Kylian Mbappé, petrofootballer. (Credit: Aurelien Meunier/Getty)

July 28, 2023   7 mins

I was five years old, desperately precocious when it came to football, and furious that my mam hadn’t let us watch England against Czechoslovakia in the 1982 World Cup. We were on holiday, and that meant that we had to brave the rain and wander through Fort William. Thankfully, Trevor Francis scored his winner just as we walked past a TV shop on the high street and I saw it live through the window.

That was the first thing I thought of when I heard that Francis had died this week. Your first World Cup always leaves the deepest impression, and Francis remained my footballing reference point. And yet, to look at the photographs that accompanied his obituaries was to be transported to another world, when kits came in blocks of simple colours, unsullied by corporate logos. But in one key respect, Francis was part of football’s future, not its past. In 1979, when he joined Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, he became the first British player to be transferred for £1 million.

At the time, that seemed an extraordinary fee and generated a media storm; now the idea that two Midlands clubs could be involved in a deal that provoked moral outrage seems faintly absurd. Footballers don’t bus across county lines anymore; they rarely have to touch the ground. The Francis signing may have made a statement about Clough’s self-confidence and Forest’s ambition. But, vast as Clough’s ego was, all this has the air of prelapsarian parochiality — especially when compared with Saudi Arabia’s imperial football ambitions, which have most recently set their sights on the French forward Kylian Mbappé.

Like Francis, Mbappé is a brilliant footballer. He is 24, powerful, quick, a superb dribbler and a clinical finisher. He is one of only five players to have scored in two World Cup finals, and was the top-scorer in the 2022 finals. But after Al-Hilal reportedly made a bid of €300m to sign him from Paris Saint-Germain this week, he has also become the highest-profile player in Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary investment in sport — having already been a key figure in Qatar’s investment in sport.

PSG signed Mbappé in 2017, initially on loan, with a total €180m payable in 2018 — a manoeuvre that circumvented any Financial Fair Play sanctions in the summer they paid €222m to sign the Brazilian forward Neymar from Barcelona. These prodigal purchases were the two leading acts in the creation of football’s current financial environment. The Neymar fee more than doubled the previous world transfer record — by far the biggest proportional jump in history. It is a fee impossible to justify in financial terms alone. PSG’s owners, Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), wanted to be the club who held the world record. Whether by accident or design, it also served to inflate the market, creating the financial pressures on the traditional elites that were a major driver in the failed Super League project.

The QSI purchase of PSG in 2011 was part of Qatar’s more general spending on sport, which culminated in the staging of the 2022 World Cup. And this is all occurring at the highest levels of Gulf statecraft. It followed on from the acquisition in 2008 of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour, the current vice-president and deputy prime minister of the UAE. His brother is president of the UAE and his father-in-law is the ruler of Dubai, leaving City — whose most famous patrons were once Noel and Liam Gallagher — effectively owned by the state of Abu Dhabi. (Mansour himself bought the club from the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while it’s now clear that when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the move was authorised, perhaps even instigated, by Vladimir Putin.)

So neither billionaire nor government involvement in football is new — it wasn’t even new when Mussolini transformed the 1934 World Cup into a celebration of fascist Italy. But the investments made in sport by Saudi Arabia over the past two years have taken it to a new level. A Guardian report suggests spending by the Saudi Public Investment Fund in sport totals at least £6bn since the beginning of 2021. Saudi Arabia has staged Formula One grands prix and world championship title fights; it set up a rebel golf tour, is planning a $500m “esports city” and bought Newcastle United. A bid to host the 2030 World Cup appears to have stalled, but earlier this year the PIF bought the four most storied teams in the Saudi league — Al Nassr (which had already signed Cristiano Ronaldo), Al Hilal, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad.

Whether the PIF is an arm of the Saudi state depends who it is talking to. Richard Masters, the CEO of the Premier League, claimed he had “legally binding assurances” that the PIF, which is chaired by Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia, is an independent body. In a filing to a US federal court investigating the establishment of the rebel golf tour, though, the PIF was described as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, while a discovery order was dismissed as “an extraordinary infringement on the sovereignty of a foreign state”. Masters told a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee in March that he was unable to comment on the discrepancy.

