Sunday 19 November 2017

Kylian Mbappe the latest pawn as football turns into sordid chess game for sheikhs and oligarchs

Kylian Mbappe signs autographs before a training session in Clairefontaine en Yvelines. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Kylian Mbappe signs autographs before a training session in Clairefontaine en Yvelines. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Praising Monaco's swarming attacks after a glorious night of football in Manchester in February, Pep Guardiola said: "They arrive with a lot of people."

Monaco part with a lot of people too, as a supposedly great exercise in youth development is dismantled with knock-on effects across Europe's biggest leagues.

Man City versus Monaco in the round of 16 in last season's Champions League was the most thrilling confrontation of the campaign, rich in skills, tricks and goals. City won the first-leg 5-3, prompting Guardiola to say: "When two teams want to play that way - attack and attack - the game is marvellous."

Monaco won the second-leg 3-1 to progress on away goals and the team of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoue Bakayoko then posted Monaco's first Ligue 1 win in 17 years, with 107 goals along the way. All four of those players have now been sold.

Review that magical season in the French coastal enclave of haves and have-yachts and you return to a rolling fanfare for Monaco's adventurous style of play, their expert scouting and youth cultivation. Choosing 12 of France's best youngsters each year, they registered an extraordinarily high success rate.

But this was no golden dawn for a better way of running football clubs. It turns out to have been a good year in a clearing house, a clever trading scheme for the Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who owns the club.

Philippe Coutinho takes part in a Brazilian training session at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, ahead of their 2018 FIFA Russia World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho takes part in a Brazilian training session at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, ahead of their 2018 FIFA Russia World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

With Thomas Lemar still being chased by Premier League teams (Liverpool are said to have offered €70m), Monaco had already earned €360m through player sales, with Mbappe's loan-then-sale to Paris Saint-Germain for €170m and its questions for UEFA's Financial Fair Play the most spectacular single deal.

Check out the chain of events. Qatari sovereign wealth at Paris Saint-Germain pulls off a kind of hostile takeover of Neymar, forcing Barcelona to spend a possible €156m on a 20-year-old who scored 11 times in 52 appearances in all competitions last season for Borussia Dortmund.

This colossal over-payment for Ousmane Dembele came as Barcelona were also chasing Philippe Coutinho, whose back trouble, say Brazil's national team, stems from "anxiety" about Liverpool's reluctance to sell him.

PSG have already inflicted serious damage on Barcelona by breaking up the MSN trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Now they have given Real Madrid a kick in the unmentionables by paying €176m for Mbappe - a sum the plutocrats of the Bernabeu were unwilling or unable to match.

This one-two, left-right combination by Qatar is impressive - or impressively insane.

In France at the same time, PSG and the Premier League have combined to enfeeble Monaco, ransacking the Stade Louis II and denying us the pleasure of seeing a superb young team take the next step.

The winners in all this are as follows: Russian oligarch (Rybolovlev), Russian oligarch (Roman Abramovich, who acquired Bakayoko for Chelsea), Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth (Man City, who bought Mendy and Bernardo Silva), and, of course, Qatar's government, who now own Neymar and Mbappe.

Monaco, meanwhile, have apparently signed Stefan Jovetic as a replacement - and still have Radamel Falcao, the first big player in Rybolovlev's tight relationship with the 'super agent' Jorge Mendes.

In 2014, Monaco switched policies from buying marquee names to youngsters with potentially huge sell-on value.

Naively, we might think Rybolovlev's firm are the helpless parent club, preyed upon by global money and unable to keep their starlets out of the clutches of PSG and English clubs. But it looks a good deal more calculating than that.

According to Football Leaks, Fabinho - another Monaco player being pursued by big European clubs - was allegedly 48.5pc owned by Rybolovlev already when he was loaned to Monaco by Rio Ave.

Football's transfer market now imitates a globalised trading floor and geopolitical strategy exercise. Nations - Qatar, Abu Dhabi - have annexed a business where parody figures such as Eric Hall ('monster, monster') once called the shots.

At Monaco, Rybolovlev, working with Mendes, hired the right scouts and coaches to exploit the work of France's amazing youth production line, principally at Clairefontaine, the national academy.

He built a marvellous team - champions of France and Champions League semi-finalists - then sold it to people with big political and commercial agendas: chiefly, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Nobody ever imagined football analysis would stray into these areas, but the game has become a chess piece for billionaires and governments.

Rarely in recent years have we seen Barcelona driven to desperate measures, or gambles but the signing of Dembele fits that bill.

We can see the power shifting. The next bit is to see how they shape the big European teams, and the young footballers now so valuable that they might as well be bought and sold on Wall Street. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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