Real Madrid opened their training campus to hundreds of visitors on Tuesday, part of the obligation of any Champions League finalist to give face-to-face time with players and staff to the international media ahead of the match.
But throughout the day, there was a distraction, a recurring theme in conversations – about a player who will not be passing through the gates of the Madrid training site any time soon.
At the weekend, Kylian Mbappe announced he had signed a new contract with Paris Saint-Germain, a deal of enormous value to the France striker, and an abrupt change in the direction Mbappe’s career had seemed to be moving in.
Madrid thought they were on course to add Mbappe to their squad this July. There was shock when the encouraging indications they thought they had from the player and his advisors turned out to be false.
Madrid are unused to snubs like this. They are club football’s aristocrats, and chasing an unmatched 14th European Cup on Saturday, when they meet Liverpool in Paris, partly because they pursue the best attacking footballers and usually succeed in hiring them.
Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were all instrumental in winning Champions League titles for Madrid in the past two decades: Madrid paid world-record transfer fees for each of them.
Mbappe broke the mould by saying ‘No’ to joining that procession. It will be his loss, muttered some Madrid players.
“Being part of Madrid is a privilege not everybody can have,” posted Fede Valverde, the 23-year-old midfielder.
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“We have many players here making progress who have a great future at Madrid, which is the best place there is to be,” said Vinicius Junior, the winger whose position on the left of the Madrid forward line mirrors Mbappe’s preferred role.
Vinicius, 21, goes into Saturday’s key confrontation with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s dynamic right-back, knowing he can cap a breakthrough season, that even if Mbappe had joined, he would still have been accommodated in the side.
After all, ‘Vini’, as he likes to be known, has overtaken Eden Hazard, a €100m-plus signing only three summers ago, in the jostle to partner Karim Benzema up front.
He has helped make Bale, whose nine years as a Madrid employee will come to an end next month, a very distant outsider in any discussion about the starting XI.
Carlo Ancelotti, the Madrid head coach, says one of the aspects that has most surprised him in his second spell at Madrid, who he rejoined last summer, is “the consistency of Vinicius.”
Ancelotti “knew the quality was there,” but composed finishing has added to the thrilling speed and close control of the Brazilian. He has 21 goals for the campaign. In his previous two full seasons in the first team, he managed a combined total of 11.
Into the space where Mbappe might have come, there is also Rodrygo, another Brazilian winger, and a 21-year-old with a knack of turning major European matches Madrid’s way.
His contribution to the series of comebacks in the knockout rounds that earned a place in the final has him talking about “magical nights.”
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The most surreal was when he came on in the home leg of the semi-final against Manchester City, and with Madrid trailing 5-3 on aggregate in the 89th minute, scored twice before the second minute of injury time. Benzema went on to net the winning goal in extra-time.
In the quarter-final, Madrid were losing on aggregate to Chelsea, when Rodrygo came on at the Bernabeu with 12 minutes left.
His sweet volley, after two minutes on the pitch, brought extra-time, and a Madrid victory.
Rodrygo had galvanised the recovery in the last-16 stage, too. Mbappe’s PSG were 2-0 up with half an hour of the tie left. Rodrygo’s lively speed was added from the bench at about that point. Madrid promptly scored three times.
Ancelotti hinted Rodrygo should expect the same ‘supersub’ role at the Stade de France, which would point to Valverde adding energy to the starting midfield.
Valverde has grown as a footballer in the past 12 months too, while Edu Camavinga, the France teenager has shown zest and responsibility coming into midfield in the later stages of high-pressure contests.
With the Mbappe transfer falling through, this cohort, approaching their first Champions League final alongside colleagues who have won four of them with Madrid – Benzema, Luka Modric, Dani Carvajal, as well as now marginal Bale and Isco – are ever more important.
In the absence of Mbappe, they will be flag-bearers for the club’s future.