Saturday 16 December 2017

Kylian Mbappe: 'Arsenal wanted me - but I wanted to go home to PSG'

Kylian Mbappe is presented as new player of Paris Saint Germain by President of PSG Nasser Al Khelaifi at Parc des Princes on September 6, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Kylian Mbappe is presented as new player of Paris Saint Germain by President of PSG Nasser Al Khelaifi at Parc des Princes on September 6, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Jason Burt

It is 10:30am in the Carre, the plush VIP area at Paris St-Germain’s stadium and a VVIP arrives, in a tailored dark suit. It is the new prince of the Parc des Princes.

In an hour or so Kylian Mbappe will be presented to the world’s media following his extraordinary €180 million (£165 million) transfer from Monaco but, for now, it is just him and Telegraph Sport – plus Mbappe’s father, Wilfried, and his little brother, Ethan.

Mbappe is still just 18. Two summers ago he was celebrating passing his French highschool exams, insisting he completed them before furthering his football career; last season he was being driven to training by his mother, Fayza, a former hand-ball player, while he did not have time this summer to finish his own driving lessons because “things got a bit complicated”.

They did indeed get complicated. Now he is the world’s most expensive teenager, and the second most expensive footballer ever, after his new team-mate, Neymar, who also arrived this summer for €222million (£202.8million) from Barcelona. Along with Edinson Cavani, they are poised to create the most thrilling new forward line in football.

But it is Mbappe who is the hottest new property in the game despite, as he readily admits, having had “only six months playing at the highest level” following his remarkable breakthrough at Monaco.

And yet when he speaks, greeting me in English, Mbappe is remarkably mature, articulate and level-headed. He quickly and confidently covers a range of topics, including:

- Why he has “come home” to PSG

- What it has been like to live with the “Mbappe soap opera”

Kylian Mbappe (R) and Neymar Jr of Paris Saint-Germain speak before a Paris Saint-Germain training session at Centre Ooredoo on September 6, 2017 in Saint-Germain en Laye, Paris France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Kylian Mbappe (R) and Neymar Jr of Paris Saint-Germain speak before a Paris Saint-Germain training session at Centre Ooredoo on September 6, 2017 in Saint-Germain en Laye, Paris France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

- How joining Arsenal had been a “real option” after he met Arsene Wenger

- How spending time at Chelsea when he was 11 – playing alongside Tammy Abraham - gave him the hunger to be a top footballer

- Only one enquiry is deemed off-limits: how many big clubs tried to sign him this summer? “No comment -  I will play the Joker on that one!” he replies, with a broad smile. The answer is simple, though – they all did.

“I am a very, very lucky player, a privileged player,” Mbappe says.

“And I am over the moon right now. I sit here with a real sense of pride. I have worked hard and been rewarded for it but that is only an incentive to work even harder.

"By working hard I have got here. If I work even harder then I can go even higher. Where will I be? That is my source of motivation.”

There has been some cynicism as to why Mbappe made the move – a highly unusual season-long loan to presumably comply with Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules.

There is a binding option to buy next July for 145million euros plus add-ons, and he even offers a joke thanks to “his lawyers” as he considers those who have got him to where he is. But he is adamant that “only one club was able to get me and that club was Paris Saint-Germain”.

Mbappe is a Parisian, and a PSG fan. He grew up in the northern suburbs, in Bondy, and after this interview and his formal unveiling, and before afternoon training, he travels for another engagement back at the local club where it all started aged six - AS Bondy.

He has maintained his links, not least because his father, originally from Cameroon, still coaches there. Mbappe is a regular visitor and this time he is greeted with a new slogan relating to him and to the area “where everything is possible”.

“Being here is like going back home for me,” he says of PSG. “I used to come to this stadium when I was a boy to watch games. I was a football fan, a kid who loved football and when you are a kid from Paris there are only two stadiums – the Stade de France or the Parc de Princes – and that is what makes Paris so special.

Paris Saint-Germain President Nasser Al Khelaifi and new signing Kylian Mbappe speak to the media during a press conference at the Parc des Princes on September 6, 2017 in Paris, France. Kylian Mbappe signed a five year contract for 180 Million Euro. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Paris Saint-Germain President Nasser Al Khelaifi and new signing Kylian Mbappe speak to the media during a press conference at the Parc des Princes on September 6, 2017 in Paris, France. Kylian Mbappe signed a five year contract for 180 Million Euro. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

There is only one club in Paris so every Paris kid follows Paris Saint-Germain. And if that kid has money in his pocket he comes to games here.”

 As a kid Mbappe was soon in demand. Big demand. At 11, Chelsea invited him for a week to train and spend time at the club. “Yes, of course I remember,” Mbappe says. “It was a wonderful experience.

