Nathanael Mbuku: France wonderkid playing Champagne football at Reims

Nathanael Mbuku Reims
The 18-year-old winger is already a regular starter in Ligue 1 after having shone for Les Bleus at the Under-17 World Cup just over a year ago

Though two-time European Cup finalists during the 1950s, the city of Reims has become more well known outside of France for its status as the unofficial capital of Champagne production rather than its football team.

Since those heady days of taking on Real Madrid at showpiece events, Reims have largely yo-yoed between the top two divisions, though that was punctuated somewhat by their liquidation in the early 1990s, which led to them having to climb back to the top-flight after being forced to start again in the amateur leagues.

Now established in Ligue 1 and coming off the back of a sixth-placed finish last season, they played their first game in European competition since 1963 at the start of the current campaign.

What makes their achievements even more pleasing for local fans is that they are beginning to earn a reputation for producing players from their own academy that could rival the produce that emenates from the local vineyards.

Star striker Boulaye Dia seems destined for the Premier League, with Arsenal, West Ham and Newcastle all reportedly interested, while 19-year-old forward El Bilal Toure also seems set for big things after a flying start to his own professional career.

Perhaps the most special of them all, though, is winger Nathanael Mbuku, who has already made an impact at youth international level as well as on the Reims first-team.

Having made his senior debut on the opening day of the 2019-20 campaign, 18-year-old Mbuku had to wait over 14 months to find the net for the first time in Ligue 1. It was worth the wait.

With Reims already 2-0 up on 10-man Montpellier in October, Mbuku chased down a dropping ball in the area, beating an opposition defender to it so as to keep the attack alive before producing an outrageous overhead-kick to put the result beyond doubt.

It remains the crowning moment of a young career that many predict will see him reach the very top of the world game.

Born in the south Parisian suburb of Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Mbuku moved between a whole host of semi-professional and amateur clubs in the capital before eventually joining Reims in 2017 as a 15-year-old.

"I was a funny child who took joy from life," the teenager told France Football of his upbringing at the end of 2019. "I had to force my dad a little to let me play football. I pulled his ears a bit and said 'Daddy, sign me up for football'.

"He said 'OK, on one condition: get good grades at school'. I gave it my all at school and he ended up signing me up. He surprised me. That day, I was so happy."

His wish granted, Mbuku has been impressing onlookers ever since with his willingness to be direct in possession while giving opposition defenders headaches with both his pace and quick feet.

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It was against Marseille in August 2019 that he took his first steps into the senior game, with Reims boss David Guion introducing him as a 73rd-minute substitute at the famous Stade Velodrome.

"When we went out to warm-up, I was just looking at the stadium," he recalled to Telefoot. "My team-mates made fun of me because they had already played there, but I was just discovering it and it was beautiful.

"Around the 60th minute the coach sent me to warm-up and said 'you have two minutes'. I realised that I was going to make my debut at the Velodrome - it was amazing."

Mbuku continued to make sporadic substitute appearances in the early weeks of the campaign before earning his first start in a famous 2-0 away win over Paris Saint-Germain.

It was while away with France at the Under-17 World Cup in November 2019, however, that his talents truly began to show themselves, with the wideman scoring five goals in six matches - including a hat-trick against Australia in the last 16 - as Jean-Claude Giutini's side secured a third-place finish in Brazil.

That was enough for him to earn the Silver Boot as the tournament's second-highest goalscorer behind Ajax and Netherlands forward Sontje Hansen, with Selecao legend Ronaldo the man tasked with handing over the prizes at the culmination of the final.

"This competition was an incredible experience, especially in Brazil, the country of football," Mbuku told France Football. "I came back full of dreams, full of beautiful memories.

"To meet Ronaldo? It was a childhood dream, especially to shake hands with Ronaldo. It was an indescribable emotion. He is not just anyone in football. He was my idol when I was young."

He returned to Reims and earned further first-team minutes before the premature ending of the French football season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with his form enough to earn him a new contract, which he signed around the time of his 18th birthday in March and will keep him with the club until 2023.

Mbuku sat out six of the first seven matches of the current season, but was restored to the line-up against PSG in late September and has not looked back after being named in the starting XI for seven of the club's 11 league fixtures since.

Nathanael Mbuku Reims GFX

"For three weeks or a month, he's been the best in training, there is no question," Guion told reporters following Mbuku's memorable goal against Montpellier. "He deserves it through all his training, that's also where you gain your place.

"What I criticised him for was lacking in efficiency in his actions, and very slowly he is taking a little more care. We who see him in training, we are not surprised to see him emerge.

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"He is able to destabilise any defender, either running inside or outside. He's a young player who needs to be well looked after and who needs to keep working."

If Mbuku does keep working, then the sky is the limit for potentially the most talented young footballer to emerge out of Reims in decades.

A Champagne footballer in every sense of the word.