Al-Khelaifi throws down the gauntlet with Mbappé at Luis Enrique’s introductory press conference

The Paris Saint-Germain president turns to the Spanish coach to get around the crisis at the French club and warns the captain: ‘We will not let the best player in the world leave for free’

Diego Torres
Luis Enrique
Luis Enrique at the event introducing him as PSG's new coach on Wednesday.GONZALO FUENTES (REUTERS)

A rarefied atmosphere surrounded Luis Enrique’s introduction as the new Paris Saint-Germain coach on Wednesday afternoon in Poissy. The divisive threat of Kylian Mbappé's departure after he announced two weeks ago that he would not renew his contract, which ends in 2024, hung over the press conference after a three-hour delay in the proceedings. The Spanish coach, who became a supporting character in this story, avoided commenting on the franchise player’s future, citing “professional secrecy.” Club president Nasser al-Khelaifi was more explicit, warning that he will not allow the player to be released in January to go wherever he wants in June 2024. “That is not possible,” he declared.

In the absence of more concrete ideas and plans, the Qatari sheikhs who own PSG have resolved to cling to mystique and circumvent the club’s existential crisis by hiring Luis Enrique. The Spanish coach still has the aura of leading the comeback, the historic 6-1 humbling of PSG on March 8, 2017, on a Champions League night that forever altered the history of European soccer and, above all, the history of PSG. That is what the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin-Hamad al-Thani, the ultimate authority in the club’s strategy and ultimately the person responsible for hiring Luis Enrique, is evoking now that Neymar (2017) and Messi (2021), the other most significant authors of the comeback, are no longer there; the Brazilian is seriously injured while the Argentine recently left for Miami.

“We are not bringing [Luis Enrique] in because of what he has won but because of how he has won,” said Al-Khelaifi, at the introductory press conference. “Luis Enrique represents the best style of soccer in the world, an attacking style. [That’s] the kind of soccer I want to see my team play.”

The 53-year-old Spanish coach was introduced this afternoon at PSG’s splendid new sports complex in Poissy. At the event, led by Al-Khelaifi, the coach and the manager were first asked to explain how responsibilities are divided in the sporting area, where Portuguese coach Luis Campos has been serving as director. According to the French press, not only was Campos not in favor of signing Luis Enrique, but he also suggested José Mourinho or Thiago Motta to coach the team.

“Bonjour,” Luis Enrique began by saying at his introductory press conference, before noting that he has started to study French. “I’m very excited to be here.” When asked about his relationship with Luis Campos, he responded by raising an eyebrow: “I’ve always gotten along very well with all my sporting directors; signing and transferring players is a job that can only be done as a team.”

The Kylian Mbappé situation took up the bulk of the press conference. The PSG captain’s announcement on June 12 that he will not renew his contract puts the club in the position of either selling him this summer and getting a return on its investment or allowing him to leave for free in 2024; his contract expires in June next year. Asked about it several times, Mbappé has not wanted to reveal his plans, but if he really wants to finish his contract and leave for free in 2024, both civil law and FIFA rules allow him to do so. When asked if Mbappé will continue to be on the team next season, Luis Enrique was evasive. “When I signed, everything was open,” he said. “What I know is a professional secret. I don’t want to break confidences. We will try to have the best squad possible. Mbappé is under contract, but things keep changing in the market. What [was] discussed with Nasser [Al-Khelaifi] stays between us.”

“It’s a professional secret”

“The situation is very clear,” Al-Khelaifi replied, when questioned about Mbappé's contract. “If he wants to stay, we want him to stay. But we need to sign a new contract. We can’t let the best player in the world leave for free. That is not possible. This is a French club and, as I understand it, he doesn’t want to leave a club in his country for free. If someone here has changed his mind, it’s not my fault.”

Al-Khelaifi referred to Mbappé's stated desire to leave money at the club he considers his home. But above all, he implied that he is in favor of selling Mbappé this summer rather than allowing him to leave for free in 2024. This is a radical departure from the policy PSG followed with its star the last time they found themselves in a similar situation, months away from the end of his contract in the summer of 2021. Back then, PSG preferred to let the player remain free the following year rather than sell him. Real Madrid offered nearly €200 million in August 2021, to which PSG’s owners responded only with silence.

The uncertainty surrounding Mbappé reflects the state of affairs at a club that until recently aspired to occupy the summit of European soccer. The selection of Luis Enrique as coach came after long deliberations among the owners. The decision was neither easy nor unanimous. The need to have a coach ready to work in the rapidly approaching preseason led to the signing. Before opting for the Spaniard, the sheikhs had three preferred candidates: Zidane, Nagelsmann and Spalletti. None of them wanted to take the job. The coaches consulted by the Qatari owners weighed the pros and cons. In Luis Enrique’s favor, the owners believed that in addition to possessing excellent on-field coaching skills, the Spaniard has an unimpeachable international reputation, which they considered politically essential after Galtier’s failure and which Thiago Motta, the former player who was discarded at the last minute despite his good work at Bologna, doesn’t possess.

The sheikhs’ alarm

Against those advantages, the sheikhs also considered that Luis Enrique had not managed a club team since June 2017, when he finished his stint at Barcelona; the work of managing a group requires practice that does not always survive the passage of time. The Qatari owners recalled that his only experience outside Spain—Roma (2011-12)—was not a happy one; they also studied Luis Enrique’s last performance at the World Cup in Qatar, where the Spanish national team was eliminated by Morocco in the round of 16. According to PSG sources, the whole episode was alarming to the sheikhs’ advisors. Al-Khelaifi’s closest circle wasn’t pleased by Luis Enrique’s handling of the team, including his daughter’s courtship with Ferran Torres and the personal and professional consequences it caused.

This Wednesday, PSG announced the dismissal of Christophe Galtier, the team’s coach last season. Hired in the summer of 2022 on a two-season contract, Galtier disappointed the board and the Emir of Qatar in two key areas: leadership and tactics. His lack of charisma in managing a star-studded locker room combined with his inability to read decisive matches with the depth and boldness required by his squad. The Qatari owners’ ambitions and investment set a bar that the team did not meet with the Champions League round of 16 tie with Bayern. The double defeat (0-1 and 2-0) plunged the club into an identity crisis, the solution of which remains uncertain.

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