Kylian Mbappé was 18 when he walked into the changing room of the French national team. “It’s very difficult,” he recalls, “because great players don’t want to give you their place. That’s what makes them great players. They especially don’t want to give you their place if you arrive with the label of ‘Future Great Player’.” Within a year, Mbappé and France had won the World Cup in Moscow.
Three years on, we are talking in a room of his mansion in the leafy, old-money streets of Neuilly, just outside Paris. It isn’t even his home; he bought it to house his foundation, which offers after-school activities to rich and poor children alike. In conversation, Mbappé resembles a veteran TV presenter more than a young footballer. He makes short speeches in complete sentences, as precise in his footing as he is on the field. He sits as straight-backed as he runs. His expressive face keeps breaking into smiles: he likes talking, and is almost unburdened by the usual footballer’s fear of saying the wrong thing.
His burly father Wilfried sits beside us, but only once during the interview will he feel impelled to intervene. Meeting Mbappé, you come to understand how he hit football seemingly already fully formed. At 22, he has achieved more than most great players ever do. Can he take one more step and become the world’s best footballer?
His story starts 10 miles and a universe away from where we’re sitting today. His hometown, Bondy, is a multicultural suburb just northeast of Paris that looks as if someone plonked a Soviet town on top of an ancient French village. The old church is surrounded by fast-food joints and fading 1960s’ apartment blocks, one of them now adorned with a giant mural of Mbappé.
His parents grew up in Bondy: Wilfried, of Cameroonian origin, and Mbappé’s mother Fayza, of Algerian descent. Mixed marriages are common in the Parisian suburbs, the banlieues, but the couple did have to defy some local disapproval.
If a wannabe footballer had to choose the ideal place on earth to grow up, it might have been the Mbappé home in Bondy. Mbappé’s father and uncle were both football coaches, and Fayza, who ran after-school activities, played handball in the French first division. His parents had adopted an older boy, Jirès Kembo Ekoko, who went on to make a long career as a journeyman professional footballer. “I didn’t bring a new passion into the family,” Mbappé says with understatement.
He grew up practically inside the local football club, AS Bondy. “In the Parisian suburbs there are football fields everywhere,” he enthuses. “People here live for football. I was born with the sports ground facing my window.” It’s no wonder, he adds, that Paris’s suburbs are perhaps the deepest talent pool in global football, producing players such as Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez.
As a non-white kid from the suburbs, did Mbappé always feel accepted as French before he became a French icon? “I’ve always felt French. I don’t renounce my origins, because they are part of who I am, but I’ve made my whole life in France, and never at any moment was I made to feel I wasn’t at home here.” In the banlieues, he says, “We have a love of France because France has given to us and we try to give back to it.”
Mbappé’s parents made him take school seriously, and he was also a not-very-talented flautist at Bondy’s conservatory, but football came first. At AS Bondy, he says, “My father was my coach for 10 years. He helped construct the style of player I wanted to become. But I never felt the pressure of, ‘You have to become a footballer.’ Above all, it was a passion.”
Tagging along with his dad and uncle on their coaching jobs, the child acquired an unusual gift: he became a footballer who thinks like a coach. “Very young, I was always in the changing rooms, listening to the tactical talks and the different points of view, because football is made up of different viewpoints. I learned to have this tolerance, and I think it helped me, because being a coach is putting yourself in somebody else’s place. I think I have the gift of doing that. It helps in football, because if you’re a player, generally you think about yourself, about your own career. I can see, for instance, when something in a game is frustrating a team-mate. I can put him at ease.”
Mbappé turned out to be that perfect sporting combination: a natural who is coachable. “He assimilates advice quickly. You ask him something once, and the second time he does it,” Antonio Riccardi, his former youth coach at AS Bondy, told me. Even as a child, Mbappé was an efficient footballer: decisive, never just decorative.
