The Kazan Arena on June 30, 2018. In the most thrilling World Cup in recent history came its most breath-taking game. And the star of the show was Kylian Mbappe.
The phenomenal forward from the outskirts of Paris was still only 19 years old when he made all the most telling contributions in a game which will live long in everybody’s memory.
France beat a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina 4-3 in the Round of 16 game. Mbappe’s searing pace and dynamic movement had featured in three of the goals – two of which he scored himself – and the globe became truly cognisant of what the Paris Saint-Germain forward was all about.
But such sensational performances on the greatest of stages were just part of Mbappe’s promise to himself at a young age, and his ability to deliver simply a reflection of his incredible grounding.
“I have had a career plan since I can remember,” Mbappe told RMC in 2017. “I know what I want to do, where I want to go, and I won’t let anything disturb me.”
A kid from a humble background, he was quick to cling to advice from his parents, especially when it came to sporting achievements. His mum, Fayza, had been a handball player while his father, Wilfried, was a football coach as well as an agent.
Growing up in Bondy, a suburb of the French capital, was not the easiest of experiences, but Mbappe had the benefit of being immensely talented and incredibly focused.
“My mother always told me that before being a great player I have to be a great man,” Mbappe told Time magazine in 2018, adding: “I have learned that the biggest stars and the greatest players are the most humble ones, the ones who respect people the most.”
Joining local club AS Bondy as a six-year-old, his footballing idol as a kid was Cristiano Ronaldo… and not just in a casual way. Most of the world’s football public has witnessed the photograph of a 14-year-old Mbappe lying in his family home in Bondy with images of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner staring down at him from almost every inch of his bedroom walls.
For most star-struck teenagers, the very prospect of meeting Ronaldo would be considered something of a life goal but Mbappe’s talent was such from an early age that he was always destined to not just meet his hero but compete with him.
“We played a cup game against a neighbouring team,” his former AS Bondy coach Tonio Riccardi tells Goal. “It was a derby so the atmosphere was intense. We were trailing 1-0 at half-time and in the dressing room, we were very upset.
“Kylian just said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the ball and I’ll score.’ We went back on the pitch, he got the ball, he ran all over the pitch, dribbled every opponent and he scored.”
He quickly got plenty of people talking within Parisian football, such was his obvious potential to reach the very top, and it was no surprise when he was invited to the French national football centre at Clairefontaine and had a string of top European clubs wanting to snap up his signature.
Despite all the obvious appeal of heading to a Real Madrid, a Bayern Munich or a Chelsea, Mbappe plumped for Monaco and he was soon playing at levels he had little right to be considered for.
“The first time I met him was during a game between Toulouse and Monaco, a game in the under-19 category when he was only 16 years old,” West Ham United’s former Toulouse defender Issa Diop tells Goal. “My first feeling when I met him was to just ask myself: ‘Who is this phenomenon?’
“That year he started the season with the under-19 team. In the first five games of the season he scored five doubles! He then went up to the Monaco second team and then the first team in the space of a few weeks.
“Even then he was fast, even though he has got faster still since then, and he was very young so was not as physically complete as he is today. But he already scored a lot of goals and was still faster than all the other players when dribbling and over the first few yards. Everyone could already see that he was going to be a great player.”
When Monaco handed him his senior debut as a late substitute against Caen on December 2, 2015, Mbappe was just 16 years and 347 days old, beating Thierry Henry’s club record. Again, Kylian took it all in his stride with humility.
His father, Wilfried, told Le Parisien: “Kylian still has a room at the training ground, even though he has the means to afford a villa with an accompanying swimming pool. But that’s not his thing. He has seen how other players have lost their way, and I convinced him to stay at the training complex to protect him.”
After 14 first-team appearances in 2015-16, he was called up for France’s tilt at the Under-19 European Championship the following summer, and Diop got to know Mbappe more personally. And while he agrees there was a steely focus about his football, Diop insists that Kylian was in no way aloof around his team-mates.
“He always had the same behaviour, he was very comfortable, very natural. But don't believe that he is a wise child. He likes to pull people's legs, and he is always happy in a dressing room,” Diop explains.
“He laughs with everyone, he makes fun of others, he provides a great atmosphere in the dressing room. He is very serious as soon as the ball is on the field but in life he is not so calm. He loves to do daft things, even if he was never one of those who liked to party at night or that sort of thing.”
That tournament would provide Mbappe with his first piece of national glory, with France overcoming an opening group loss to England to win the competition with a 4-0 shellacking of Italy in the final. Kylian chipped in with five goals including a match-winning double against Germany in the semi-final.
