In the July/August issue of Esquire, we sat down with France star Kylian Mbappé to talk about the pressures he faces as a young man on the verge of becoming the greatest player on Earth.
The football world has been lavishing praise on the striker for years now, and some of the strongest endorsements have come from the biggest names in the history of the game. So we decided to dig into the archive – it didn't take long, he's 22 – to find out what figures like Pelé, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi think about his ability and potential (spoiler: they think he's quite good...)
The Frenchman has been a long-time fan of his fleet-footed compatriot, stating in 2017 that “he could be another Thierry Henry” and then, two years later, going one further by saying that he was “maybe the future best player in the world”. So it should come as no surprise that he pulled out all the stops to sign him in his days as Arsenal manager.
Speaking to beIN Sport this year, he said: "The player would tell you that I was at his home last year to try to get him here. Because he was at the end of his contract but Monaco managed to keep him and the decision was very, very tight. But I could understand it as well because he was educated there and at the end decided to stay there.”
The player was tempted, but Mbappé eventually opted to continue his development in his home country with PSG. "I met with Arsène Wenger, who is a great coach. He has a great reputation here in France, he's well-respected and knows how to develop young players. This was a real option for me,” he told French TV in 2018. "I dream of being managed by Arsène Wenger. He is French, he's had a great career and now he is free because he has left Arsenal.
"We weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of all the clubs but my family told me it had to be my decision and one I needed to make.
One man who isn’t so keen on the Thierry Henry comparisons is, unsurprisingly, Thierry Henry. Not because he’s worried about the youngster challenging his legacy, but because he wants his friend to forge his own path, free of those kinds of expectations.
“I don’t like comparing players – Mbappé has to become Mbappé and that is all. But my word, he is good. Ooh la la. l really like watching him play,” he said to Canal+ in 2017, while the 18-year-old was impressing at Monaco. “There's a thing that annoys me sometimes. We talk about players, 'He's quick, he's strong, he can jump high'. We never talk about players' brains and that annoys me. When I watch him dribble, he's thinking. He thinks when he plays and that for me is the most important thing in a player. He thinks. He uses his brain. Yes, he's quick, but he's thinking and that is the sign of a kid who can go a long way in the game.”
Henry has spoken about Mbappé a lot since, but his strongest praise probably came in an interview with Omnisport in 2019: "I think we'll be talking about him for another 20 years. Maybe that's a little too much, but I hope that's the case for him—15, 16 or even 20 years if he can. Zlatan Ibrahimovic [who is 38] still plays!"
Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the fiercest competitors in global sport, long fuelled by a desire to be considered the best player on Earth, so you might expect him to hold back praise for a young Ballon d’Or rival like Mbappé. But the 36-year-old Portugal captain is just as excited by the striker’s potential as everyone else. "Mbappé is the future and the present,” he told Marca in 2020. “He's a fantastic player, very fast, and he will be the future."
Messi, on the other hand, has not been as effusive. In fact, as far as we can tell, he hasn’t said anything at all about Mbappé publicly – which comes as no surprise. The 33-year-old Barcelona star very rarely gives interviews. Still, Mbappé found out through an inside source in 2019 that Messi has his eye on him – and that the Argentine is driven by his rival's goalscoring exploits. Speaking to France Football, he said:
"[At the end of last season] Instead of just putting my head under the covers and waiting calmly for the end of the season, I was trying to outdo myself. I saw that I could maybe get this title of the top goalscorer in Europe. … But, facing off against me, was Messi. I would score twice on a weekend, he would go and score three; I would score three, he would score four!
"It was so crazy that I spoke with [Barcelona’s] Ousmane [Dembele, Mbappé’s France teammate] about it. 'This is crazy! Is he doing this on purpose?' He responded to me: 'Of course he is looking at you!' I said to myself: 'Ah, not bad, Messi is surveilling me.' It is flattering to see that such a player is not overlooking you."
While comparisons with Thierry Henry abound – largely because of their nationality and similar upbringing in the Paris suburbs – it’s Brazilian legend Ronaldo that Mbappé perhaps most closely resembles in playing style. The former Real Madrid man, now the president of La Liga side Real Valladolid, sees it himself and said as much in an interview with Marca in 2020.
"Yes, I do [see myself in Mbappé]. I love him. He's fast, can finish and he's only 20 years old. We've known about him for three years already because he has a lot of talent.
"I don't know how players are valued at what they are now, but who am I to speak? People paid a lot of money for me, and for [Zinedine] Zidane. It's a normal evolution in football."
Of course, people will always look to Brazilian icon Pelé when it comes to judging young striking talent, and he’s seemingly always happy to oblige. In a 2019 interview with France Football, the 80-year-old named Mbappé as his spiritual successor – though not without a jab to the ribs to go alongside it.
"He won the World Cup at nineteen, I was only seventeen,” Pelé told France Football in 2019. “I teased him saying he had almost equalised. I think he can become the new Pele! Many people think I said that to laugh, but no, it's not a joke."
Still, he reigned back his praise in a different interview a few months later. "He is not yet the king," Pelé told Le Parisien. "He is undergoing tests to become the king. He still has a lot of steps ahead of him. He is young, he has just started.
"In football, you do not always know everything. There is always something to learn. He can always improve his game, his movements. If I can give him advice, it's taking care of his body and looking after himself. The technique, he already has it. The physical aspect is the most important thing for an athlete today.
"What is missing? Not much. Maybe his heading game, the impulse and the jump. That's what makes us different again because I had a lot of momentum. I was going very high and I scored a lot of headed goals."
At 39-years-old, A.C. Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimović has a lot of footballing wisdom to pass on to the younger generation. In an interview with the website of the MLS club LA Galaxy, while the Swede was plying his trade in America in 2019, he poured praise on Mbappé and offered some sage advice.
“Mbappé is fantastic. He’s young, he’s won nice trophies so far and he’s developing,” he said. “He is doing a good job and he’ll continue to do the job. He just has to keep his focus, even if the hype is around him and all things happening. Just keep focused, train hard and he’ll do even better.”
In 2019, a year before his untimely death, Argentina icon Diego Maradona implored Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to pull out all the stops to sign Mbappé.
"For me, Mbappe is the revelation of football. I think he can surpass many," Maradona told AS. "Why did they not sign him? I told Florentino to sign Mbappe. I told him when we saw each other at Fifa. He told me... 'but you know I have Cristiano'."
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