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Mbappe was once Real Madrid's No. 1 target, so why is he joining PSG?

The entire cycle of Zinedine Zidane's vast success at Real Madrid -- player, ambassador, football director, assistant coach, Castilla coach and now record-breaking first-team manager -- began in Monte Carlo.

Which makes it ironic that neither he, nor club president Florentino Perez, could lever their No. 1 transfer target, Kylian Mbappe, out of the Monegasque capital, even though it seemed that the world, European and Spanish champions held all the cards in terms of capturing the exorbitantly talented young striker.

Seeing Madrid not capture their man, as he instead joins an already-threatening European rival in Paris Saint-Germain, is a shock. And not only for the neutral observer; it extends to the club's fans, La Liga rivals and the rampantly pro-Madrid media, for whom it will be mixed with confusion, relief and hurt.

Only toward the crucial part of this season will it be apparent whether or not it was astute for Real Madrid strategists' to withdraw from the auction for the 18-year-old. It was a tactical decision made even after the club shipped out James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata who, between them, scored 31 goals in all competitions last season.

But nobody should condemn Madrid for having "failed" outright in the Mbappe affair, because that's not what happened in this complicated, fascinating and, ultimately, unfulfilled love story.

Those with good memories will recall that it was at a Laureus Awards dinner in early 2001 that Perez scribbled: "Would you like to play for Madrid?" on a napkin and passed it across the table to Zidane, then of Juventus.

The "Oui!" that was passed back sparked a chain of events that, thus far, has yielded four Zidane-stamped Champions League victories for Los Blancos.

Moreover, in his various roles at the club, Zidane has been specifically responsible for the arrival of Raphael Varane -- pipping Manchester United by getting to Lens ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson's private jet -- and Isco, whose bags were packed for Manchester City and who Perez believed wouldn't be able to get in the Madrid first XI.

This summer was to have been the coup de grace for Zidane; Mbappe was meant to be the icing on the cake. Having repatriated the promising Marcos Llorente and Jesus Vallejo, having spent sparingly the previous season and having made financial adjustments via the James and Morata departures, Mbappe was to be converted into a true Perez Galactico signing.

Madrid are pulsatingly good, ultra-competitive, flushed full of home-bred talent and technically gifted young players, while Zidane has exhibited a Midas touch and Marco Asensio is the crown prince of world football.

Who could say no to them?

Having long looked set for a move to Real Madrid, Kylian Mbappe will instead play for Paris Saint-Germain.

Now marry that with some facts about Mbappe. Not only has he known that Madrid and their manager coveted him for at least five years, his boyhood hero was Cristiano Ronaldo; the walls in his bedroom were plastered with posters of the Portuguese striker. Mbappe attended training at Valdebebas for a full week in 2012, meeting CR7 and being shown around by Zidane.

One year later, the talented kid told France Football: "My dream is to return to Real Madrid via the front door one day, having proved to them that I'm a top player and knowing that they really want me. If it had only been for the football and not a change of country, culture and language, I'd probably have signed for them back then. When I was only four the Galacticos of Real Madrid inspired my dream of being a professional footballer."

However, there's still more irony in this tale.

It was the very fact that Zidane was promoted to Carlo Ancelotti's assistant coach in 2013, which helped sway Mbappe's father Wilfrid away from allowing his boy to be incorporated into Madrid's Fabrica, or youth academy.

"We had plenty of meetings with Monsieur Zidane but from the moment he became assistant coach to the first team I believed that he'd not have the right amount of time for Kylian," he said. "If Zidane had stayed in charge of recruiting and looking after young talent like Kylian, we'd probably just have joined Madrid instead of Monaco."

But even setting aside the fact that Los Blancos could, with a little more attention, have had this prodigy in their ranks for the last three years, in most people's view it should still have been a gimme that Madrid would be able to pay Monaco's asking price, persuade the striker and his family and look more attractive than PSG or Manchester City.

But that is not what happened.

During the protracted negotiations, which are concluding far closer to the end of the transfer market than any of the parties wanted, there were massive amounts of horse trading.

