The Footballer Power Play: When Players Hold All the Cards

During Kylian Mbappe’s now completed tenure at PSG, he wielded a power known to few other footballers before him. We take a look at a select few who have been able to call the shots at their respective clubs. 

There has always been a hierarchy in the world of football. At the top are the club owners, who depending on how involved they’d like to be can either get their hands dirty themselves or hire others in the front office to run the club. Then there’s the coaching staff, followed by the players. All levels of the hierarchy are crucial in various aspects of a successful club.

The players do their talking between the touchlines, while the manager has an impact both on and off the pitch, as does the director of football and technical director. But what happens when a player’s influence and power usurps the hierarchal system? This is where Kylian Mbappé enters the conversation.

A Rollercoaster Summer

mbappe psg

It was summer of 2022, and the whole football world was waiting for Mbappé’s decision to stay at PSG or leave for Real Madrid. The rumors of Mbappé to Madrid had been circulating for years, and many felt it was some kind of destiny for him to join Los Blancos.

After a series of dramatic turns and recanted reports, Mbappé ultimately decided to stay in Paris, with the hope to deliver the club and its fans the ever-elusive Champions League trophy. The biggest shock was not the decision itself, but rather the terms that surrounded it. Mbappé received a huge salary and loyalty bonus in addition to the power to have a say in footballing decisions at the club.

That power was suddenly felt as Luis Campos, who was Mbappé’s director of football at Monaco, joined PSG that summer. High profile names like Neymar and Lionel Messi were chased out the following summer, and were replaced by two of Mbappé’s closest French teammates in Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembele.

PSG came close once again to their goal of winning the Champions League in 2024, but fell short to Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals. It was Mbappé’s last chance to deliver the big one, and he announced that he’d be leaving the club in the summer shortly after PSG were knocked out. His next destination has yet to be announced, but all signs point to the seemingly predestined move to Real Madrid.

With the Mbappé saga nearly over, let’s take a look at the handful of other footballers who have had a similar influence to the French phenom at their respective clubs.

Lionel Messi

lionel messi

Was there any doubt that one of the greatest of all time would not have a say in what went on in Barcelona, and now even more so at his current club Inter Miami? Let’s start in the Catalan capital, where the Argentine great spent the majority of his illustrious career.

Messi had a particular aura around him even before he made his first team debut with Barcelona as a teenager, but one of the first real power flexes he made came in 2009, following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival at Camp Nou. The two talents struggled to co-exist on the same pitch, and Ibrahimovic had trouble with not being the club’s main focal point.

Then-manager Pep Guardiola quickly decided on who was the most important player to him (a strained relationship with the Swedish striker perhaps made things easier), and Ibrahimovic only lasted one season in Barcelona.

The last few years of Messi’s tenure in Barcelona were the most controversial of them all. Messi’s name was in the media far more frequently, and it was not always because of what happened on the pitch.

In 2020, Messi and Barcelona sporting director and former teammate Eric Abidal had a highly publicized dispute. Abidal criticized the players for not working hard enough for their coach, comments Messi did not take lightly. The captain responded back and told Abidal and his colleagues to take responsibility for their actions.

That same summer was the infamous burofax Messi sent to Barcelona asking for his departure of the club. After the request was not granted, Messi dropped an interview where he claimed betrayal from Barcelona, specifically Josep Maria Bartomeu. Bartomeu would resign a few months after the interview.

Messi later departed for PSG, and is now of course with Inter Miami, where his influence is seen through the recruitment of the club since he joined. David Beckham has brought three of Messi’s closest friends from his time at Barcelona in Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, and Luis Suarez. Shortly before his move to Miami, the club hired Gerardo Martino as manager, a decision almost certainly made to appease Messi. Martino is not just Messi’s fellow countryman but also his former coach at Barcelona, albeit for just a single unsuccessful season.

While Messi’s power has not been as widely reported on as Mbappé’s, his influence has been felt throughout his time at Barcelona and now Inter Miami. With his accomplishments and stature, it is highly warranted.

The Bayern Core

thomas muller manuel neuer

There are a couple of players at Bayern Munich that have more power than the others, namely the German contingent of Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller.

The leaders of Bayern on the pitch have had a huge influence off the pitch as well, evident in several decisions the Bayern brass have made over the past few years. The club hired Julian Naglesmann in 2021 with a €25 million transfer fee, making him the most expensive manager of all time.

However, that didn’t matter as his relationship with Neuer turned sour, fully deteriorating after goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic was fired while Neuer was out with an injury he sustained while skiing. Despite the club’s relative success, Naglesmann was sacked in 2023, not even lasting two seasons in Bavaria.

Naglesmann’s successor Thomas Tuchel felt the power of the dressing room as well, and became a lame duck manager in February 2024 when the club announced he would not be returning for the following season.

Several reports claimed that the manager had to change his approach to team talks to not further anger players. It was reflected in his team selections of Müller, who did not start in a heavy defeat to Frankfurt and came on extremely late, a decision that was heavily criticized. Müller found himself back in the lineup a week later, in addition to a contract extension soon after as well.

John Terry

john terry

Similar to Müller and Neuer, John Terry was suspected of having a major influence in two managerial sackings in the early 2010s at Chelsea. The two managers in question: Andre Villas-Boas and Rafael Benitez.

Terry had an incident with Villas-Boas on a plane during a preseason tour. In a ploy to assert his authority, the newly-hired manager made the senior players sit economy and the younger players sit first class — a move that showed no player was bigger than the other.

Understandably, Terry started an argument with the manager on the plane and forced him to reverse his decision. The message was clear — do not get on Terry’s bad side. It was too late for Villas-Boas however, and he was sacked halfway through the year. To add insult to injury, Chelsea won the UCL later that season.

As for Benitez, his beef with Terry started via a playing time dispute. Benitez told Terry he wouldn’t be an everyday player, and when Terry demanded a reason, the manager declined to answer. He’d lose the trust of Terry, and therefore the rest of the dressing room.

John Obi Mikel discussed how Terry was the catalyst for the Spaniard’s sacking.

“At the end of the day, Terry was the guy who made the decisions,” Mikel said.

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