What makes this summer's Kylian Mbappe contract saga different from the previous ones? Money, to start with. Like the €700 million ($773m) package (€300m in transfer fees, the rest in wages over several years) that Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal are supposedly putting on the table. It's enough for NBA stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James to sit up and take notice.
Or the fact that, unlike the last time, Paris Saint-Germain immediately went to DEFCON 1, leaving him out of their preseason tour and sending him instead to train with the club's undesirables like Georginio Wijnaldum and Leandro Paredes -- aka the players they're trying to move on and who don't fit coach Luis Enrique's plans.
Or, indeed, the fact that Mbappe, arguably the best player in the world, has only seen his geopolitical importance grow.
To some, Mbappe would be the first legitimate superstar to take the Saudi plunge at the peak of his powers, instantly transforming the league from pie-in-the-sky project -- sport's version of The Line -- to a reality that could soon threaten Europe's big leagues. To others, like Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, he's a local treasure who "must" be kept in the City of Lights. It's not quite the Brazilian parliament passing a law in the 1960s decreeing that Pele couldn't move abroad, but it's not far off either.
So yeah, it's a messy situation. Here's a Q&A to try and make some sense of it.
Q: Let's start with the Saudi offer. Surely it's in PSG's interest to accept it rather than lose Mbappe as a free agent next summer?
A: Of course it is. In fact, it's their second-best scenario, after Mbappe signing a new contract -- or at least taking up the option year, securing his services through 2025 -- which seems a remote possibility right now, given how quickly relations between him and the club have deteriorated.
The problem is, unless he opts for some kind of "lifestyle choice," it makes little sense for Mbappe.
Q: How so? It's a ton of money, presumably more than he makes now and more than he would earn at Real Madrid...
A: Mbappe is not a golfer; he's obviously not motivated solely by money. But even if he was, you assume he'd take a broader view.
Guaranteed money is great, but moving to Saudi Arabia at this stage of his career -- he will turn 25 in December -- would mean less visibility, no Champions League and competing against weaker opposition. In terms of status, long-term earning potential and winning trophies that matter to him, it would be a step back relative to what he would have at Real Madrid or even what he has now at PSG. That's why, despite the fact that PSG have welcomed Al Hilal's bid, sources have told ESPN that the France international has let it be known he's not interested.
Besides, in a year's time, Mbappe will be a free agent and, presumably, the Saudis will still be around if he changes his mind. Oh, and some of that €300m fee they were willing to pay might go to him.
Incidentally, I suspect the Saudis know this. In fact, one of the unusual things about this offer is that they didn't approach the player first, but the club. It's almost as if they knew it was a moon shot.
Q: It sounds like PSG have very little leverage here?
A: They have zero leverage. They've given Mbappe an ultimatum, saying that he needs to sign a new contract or activate the one-year extension by July 31, otherwise they'll move him on. But, of course, they can't move him out of PSG if he doesn't agree to a move, so that threat is pointless.
Stevie Nicol and Don Hutchison critique Paris Saint-Germain's handling of Kylian Mbappe and not bringing him on the preseason tour.
Q: Haven't there also been suggestions PSG might play hardball by limiting his playing time or keeping him away from the first-team squad as a way of pushing him to a new deal or, at least, a move?
A: Yes, but I'm pretty skeptical about that. First of all, it's not a good look. The man is honoring his contract, you can't just punish him for not signing a new one. Plus, there's a pretty strong collective bargaining agreement in France and labor laws are fairly tight. Unless Mbappe breaks team rules or there are disciplinary infractions, PSG can't simply shut him out.
There are legal precedents and, if they're not careful, a court could grant him immediate free agency and even make PSG pay him compensation. Not to mention that, in the real world, they're a worse team without Mbappe and if they bench him just out of spite, they may be worse off on the pitch. And new boss Luis Enrique might have something to say about that.
Plus, PSG may have Qatari owners, but they're still a French club. Messing around with France's best player a year out from a European Championship, while possibly running roughshod over French labor laws, wouldn't be a smart thing to do.
Fundamentally, PSG only have themselves to blame here. They ended up in this situation when they couldn't get him to commit to a long-term deal and instead had to settle for two seasons, though they pretended it was three by having him hold up that silly jersey with 2025 on the back.
Q: So if you're Mbappe what do you do?
A: I'd sit tight and do what I did before -- let my contract run down and then decide what to do: Real Madrid, Saudi Arabia, stay at PSG, maybe somebody else.
That's the power of free agency. Mbappe took less guaranteed money to have that power. Now he gets to wield it.
Q: What about Real Madrid? Could they try to sign him during this summer's transfer window?
A: I think Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is keeping that option open.
There's a reason they only have three forwards on their books: Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, and Joselu, who is 33 and on loan. They have plenty of room -- financially and in the squad list -- for Mbappe. And if there's a chance to get him, they will, but only at the right price. Otherwise, they'll be happy to wait for free agency.
Q: Why would they even consider spending money on him in this window when they can get him for nothing next summer?
A: Two reasons. First, getting Mbappe now weakens PSG significantly in the Champions League, which is always a priority for the club. Second, they remember how Mbappe stood them up once before. In May of last year, the France star was days away from free agency and it was assumed he'd go to Real Madrid, before he did a 180 and re-upped with PSG.
It seems pretty unlikely that this will happen now given the poor relationship with the club, but who knows? Once bitten, twice shy.
Of course, all of this would be predicated on getting him at a reasonable fee ... meaning a whole lot less than the €300m Saudi offer.
Q: So where does this end?
A: Before the latest round of PSG tough talk, I would have thought all options -- including an extension -- were on the table. Now it feels like Real Madrid are solidly in the catbird seat, though I wouldn't be surprised if the Saudis don't take another run at him too, either for now or next summer.
What's evident is that this won't be resolved for a while. And if PSG manage to lose Mbappe for "free" next summer, serious questions need to be asked of chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi and his handling of the club over the past few seasons.