The future of international soccer stands 5 feet 10 inches tall, runs like an Olympic sprinter, shoots like a sniper and has encountered very few things on the field he can’t do better than everybody else.
And when you’re that good, success is not so much obtained as it is ordained.
So it was that Kylian Mbappe was just 19 when he hoisted the World Cup trophy last summer with France, climaxing a tournament in which he became only the second teenager to score twice in a knockout-round game and just the second to score in a World Cup final.
You might have heard of the first guy. His name is Pele.
Mbappe’s talents were on display again last week when he bounced one goal in off a defender and scored three others himself in Paris Saint-Germain wins over Montpellier and Nimes, victories that moved the team closer to winning its sixth Ligue 1 title in seven years.
That also gave Mbappe a league-leading 22 goals. In Europe, only Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, with 25, has more and only Borussia Dortmund’s Paco Alcacer is scoring at a greater rate than Mbappe, who is averaging a goal every 72 minutes.
“Mbappe will be one of the best players…he is one of the best players in the world,” said Olympique de Marseille coach Rudi Garcia, who, like many in France, rushes Mbappe from prodigy to phenomenon in the length of a single sentence.
“Maybe he will be the best one soon,” Garcia continues in French. “When [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo retire, they will make way for new players to come in such as Mbappe.”
Pele changed the game forever, putting his athleticism and creativity at the service of a stellar supporting cast to win a record three world championships. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been more a virtuoso, a strutting diva who has dominated his era as much with his oversized personality as with the uncommon skills that allowed him to pass Pele in international goals without ever getting past the semifinals of a World Cup.
The speedy Mbappe is more Pele than preener, controlling the game as much with his vision as with his velocity despite being clocked at 23 mph in the World Cup final, just a tick below Usain Bolt’s average speed when he set the world record for 100 meters in 2009.
Where Ronaldo celebrated his career by building a 15,000-square-foot museum to himself — placing a 10-foot bronze likeness outside the front door — Mbappe toasted his World Cup victory by donating his $517,000 winner’s share to a charity for handicapped children.
“It doesn’t change my life, but it changes theirs.”
Ronaldo has also given generously to charity, but Mbappe has separated himself from his boyhood idol in ways other than just humility and a World Cup title. The value of his 2017 transfer from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain was reported at nearly $204 million, making it the highest fee ever paid for a teenager and the second-highest in history, and nearly $100 million more than Juventus paid Real Madrid for Ronaldo last summer.
While Ronaldo has turned his initials and number into the eponymous brand CR7, Mbappe sheepishly answers to “Donatello,” the nickname teammates use to tease him because of his resemblance to one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“I have never seen another footballer like Mbappe,” Joseph Oakeshott, a British-born media manager for Paris Saint-Germain, said of Mbappe, referring to both his skill and character.
Mbappe’s humility is a testament to his parents, who are so well-versed in the temptations of top-flight sports that they insisted their son get his high school baccalaureat even though he was preparing to sign a professional contract with Monaco. In France, higher education is free for and open to all students who have passed the baccalaureat exam.
“The suburbs in Paris, in particular, have a real street football culture,” said Danny McLoughlin, the head of soccer researcher with the Danish firm RunRepeat. “From there, the best kids end up at Clairefontaine. Once young footballers enter a professional footballing academy with access to the best coaches in the country, they are at an advantage over other players their age without the same privileges.”
Mbappe and Henry, the last once-in-a-generation French player with whom Mbappe is most often compared, share more than just an academy pedigree. Henry also grew up in a Paris suburb, to French Caribbean parents, and won a World Cup before turning 21 with a roster made up largely of immigrants or the sons of immigrants.
The team Mbappe played on last summer had 16 players from families that recently immigrated to France from places such as Zaire, Martinique, Morocco, Angola, Congo and Algeria.
“The immigration actually gives you a lot of profiles and allows you to have players who are good in every aspect of the game,” said Marseille winger Florian Thauvin, who came on for Mbappe in the final minutes of France’s World Cup round-of-16 win over Argentina.
Despite his early success Mbappe still has some work to do to separate himself from Henry, a World Cup champion who also captured a European Championship with France and a Champions League title with Barcelona while scoring a national-team-record 51 goals in 123 games.
Mbappe has 10 in 28 appearances, but four of them came in the World Cup and six were either game-winning or game-tying goals. While his career is just getting started, the fairy-tale storyline is already clear. When Emmanuel Macron gave Mbappe a globally televised kiss following last summer’s World Cup win, it was a sign that France’s president sees the man who represents the future of soccer as one who also represents the kind of future Macron wants for his country: vibrant, dynamic, unafraid.
“He’s among these players who are almost geniuses that you see every 10 years or so,” French international Dimitri Payet said. “It looks so easy for him.”