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Saturday, June 30, 2018

FIFA World Cup 2018: Kylian Mbappe is the sparkling ‘Jewel’ in the French crown

Kylian Mbappe saunters down the right flank, appearing uninterested in the scrap-fight that the match between France and Peru has descended into. All afternoon, he’s been hassled by the defenders, clobbered down every time he gets near the ball. In a desperate attempt to make something happen, N’golo Kante rolls a ball to Mbappe’s feet – almost like saying, ‘go on, do your thing.’ He does just that. He takes the ball on his right, opens his body in a way that the defenders think he’s going left. Instead, Mbappe swerves and goes the other way. Then, in a four-second burst, he leaves the two players baffled by his pace and footwork. He cuts inside, and has Kante in his sight on the left. A simple pass would suffice to put further pressure on the Peruvian defence. But simple is boring for Mbappe. So he skips over the ball and flicks it towards his teammate with the back of his right heel. The move does not end as France would’ve desired. But the passage of play, lasting not more than eight seconds, was unadulterated pleasure. There was something about the body swerve, a la George Best. The imagination, unpredictability and daring to do things differently make him a joy to watch. This is the oldest World Cup in terms of average age of the players. But it’s a teenager who is demanding all our attention – a 19-year-old lanky, massively-thighed, smiling young boy, playing with the same freedom like he did at his youth team AS Bondy, not so long ago.
The artificial pitch next to a busy road in a Northeastern suburb of Paris, where Mbappe trained with the under-13 team, is a world away from Parc de Princes, the stadium where he was unveiled as the second-costliest footballer on the planet last September, three months before his 18th birthday. Paris St Germain, the most powerful club in France that is bankrolled by the Qatari sheikhs, will pay AS Monaco a scarcely believable 145 million euros (Rs1,157 crore approximately) to obtain his services. Mbappe will be given a signing bonus of 35 million euros, or roughly Rs 279 crore, and has been promised a weekly salary of 327, 580 euros (Rs 2.61 crore approximately). In France, superlatives were lavished as generously as the Qatari petro-dollars. France Football, the magazine which awards the Ballon d’Or, called him the ‘new jewel’, L’Equipe declared it as the ‘most majestic French transfer in history’ and L’Express called Mbappe the ‘breakout talent of the century.’ In Bondy, they have a giant mural of Mbappe overlooking the ground where he began playing football. Only Zinedine Zidane, in Marseille, and Moussa Sissoko in Aulnay-sous-Bois have had similar honours. Outside the country, though, the obscene nature of this deal has been a subject of collective ridicule. It’s hardly Mbappe’s fault, however, that someone should pay him that much for what he does the best – and there’s no disputing that.
Mbappe’s initiation to football was much before his first training session at Bondy. His father Wilfried, who has Cameroonian and Nigerian roots, was associated with the club for 22 years, first as a player and then as a coach. There are stories of a two-year-old Kylian toddling into the changing rooms with a ball before every home match, listening to every word spoken in the meetings. “I think he’s the player here who must have heard the record number of pre-match team talks,” Atmane Airouche, the club’s president, told the BBC. At home, he’d force his father to watch four-five matches almost every day. The obsession would cross limits, as far his parents were concerned. “He drove us mad,” Wilfried joked. One afternoon, he walked to a barbershop one day and ask for The Zidane – a razor-sharp haircut that enhanced the former France captain’s bald spot. It was only after a fight with his mother Fayza, a former handball player, that he budged. His bedroom wall, meanwhile, was adorned with the posters of Cristiano Ronaldo. Mbappe wanted to do everything that the Portuguese superstar did. At Bondy, he was the kid faster and better than everyone. He loved to dribble and glide past his opponents. Soon, he would start beating everything his idol achieved as a teenager.
Mbappe made his professional debut at the age of 16 years and 11 months, for Monaco; Ronaldo was 17 years and six months. The Frenchman scored his first senior team goal when he was 17 years and two months, Ronaldo was 17 years and eight months when he would net his first. But it’s Mbappe’s performances in the Champions League that has gotten everyone talking. Ronaldo didn’t get his first goal in Europe’s elite club competition until he was 20. Mbappe, who’s still 19, has already scored six – his first coming away at Manchester City when he was just 18 years and two months old. Arsene Wenger, arguably the coach with an unrivalled eye for talent, has compared Mbappe to Thierry Henry. “He’s got the same qualities of intelligence and the same deftness of finishing,” Wenger has said. Craque, the French call him. The best.
There’s a short Youtube clip of Mbappe talking to Henry, whose records he is already eclipsing. The teenager isn’t overawed or starstruck, though. Calm, instead, sharing space with the legend. Henry talks about his smooth technique. Mbappe, though, stresses on the need of strong mentalité, mindset. It’s an attribute that defines Ronaldo’s game, and something Mbappe will have to showcase on Saturday. The Round of 16 match against Lionel Messi’s Argentina will be Mbappe’s biggest test yet. France, a team embarrassingly rich with creative players, have hinged their hopes on the second-most expensive player in the world. And he’s only a teenager yet.