Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland may already be the game's next great rivalry, as some of us foretold three years ago. (I'm not taking credit for that one: it was hardly rocket science). But already what seems to set them apart from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is a keen awareness of who they are and the leverage they hold.
We had a reminder of this in the past week as speculation mounted over the futures of both Haaland and Mbappe, despite them inking new contracts in the past six months.
Media in Spain reported that when Erling Haaland moved to Manchester City this past summer, his agents made sure to include a release clause that would take effect in 2024. The Athletic later reported that the release clause -- which can only be triggered by clubs outside the Premier League -- stands at €200 million (£175m) and diminishes each season to the end of his contract in 2027.
On Tuesday, hours before Paris Saint-Germain's draw with Benfica, my colleague Julien Laurens reported that Mbappe was seeking an exit from PSG, with his family suggesting he made a mistake when he extended his contract in May, rather than leave as a free agent.
It's a stark contrast with their predecessors. Messi, of course, stayed at Barcelona for 18 years, and the prospect of his departure only really surfaced once he was the wrong side of 30. When he did move, aged 34 in 2021, it was amid a global pandemic, a financial meltdown and the tenure of a Barcelona president who was about as popular as bed bugs.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, left Sporting as an 18-year-old to join Manchester United. When he did agitate for a move back in 2008, he was told in no uncertain terms by Sir Alex Ferguson that he was going nowhere, at least for another 12 months. He transferred to Real Madrid for a world record fee in 2009 and ended up staying nine seasons.
Put differently, before the age of 23 -- which is how old Mbappe is now and how old Haaland will be next summer -- Messi and Ronaldo between them had moved once as professionals. Haaland is now at his fourth club, Mbappe at his second. But more than that, unlike with Messi and Ronaldo, at every stage there has been speculation over their futures.
Part of it, obviously, is that Messi and Ronaldo had been at massive juggernaut clubs since they were teenagers. Players generally don't want to leave clubs like Barcelona or Real Madrid -- or Manchester United, for that matter, especially during the Sir Alex era. The same can't be said for Haaland's previous clubs (with all due respect to Molde, Salzburg and Borussia Dortmund) and while PSG is now a powerhouse, playing in a lower-profile competition like Ligue 1 and the eternal question of whether the Qatari ownership will maintain their financial support post-World Cup changes that equation.
But the more interesting aspect is how both Haaland and Mbappe negotiated for themselves the sort of "escape hatch" that gives them tremendous leverage over their current clubs.
Mbappe, of course, refused to extend his deal with PSG until he was six days away from free agency. When he did extend it, he signed a three-year deal through 2025, but according to the French daily L'Equipe, it was really a two-year deal with a player option for a third season. PSG have never denied this, and assuming it's true, it would mean that he would be a free agent again in 2024, and with just a single year remaining, would have tremendous leverage if he did seek a move as early as next summer.
Haaland's advisors -- his father Alfie, and the agency run by the late Mino Raiola and Rafaela Pimenta -- made sure he had a release clause at every club he joined since Molde: €20m to leave FC Salzburg, €60m to leave Dortmund and, if the reports are correct, €200m (and descending) to leave City.
Are the reports correct? Well, City manager Pep Guardiola said last week: "He has not got a release clause for Real Madrid or any other team. It is not true, that is all I can say." Open and shut? Hardly.
It's possible Guardiola was picking his words carefully and because the clause doesn't kick in until 2024, it doesn't technically exist right now. It's possible the conditions of the clause stipulate that all parties must deny its existence. Who knows?
Two things, however, are fairly evident. One is that the lack of transparency over release clauses and their amounts is ludicrous and puerile. It also helps nobody, since the player and his agent know whether the release clause exists and what sort of bid triggers it and they will let other clubs know -- otherwise, what is the point of having it? (There were similar shenanigans with Haaland's clause at Dortmund.) The other is that Haaland's camp held all the cards last summer and it would be weird if, in their negotiation, they did not insist on a release clause, given that they've always done so and given the huge amount of leverage the €60m clause at Dortmund provided.
Equally, it would be weird if City denied them a clause. First because despite their image as free-spenders, they've actually been quite disciplined in terms of handing out contracts even at the expense of letting older players go: just ask Raheem Sterling or Gabriel Jesus, both of whom left in the summer, or Guardiola's public attitude towards Bernardo Silva ("Nobody has to stay if they don't want to").
Second, if somebody is willing to pay €200m for Haaland in 2024, it means you got two great years out of him first and foremost. And at that point, you'd be talking to him about a new deal anyway (one that perhaps doesn't include a release clause). And if he really wants to leave? Hey, you've made a handsome €140m transfer profit.
This is where you might wonder why a club would agree to a release clause, so maybe a quick primer is in order. A player might ask for a release clause in exchange for accepting a lower salary than he might otherwise command. Effectively, the player is betting on himself that his value on the open market will be greater than what the release clause is. And so rather than handing the difference between market value and release clause to his current club, a prospective buyer will give it to the player when he signs his new deal.
By the way, these aren't to be confused with the sort of clauses you often hear about in LaLiga, which are effectively buyout clauses. Under Spanish labor laws, these are the amounts that a player has to pay to buy out his contract and become a free agent. (Technically, the player is supposed to pay the amount out of his own pocket, which makes the whole thing even more ludicrous.) In practice, they are set so high to be virtually meaningless -- nobody is going to give Karim Benzema a billion euros so that he can "buy" his release from Real Madrid -- though, of course, that's what Barcelona believed with Neymar, only to be proven wrong.
The release clause scenario above is pretty much what happened in Haaland's case when he joined City. His release clause was €60m, though his market value was probably three times as much. A fair chunk of the €120m City "saved" themselves went to things Haaland wanted, such as a hefty commission for his agents, a favourable bonus structure and it probably made them more willing to include the release clause mentioned in the Spanish reports.
The choices made by Haaland and Mbappe (and their advisors/families) seem to go beyond guaranteed money and to something possibly more valuable: leverage and, with it, happiness and freedom, for the simple reason that bolting to a new destination is easy with the contracts they've arranged. Some will argue that it's a sign of player power or maybe a Generation Z thing. I'm not sure it's either, if only for the simple reason that it's not really player power or generational zeitgeist when you need to be named Kylian or Erling to take advantage of it.
It's more like the eject button on the sort of fighter jet only a handful will ever get to fly, and the soft landing is pretty much guaranteed.