Chelsea was the first great club, the first big club, that I went to visit. So it was a real discovery for me.

“I was coming from my grassroots, amateur club. It was a whole new world. Of course I had an idea what a great football club was like but I was really impressed by the working culture and the mentality of wanting to be better day-in, day-out.

"And visiting this infrastructure helped me, actually, with my development. I saw things differently because up until then I had just a French mentality and after that I could pick what was positive in other mentalities and build my own.”

He played a match – wearing “Kylian 10” - for Chelsea Under-12s where he was partnered in attack by Abraham, who is currently on loan from Chelsea at Swansea City. Jeremie Boga, a French midfielder also still at Chelsea, and out on loan at Birmingham City, was also in the team.

“We played against Charlton, I think, and we won maybe seven or eight nil,” Mbappe recalls. “I also got to meet some of the first-team players – (Didier) Drogba, (Florent) Malouda – the French-speaking ones and took some pictures with them.”

As motivation, it was unbeatable. “An idea has been reinforced since I was a kid - not just because I went to Chelsea. I always thought: ‘I want to be there, I want to be one of those big players who is trying to give people fun out of the game.’

"And I have given everything to reach that objective. Now I am on the other side of the camera, on the other side of the TV. That’s the only difference.”

Soon Real Madrid came calling, and he met Zinedine Zidane and trained with the Under-15s. There was also interest from Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, and every Ligue 1 side but, aged 15 and after his two years at Clairefontaine, he eventually chose Monaco believing, with a rare maturity, it was the best place for him to develop his career.

So in December 2015, Mbappe became Monaco’s youngest-ever player at 16 years and 347 days, beating the record set by Thierry Henry – with whom he is so often compared - and then, aged 17 years and 63 days, he became their youngest-ever goal-scorer, also beating Henry.

Mbappe was in demand, again, but once more those overtures were resisted. He signed his first professional contract and then, last December, it all took off with his first hat-trick and a remarkable run as he led Monaco to the French title and the semi-finals of the Champions League, scoring six times in the knock-out stages.

Kylian Mbappe of France during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between France and Luxembourg at the Stadium on September 3, 2017 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Kylian Mbappe of France during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between France and Luxembourg at the Stadium on September 3, 2017 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

In all, Mbappe plundered 26 goals, became a French international and was hailed as the future of his country’s football.

Once more, the world came calling, although even then his plan was to remain at Monaco. “When I first started meeting with clubs I told them my first priority was Monaco,” Mbappe says.

“Then something happened that changed my mind and then I wanted to leave. We weighed up all the offers I received and I decided to join Paris Saint-Germain because this is the project that will help me develop while I win titles. Of course, I still want to learn but I want to win. Starting with today.”

Winning the Champions League is the goal, and he turned down more money from other clubs to join them.

But what changed at Monaco? Mbappe says it is not the time to discuss that but it could have been his unwillingness to sign a new contract and Monaco’s fear that he might then leave next year for less money.

Arsenal were among his strongest suitors. “Yes, I met with Arsene Wenger, who is a great coach,” Mbappe says. “He has a great reputation here in France, he’s well-respected and knows how to develop young players. This was a real option for me. But, of course, Paris Saint-Germain was the main option.

“We weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of all the clubs but my family told me it had to be my decision and one I needed to make. It also had to be a long-term decision. So it was up to me and I decided to come here in order to develop.”

But Wenger made an amazing comparison after their talks. “It’s really incredible to be compared to a player like ‘King Pele’ who is the King of Football,” Mbappe says of the Brazilian. “But what I must think about is working hard and following my own pathway and not thinking about people who compare you to other players.”

Mbappe is adamant he will remain grounded, and he certainly appears to be, despite the astonishing level of interest in him. He even refers to it as the “Mbappe soap opera” given the clamour for stories and information, especially when it came to his future.

“It is something that you have to be careful because you need to ‘feed’ the newspapers,” he says. “But you need to be cautious. This is a war of nerves. The first one who actually loses his nerve will lose. So you have to keep working on your footwork and then you will be the one winning!”

But how does he cope with the attention? “Well, you manage it by keeping a passion for football,” Mbappe says. “I have always had that passion for the game and it actually helps me manage some situations, some delicate situations.

 I think that love of the game means that when I enter the pitch I can get rid of all the pressure, all the environment and this helps me every time. As I always say – you have no feelings when you are on the pitch. You are there to play, to give the best for your team.

“I have always remained myself and that is why I am where I am today. I am aware of the risk with all the media attention, all the glitz and glamour around football. And that was the only piece of advice my father gave me about my future – to stay myself. I know where I come from.”

And where he is going.

Telegraph.co.uk

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