“I’m the best,” France striker Kylian Mbappé tells himself every time he walks on to the pitch. He knew he wasn’t as good as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo but such motivational tactics — what he described as “the will to surpass yourself” — were necessary.
But World Cups reshuffle football’s hierarchies. The 23-year-old Frenchman, who meets England in Saturday’s quarter-final, has been staking his claim in Qatar to be the best. England must handle a deadly combination: a natural footballer built like an Olympic sprinter, but also coached to perfection almost from birth.
Mbappé comes from Bondy, a north-eastern suburb of Paris that resembles a Soviet town plonked on top of an ancient French village. His mother Fayza is of Algerian origin and his father, Wilfried, emigrated from Cameroon. She was a serious handball player and supervised afterschool activities for children, while Wilfried and his brother were football coaches who often took the toddler Kylian to matches. Another Bondy boy, William Saliba, now an Arsenal centre-back and a member of France’s squad, said of his childhood coach: “Wilfried Mbappé taught me everything.”
Imagine having that teaching on tap at home. As the son told me in an interview for Esquire last year: “I was always in changing-rooms, listening to tactical talks. I think it helped me because being a coach is putting yourself in somebody else’s place. If you’re a player, generally you think about yourself, about your own career. [But] I can see, for instance, when something in a game is frustrating a teammate. I can put him at ease.”
A bright lad, he learnt good English and Spanish, and while already a star forward at Monaco obtained the baccalauréat diploma that allows entry into French universities. He hasn’t needed the certificate. He took to professional football naturally, marvelling at the stress he saw on other players’ faces — he didn’t feel it himself. Aged 19, after winning the 2018 World Cup final with France, he told an interviewer on the field, “World champion, that’s already good.”
To him it was merely a staging post, not a “finality”. In serious sporting families, a child learns to erase past achievements. Mbappé returned to Paris Saint-Germain and, as a life-long student of dressing-room hierarchies, went straight to the club’s star, the Brazilian Neymar, who had flopped at the World Cup, and reassured him: “I’m not going to walk on your flowerbeds. I don’t want to take your place.”
His instant celebrity imprisoned him at home. The moment he goes out, he is besieged by crowds begging for selfies. On the field, too, he hit setbacks. He spent Euro 2020 squabbling with fellow French forward Olivier Giroud about their interplay. Racist abuse from the public almost prompted him to quit Les Bleus. “I cannot play for people who think I’m a monkey,” he said.
But in Qatar he has shown he’s better than when he won his first World Cup. With his sprints timed at 36kph, defenders back away for fear of being left for dust, allowing him to advance frighteningly close to their goal: he leads the tournament with 42 touches in the opposition’s penalty area. England’s right-back Kyle Walker, who has run at speeds of 37kph, is possibly the defender best equipped to cope with him.
But that may not be enough. Mbappé sees gaps faster than before and is now equally happy shooting at the keeper’s near corner — as for his first goal against Poland — rather than just the far corner, his old favourite. So focused is he here that he won’t speak to the media, reneging even on compulsory appearances at press conferences after being named man of the match. He may also be trying to avoid the controversies over the flaws of Qatar, which — as PSG’s owner — pays his salary. The only Mbappé heard here is Wilfried, commenting for Togolese TV.
France have built their team around the son. “We’ve got other very good players, but Kylian is in a league of his own,” says captain Hugo Lloris. Whereas for PSG Mbappé often has to play centre-forward, for the national team he has his ideal free role: roaming from the left, absolved of defensive duties. While teammates defend, he prowls up front, awaiting the situation in which he is unsurpassed: a quick counter-attack. His smouldering exchange of glances with Giroud, cradled in the 36-year-old centre-forward’s muscular arms after another goal, suggest they have made up.
Mbappé leads this tournament with five goals. His total for World Cups is already nine, more than Ronaldo or Diego Maradona. The comparison with Pelé, a similar kind of forward, is made ever more frequently and won’t seem absurd if Mbappé lifts his second trophy here. Pelé, now stricken with cancer in a Brazilian hospital, won three.
Mbappé will be making comparisons himself — the best footballers keep tabs on each other. “I watch matches of other great players to see what they’re doing [and think]: ‘I know how to do this, but can the other guy do it too?’”
As Messi and Ronaldo exit the stage, a vacancy is opening up at number one.