For example, I'm confident that one of the offers made by Madrid to Mbappe and his representatives was that, if he agreed to join, then to reassure him of extended game time this season ahead of a World Cup, the Spanish giants would try to set up a deal for Manchester United to buy Gareth Bale.

That idea foundered when Madrid realized that Bale, who is both shrewd and stubborn about the central moves in his career, was dedicated to staying for at least one more season.

Next, the concept of prices going up, both when there is a scarcity of commodity and when there's a bidding market, began to hit home.

It's been clear for many weeks that the ultimate fee for Mbappe would be a minimum €180 million, whether for outright purchase or as a guaranteed "must buy" clause at the end of the loan year, via which PSG look likely to try and vault Financial Fair Play rules.

Madrid have that kind of financial muscle and are far from wary of showing the world that, not only can they, but they will set transfer market records.

However they need to cope with the Cristiano Ronaldo factor. So touchy was he about Bale's 2013 signing being more expensive than his existing world record that Madrid cooked up a story , which said the price for Bale didn't supersede that of Ronaldo when he joined from Manchester United four years earlier.

Ronaldo is also the club's highest-paid player by some distance and so to have Mbappe come in for almost double the price for which Ronaldo joined and, at 18, get paid very nearly the same wages as the Ballon d'Or holder, was something Madrid shrewdly reckoned would be disruptive and hard for CR7 to assimilate.

From the moment Bale arrived relations between him and Ronaldo have been distant. Not terrible, just far from optimum. As such, smart voices around the club began to wonder how the Ronaldo-Mbappe dynamic might play out if the French teenager was bought in such outlandishly expensive circumstances.

Zinedine Zidane is a confirmed fan of Mbappe but did not insist the striker's signing was pursued.

Zidane also played a part in the gradual move by Madrid to calculate that stepping away from the bidding might be strategically intelligent.

Mbappe is only 18 and has started just 32 senior club games. No matter that he is in the power seat and no matter that his talent is extravagant, there will be times when he requires either to be rested for his own good or taken out of the first team in order to be fine-tuned on the coaching ground.

For all the satellite bonuses of the Zidane era at Madrid, the central gravity around which they circle is that the club has become a meritocracy. No longer is it the case that the president grants time off behind the back of the coach, or insists that a particular transfer market whimsy of his must start because he's "the best in the world."

However, bringing in Mbappe for that fee and those wages, as well as the extraordinary associated publicity focus, looked like threatening the equilibrium that Zidane has established and which is at the heart of the fact that there is no "A" and "B" team. Everyone fights and works with the same motivation, the same clarity of purpose and with the full belief that they'll get the playing time they merit.

Would it be feasible for Perez to first smash Madrid's original financial planning and then accept Mbappe being used as and when his form and integration dictated?

It's worth remembering, in this context, that Asensio is older and more experienced than Mbappe, is equally talented and Spanish, yet he played just four times in La Liga between mid-December and early March last season. He got just over 200 competitive minutes as Zidane used him astutely to help his development and avoid burnout.

Mbappe's talent and personality both look like a fit but the gigantic price and wages, which were being forced up by PSG's willingness to repatriate the golden boy to his home city and pair him with Neymar and Edinson Cavani up front, began to make more than one mind at Madrid think that, perhaps, they should walk away. And so they did.

It all leaves us with the remarkable fact that Mbappe has spent much of the last few years imagining that his next destination would be Real Madrid, while the club have invested time and effort to secure his services.

Yet instead he will power-up PSG and Madrid might be short of just the kind of crucial goals which, across the entirety of a season, take a squad to a treble. An accolade the Bernabeu club have never won.

However, anyone who refuses to see the strategy and the value of taking a hard decision and of adapting, rather than blindly forcing through a "we will not be defeated" ideology, is being unfair and short-sighted about Madrid.

There will, without question, be days when they regret Mbappe not being their player but, when that does happen, they'll be able to look back on the clear, cogent and brave reasons they had for saying: "Not this time, thanks."

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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