Tuesday 18 December 2018

Humble Mbappe primed to take world by storm

Kylian Mbappe in action during training ahead of the World Cup semi-final against Uruguay. Image: AP Photo/David Vincent
Kylian Mbappe in action during training ahead of the World Cup semi-final against Uruguay. Image: AP Photo/David Vincent

Jeremy Wilson

Nike's advertising department certainly did not waste its opportunity last Saturday. Football's newest global mega-star Kylian Mbappe was the predictable subject of a new video, but what felt especially symbolic was how he strode from a rippling Tricolour flag to deliver a smiling "believe" message in response to a narrator telling him that he was "too young" at every critical juncture of his career.

Still only 19, and so proudly a product of the Bondy banlieue to the north-east of Paris, there has been a growing sense of Mbappe's potential to transcend football and reach a new generation of young French people in a comparable way to his hero Zinedine Zidane. It is noticeable that President Emmanuel Macron has already made a point of getting to know the teenager who upstaged Lionel Messi.

Impressed

Macron met Mbappe last year when he visited the Paris St-Germain Foundation and was impressed at how he was helping "to grow young people, develop them and ensure that they make appropriate studies".

His thoughts even turned to Mbappe's life after football. "He has his head on his shoulders," said Macron. "When this boy finishes his playing career, he will do great things."

Mbappe was invited to the Elysee Palace in February for George Weah's first visit as the Liberia president. When Macron met the France squad in Clairefontaine just days before they departed for Russia, he again apparently spent longest talking with Mbappe, who outlined how he wanted to use his status to also help African sport.

Luis Suarez will be the other headline act today in France's World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay but, as Didier Deschamps's squad arrived in Nizhny Novgorod, there was acknowledgement that something had changed in the five days since the Mbappe-inspired demolition of Argentina.

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks with Kylian Mbappe.
French president Emmanuel Macron speaks with Kylian Mbappe.

There was also an insistence that Mbappe was ready, even with another six months until his 20th birthday, to deal with a fame and media attention that is now global.

"What he did against Argentina put a spotlight on him obviously," said Deschamps. "To play like that in such an important match made a name for him.

"He will learn how to manage these situations. When there are hard times, the message is to question yourself and dig deep. When it goes well, you should not think it will be a walk in the park. Kylian Mbappe is intelligent. He listens and he knows this."

France captain Hugo Lloris can see similarities with how Mbappe and his Tottenham team-mate and England captain Harry Kane have a mentality that allows them to remain unaffected by what can now be frenzied attention.

Relaxed

"Kylian's been the same old person, he stays true to himself, he smiles, he's relaxed," said Lloris. "He has a bright future but he is also aware that, when the opportunity knocks on the door, you must seize it. The entire world saw him shine against Argentina. He's ready."

As a football writer for 'Le Parisien' newspaper, Ronan Folgoas has followed Mbappe closely and believes that this readiness will ensure he takes it all in his stride.

"At PSG, he is still in the shadow of Neymar and (Edinson) Cavani a little bit but, in France, it's different," he says.

"He's at the centre of the world. He is very mature, very smart. He is 19 but you could talk to him and think that he was 30. In a sense, he has been preparing for years to be Kylian Mbappe. His (older adopted) brother Jires Kembo Ekoko played professionally for Stade Rennes and he learnt enormously from him."

Mbappe's father, originally from Cameroon, and his mother, a handball player from Algeria, have also ensured that he remains grounded.

Of the current France squad, Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Steven Nzonzi, Presnel Kimpembe, Alphonse Areola, Blaise Matuidi and Benjamin Mendy are all also from nearby Parisien suburbs that have become the biggest hotbed for young footballing talent in the world.

On the day Mbappe signed for PSG in a deal that would ultimately be worth €180m, he still returned to an engagement at the local AS Bondy club at which he started as a six-year-old.

Comparisons over this past week have even stretched to a teenage Pele's emergence at the 1958 tournament, but perhaps the more relevant development is how the status of Messi and Ronaldo as the world's two most iconic players suddenly feels less secure.

Mbappe is not yet at that level but, as Arsene Wenger noted, there is a sense of inevitability about his place among the next group of players who will "dominate the world".

The remaining question is the extent to which the next 10 days will catapult him straight into that company. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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