 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga and 21-year-old Eder Militao. There have been, inevitably, other investments that don’t match the stellar impact of the three Brazilians, the Uruguayan and the Frenchman, but in the transfer market, nobody bats a thousand.
The point is that it was the brutal sting of disappointment and humiliation over losing Neymar at the last instant that sparked a sustained tide of investment, new policy and intense competitiveness that has left Ancelotti with magnificent young players, all of whom have had a serious impact (even Camavinga) in making them Spanish champions and putting them on the verge of an historic double triumph.
While Perez was waiting to get Mbappe at, first, an affordable price and, then, for free, he’s been doing two main things: setting aside financial resources to pay the Frenchman a sizable eight-figure sum as a signing bonus — a figure he’s now free to reinvest in other new players in areas where the team is perhaps more deficient, starting with AS Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni. And he has been reconstructing the Santiago Bernabeu into an €800m football palace where, soon, the superstars of the world will dream of playing.
Losing out on Mbappe will have negative effects: This summer’s transfer plans are in tatters, Benzema is magnificent but not getting any younger, there’s corporate and personal embarrassment, and an anguished debate within the club about whether to admit Mbappe’s decision to remain in Paris “wasn’t personal, only business’” and set about a fourth attempt to sign him in 2024. But the empire will strike back. It did before and it will again.
Who knows? The cumulative effect might even be positive for Spain’s champions despite their current fury, frustration and embarrassment.