The 10-year chase to land soccer’s modern megastar

After one of the longest courtships in sports, Kylian Mbappé appears to be headed to Real Madrid this summer.
After one of the longest courtships in sports, Kylian Mbappé appears to be headed to Real Madrid this summer.

Summary

Real Madrid has been chasing Kylian Mbappé since he was 14 years old. The Spanish club finally appears to have its man.

Kylian Mbappé was 14 years old when Real Madrid first brought him in for a tryout—and the club was determined to impress him.

Real sent Mbappé’s fellow Frenchman Zinédine Zidane to meet him at the airport. It introduced him to his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo. Then it handed him some kit and ran him around the practice facility of one of the most storied soccer teams on the planet.

The visit left an indelible mark on both parties. Mbappé returned from Madrid dreaming of some day pulling on the famous white jersey once again. And Real vowed to bring the boy-wonder back the moment he turned into a superstar. It all just took a little longer than planned.

Now, after one of the longest courtships in sports, Real Madrid finally appears to have its man. This summer, it expects to bring Mbappé, a World Cup-winner and a kid raised on Real Madrid highlights, onto the stage he’s been craving.

Reports first surfaced last week in Spain and in France that Mbappé, 25, was ready to inform Paris Saint-Germain of intention to leave when the transfer window opens this summer. Neither PSG nor Real has commented on it publicly. But after at least two previous attempts to sign Mbappé fell short, all indications are that Real won’t miss again. The transfer has become such an open secret that even Mbappé’s France teammates have taken to joking about it.

Once he completes the likely move, Mbappé would join a squad that won the Champions League two years ago, a manager in Carlo Ancelotti with a reputation for polishing superstars, and one of the brightest young talents in the game in English playmaker Jude Bellingham. He will also call a freshly renovated, 85,000 Santiago Bernabeu stadium his home ground.

More than anything else, Mbappé will be taking on the mantel of a club that he feels matches his status in the game. No team has more European Cups and Champions League titles. No Spanish club has won La Liga more often.

As Real Madrid president Florentino Perez likes to point out, everyone else in soccer competes for annual trophies, but only Real Madrid was voted FIFA’s Club of the 20th Century. He has every intention of making it two centuries in a row.

“I want to leave a legacy, leave my name in the history of soccer, leave my name in people’s memory," Mbappé said in a 2022 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “I want to try to win as many things as possible."

Mbappé put himself on that path as early as humanly possible. After that first trial at Real Madrid, he moved from the suburbs of Paris to AS Monaco, where he made his professional debut in 2015, before his 17th birthday. He then returned to the French capital with Paris Saint-Germain two years later as the most expensive teenager in soccer history.

Backed by an arm of the sovereign-wealth fund of Qatar, PSG’s plan was to disrupt the traditional order of the European game by spending its rivals into oblivion. Along with Mbappé, it signed the Brazilian playmaker Neymar and eventually Argentina’s Lionel Messi. 

The trouble was that even assembling more than $1 billion worth of talent couldn’t quite bring the club up to Mbappé’s ambitions on the field. Though he was French soccer’s top scorer in five consecutive seasons and won five league championships, on top of the title he’d claimed in Monaco, the European game’s biggest prize eluded him.

Since Mbappé arrived in 2017, Paris has only reached one Champions League final, which it lost to Bayern Munich.

So Mbappé found himself in the rare situation of hitting the pinnacle of soccer with his national team rather than with his club side. He turned France’s World Cup-winning run in 2018 into his global breakout and four years later became the first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final since England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966—even if France went on to lose to Argentina in a penalty shootout.

Not only will Real offer him a better shot to win the Champions League, but plying his trade in La Liga week-after-week should give Mbappé the chance to post the truly ridiculous numbers that have elevated superstars into all-time greats before him. It wasn’t until Ronaldo moved to Madrid, for instance, that he started banging in more than 50 goals a season across all competitions, while Messi did the same in Barcelona.

The surprise is that Mbappé waited so long to make the leap. The switch to Madrid had seemed preordained in 2022, until he signed a surprising three-year contract extension that May. It took a record salary, promises of even greater influence inside the club, and the intervention of two French presidents—Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron—to convince Mbappé to stay.

“I understand the disappointment," he said of Real at the time. “But I hope they’ll understand that I chose to stay in my country."

What fans really took that to mean was that moving to a new country was only a matter of time. Real Madrid is no stranger to long, drawn-out courtships. 

In fact, prodding players they’re interested in to leave their clubs, sometimes for years on end, has been Real’s modus operandi for nearly two decades. The most prominent example was the signing of Ronaldo. Though he didn’t leave Manchester United until the summer of 2009, a secret deal for him to move had already been in place for a year.

Now Mbappé is set to follow directly in his hero’s footsteps.

“You always model your career on the best," he said in that 2022 interview. “I grew up in the era of Cristiano and Leo [Messi]…I know both of them well. They inspired our whole generation."

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