February 28, 2024 - 4:30pm

On Tuesday night, France centre-forward Kylian Mbappé was a guest at the Elysée Palace where the French president was meeting the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. That immediately unleashed a wave of rumours: was Macron about to try to persuade Mbappé not to leave Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid, as he had helped convince him to stay in 2022? He was not, but even the fact that Mbappé should be a guest at such a state occasion is telling.

When Qatar Sports Investments took over PSG in 2011, there was a pretence that this was not actually the state of Qatar, merely its sovereign wealth fund. It’s safe to say that fig leaf has been stripped away now. Buying PSG was part of Qatari foreign policy, to increase its visibility and influence. Not only did Qatar host the World Cup in 2022, but the chairman of PSG, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who is the chairman of QSI and a minister in the Qatari government, is also the chairman of the European Clubs Association, which lobbies Uefa over such issues as the format of competitions and the distribution of revenue.

Mbappé is a hugely expensive pawn in the Qatari game. When PSG more than doubled the world transfer record in 2017 to sign the Brazilian forward Neymar, they also signed Mbappé as a hugely promising French talent (to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations, they initially took him on loan from Monaco, with a €180m fee, which made him the second-most expensive player of all time, after Neymar, payable after a year). Mbappé won the World Cup with France in 2018 and scored a hat-trick in the final in 2022 as France lost to an Argentina side led by another PSG signing, Lionel Messi.

At that level, the deal has worked, but PSG has still not won the Champions League and has become notorious for a dysfunctional squad crammed with egos. Two years ago, with his contract about to expire, PSG, Mbappé was persuaded (thanks in part to Macron) to commit to a new deal worth a reported £48m a year, in addition to a £100m signing on fee.

It’s widely accepted Mbappé, for all his talent, has stagnated in the less-than-challenging environment of Ligue Un; that he is taking a pay cut to join Madrid suggests even he recognises that. PSG has announced a change of policy, moving away from the celebrity circus towards an approach based on developing talent from the banlieues.

But the question remains of why Macron involved himself. Was he simply trying to keep a French asset in France, or was this more to do with appeasing Qatar? After all, it was after a meeting at the Elysée Palace between the Emir and then-president of France Nicolas Sarkozy — a coincidence, all concerned insist — that France decided to change its vote and back Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. Since then gas and arms deals have been agreed and French football was bailed out by Qatari cash after the collapse of its broadcast deal.

Mbappé is a fine player and a very rich man, but he is also a symbol of something profoundly revealing.

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.