And to Diop it was already clear just how focused his team-mate was in his desire to win everything he could.
“He didn’t specify the World Cup or anything, he just always told us that he wanted to win everything. He spoke of the competitions we played in at that specific moment. He’s an outstanding competitor.”
By 2017 he had outgrown Monaco. For all that the club is based in one of the richest areas in the world, its miniscule stadium capacity and secondary status in the eyes of the world were not in keeping with the new-found stature of the forward.
His next move was to return home to Paris, joining PSG for an initial €145 million fee, rising to €180m. But for Neymar’s €222m arrival at the Parc des Princes earlier the same summer, it would have smashed the world record for a footballer.
The splash made on the transfer market was nothing compared to the ructions he was about to cause on the world stage. After backing up his 2017 Ligue 1 title at Monaco with a first with PSG, he headed off to Russia donning the France number 10 shirt which 20 years earlier had been immortalised by Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup-winning double in the final against Brazil.
He did nothing to damage the legacy. After a goal against Peru and that stunning performance against Argentina, Mbappe and France found themselves in another final, this time against Croatia in Moscow.
There he displayed just another of the strings to his bow. Given time and space by the Croatian defence, he hammered home the clinching fourth French goal with barely any back-lift and no little finesse. With that, he was the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, and the Brazilian legend was quick to congratulate him.
A world champion and two-time league winner already, Mbappe is now looking to add Champions League glory to his list of outstanding achievements before he even reaches the legal drinking age in some countries. Not that stuff like that would bother him, according to his PSG boss Thomas Tuchel.
When the German took the job last summer, one of his first acts was to befriend the owners of some of the French capital’s most exclusive nightclubs in a bid to keep a lid on any partying culture amongst his squad. He knew better than to worry about Mbappe.
“Mbappe is better than other kids because he spends his time watching games on TV while others prefer to go clubbing and wasting money,” Tuchel told RMC.
It is true that he remains as grounded as ever. He donated his World Cup earnings of around €400,000 to a charity teaching sports to sick and disabled children. “It does not change my life, but it changes theirs,” he insisted.
Even his trademark goal celebration is in homage to his younger brother, Ethan, who would use the hands-under-armpits routine whenever he beat his famous elder sibling on the FIFA video games.
There is just so much to admire about Kylian Mbappe, not least of which is the promise of what comes next.
While Ronaldo and Messi have dominated the individual accolades of recent years, Mbappe is widely tipped to be one of the consistently prominent figures of the sport for some time ahead.
“He is definitely special. He is the quickest player that I have ever seen play and I have played against Ronaldo and Messi,” Iceland star Johan Berg Gudmundsson told Goal after coming up against Mbappe and France in late 2018.
“Just his pace is something different to them two. Obviously, Ronaldo is quick but it is the turn of pace that is something no other player has got, and to control the ball at that speed is something special. He will become the best player in the world in a couple of years, I have no doubt about that.
“It is unbelievable that he is so young, and what he has done in the last year. He has already done so many things. He is only going to get better, as long as his head is right and he stays humble, I think he will be the best player in the world.”
Mbappe heads into Tuesday’s Champions League Round of 16 first-leg clash with Manchester United at Old Trafford having already surpassed his career-best tally for league goals in a season and is fast approaching the high-water mark of 26 in all competitions which he recorded in 2016-17 with 22 under his belt already.
Neymar might well be missing the trip to Manchester, and PSG have had various other injury headaches of late, but United will not be taking lightly the prospect of Mbappe delivering another individual masterpiece similar to the one which took France past Argentina last summer at the same stage of the World Cup.
Everything has gone as prescribed so far for Mbappe. “I know what I want to do, where I want to go, and I won’t let anything disturb me.” Well nothing has stopped him so far, and PSG are set to reap the benefits every bit as much as France already has.
“Among players of his age, he is without doubt the most promising in the world due to his immense technical, physical and mental qualities,” boasted PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi when Mbappe signed with the capital club.
“Since his emergence at the highest level, he has earned an excellent reputation as a young talent who is very respectful, open, ambitious and already very mature.
“In our colours, in the midst of truly great players, Kylian will continue his progression in a way that will also benefit the French national team in the months and years to come.”
A €180m footballer. A World Cup winner. The scorer of 84 senior goals, including 10 for France and four in that wonderful World Cup triumph. A back-to-back Ligue 1 champion with first Monaco and then PSG. The subject of a cover spread in Time magazine.
For the large majority of professional footballers, such a collection of achievements would be more than enough to satisfy them over the entirety of a whole career.
But Mbappe, ridden with desire and determination, is only just getting started. And his feet remain firmly on the ground.