Saudi clubs have been busy this summer signing rafts of ageing players — standard practice for a league looking to raise its profile and establish itself. It was the business model of the North American Soccer League in the Seventies, and countries as diverse as Japan, Australia, India and China have followed a similar path. What is different is that Saudi pockets may be deep enough that, having established credibility, they can soon start to entice stars who are at or approaching their peak. Which brings us back to Mbappé. His time at PSG has been, certainly from a purely footballing point of view, a failure. Although PSG are perennial winners of the French league, it means very little when they are so much richer than everybody else. PSG have never won the Champions League. Other than 2020, when they lost in the final to Bayern Munich, they haven’t really got close. In each of the last two seasons, since Lionel Messi joined Neymar and Mbappé to form a vaunted but disjointed forward line, they’ve gone out in the last 16.

Elite modern football is not won by a collection of egocentric superstars, no matter how individually gifted. Coaches who leave PSG speak of a corrosive dressing-room dynamic, of bitter infighting and essentially ungovernable players who object to game plans that require too much running. The best sides are coherent units in which every component not only has a critical function in itself, but in relation to other components within the system. It is not something easy to represent statistically, but a useful guide is how much defending forwards do. Mbappé made a total of 10 tackles and six interceptions in the whole of last season: he has become symptomatic of the way PSG’s stars are indulged to the detriment of the team. There is a sense that, brilliant as Mbappé is, he could be better and that he is stagnating at PSG.

This is not how Francis behaved, nor was allowed to behave. Considering him too soft, Clough treated him with the severity of a public-school master. He would have him make the tea in games in which he wasn’t playing, and would deliberately goad him to try to provoke a reaction. Clough had him make his debut after his record-breaking move for the thirds, playing on a park pitch in front of 40 fans.

Mbappé’s contract at PSG was set to expire last summer, which would have allowed him to join Real Madrid, a club with which he has been flirting for several years, on a free transfer. Urged to stay another season, including by Emmanuel Macron, after two months, he was talking about leaving again. In June, Mbappé made clear that he would not sign a contract extension, allowing him to join Madrid for free next summer. PSG responded by leaving him out of the squad to tour Japan and effectively putting him up for sale. Al-Hilal promptly made a €1bn offer: €300m to PSG plus €700m to Mbappé as a year’s salary — leaving him free to join Madrid for nothing in summer 2024. PSG accepted but Mbappé is said to have turned it down, reluctant to spend another year being extraordinarily well remunerated by a petrostate while playing in a league that is far too easy for him.

It is, of course, a ridiculous sum. But it would draw attention to the Saudi league and, perhaps, in the very long term, that is worth it (and, given the scale of other Saudi investments, perhaps an extra €1bn doesn’t feel so much). At which point it’s worth saying that nobody seems quite sure what the endgame is. There is no sense yet that Saudi investment in sport has deflected attention from human rights abuses; if anything, it has shone a spotlight on them. There has been talk that the investment is aimed at serving the growing youth demographic in Saudi Arabia but, if that is true, a £1bn investment in golf seems a curious way of going about it.

This is all taking place under the umbrella of Vision 2030, a $7trillion initiative to diversify the Saudi economy beyond oil. The sporting investments are not intended to be profitable in and of themselves — but neither was Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea. They are projections of soft power that can help normalise external perceptions of Saudi Arabia, making it easier for businesses to trade there, while offering a route into the heart of western European society. Put bluntly, it’s better for the Saudi economy if the popular image of the country is not mass executions and the dismemberment of journalists, but Ronaldo and Newcastle United.

Mbappé probably won’t take up Al-Hilal’s offer but it’s significant that it has been made at all. This is modern football, in which a Saudi club can offer a Qatar-owned club a world-record fee, all as part of a their national investment strategy and foreign policy. It’s a very long way from the innocence of a TV shop window in Fort William in 1982. And while football never was an innocent celebration of physical prowess, as the Saudi influence spreads, it has rarely felt as far from any sort of Corinthian ideal. Mbappé may be a luxury player who has spent much of his career dodging the dirty work; but he may also be — just talk about him may be — just what the Saudis need to make the world forget the bone-saws.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.