By adolescence, he was being courted by the big European clubs, which all keep close tabs on the Paris region. He visited Chelsea, and celebrated his 14th birthday at Real Madrid, which cannily found him the perfect babysitter: the club’s then assistant coach Zinedine Zidane, the greatest French footballer. When Zidane offered Mbappé a lift in his fabulous car, the overawed child offered to take his shoes off first.
The Mbappés sifted the countless offers and chose Monaco, where the route to the first team looked shortest. Mbappé arrived there, he says, “with my [footballing] baggage well filled.”
Kids in performance-sports families learn that they never arrive. Each step up is just another learning opportunity. In Monaco’s first team, the teenaged Mbappé encountered the veteran Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, freshly returned from unhappy loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea.
“He was a star,” says Mbappé, “but he had a desire to transmit. He was like a teacher to me. He’s someone who always wants to score, but he left me the space to express myself. He’s very cool in front of goal, calm in his game, and he transmitted this serenity that I didn’t have, because I was young, excited and wanted to go at 2,000 kilometres an hour.”
The kid who didn’t yet have a driving licence scored 15 league goals in his first professional season to help Monaco win the French title in 2017. He added six more in the Champions League knockout rounds. He also passed his baccalauréat, France’s equivalent of A-levels.
Mbappé marvelled at the tension on the faces of other professionals, because he didn’t feel it himself. Everything came easily to him, without great sacrifice, he has said. When I ask about stress in a profession of hypercompetitive men, he shrugs: “Daily life is easy.”
His vertical ascent didn’t surprise him; it just happened a bit quicker than he’d expected. But others were stunned. Here was something new: an 18-year-old complete forward. Built like an Olympic sprinter, Mbappé ran upright, looking around him. He could dribble, cross and shoot. He was more advanced than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had been at 18.
How does he describe his style? “The modern attacker who can play anywhere,” he replies. He explains that forwards used to be specialists: “There’d be a number nine, or number 11, or number seven.” Mbappé, though, is the all-in-one. “I think my CV can speak for me. I’ve played alone up front, I’ve played on the left and the right. In all humility, I don’t think it’s given to everyone to change position like that every year and keep a certain standard of performance at the highest level. That didn’t fall from heaven. If I speak of the baggage given me in my teens, it’s all there.”
In one regard he has always been unequalled: the counterattack at speed. He says, “I’ve managed to work on my weak points but above all to perfect my strong points, because I was always told that it’s through your strong points that you’ll exist.”
In March 2017, Mbappé became the youngest player in 62 years to debut for France. Five months later, his hometown club Paris Saint-Germain agreed to sign him for a fee of £166m. He drew on his childhood experiences to navigate two alpha-male changing-rooms. At PSG, his good English and Spanish helped him deal with foreign team-mates. With Les Bleus, France’s assistant coach Guy Stéphan told Mbappé’s biographer Arnaud Hermant: “He knows the codes of the changing room. At table or in the bus, he doesn’t just sit somewhere randomly. For a youngster, he isn’t timid or introverted. He expresses himself.”
By summer 2018, picked for the World Cup in Russia, Mbappé was comfortable enough to claim the blue number 10 shirt — previously worn by Zidane and Michel Platini — and to say in public that he was gunning for the trophy.
“I went to play the matches calmly like I always have. I didn’t want to change just because it was the World Cup,” he says. “We were lucky to have a young squad. We were totally carefree, just a band of mates.”
Hang on, surely a football team isn’t really a band of mates? “No,” he acknowledges. “Just like the baker doesn’t get on with all bakers. You don’t have to eat with your team-mates every evening to win.”
In the World Cup quarter-final, his two goals and a 37kmph gallop through Argentina’s defence made his global name. The night before the final against Croatia, he admits, “I was a bit stressed. I didn’t manage to sleep much. But the nearer the match came, the less stressed I was.” Before kick-off he was joking in the changing room. Stéphan recalls: “He experienced the final as if it were a PSG-Dijon game.”
Mbappé says, “When you’re in the World Cup final, you’re convinced that you’re going to win. Even the Croats were convinced they were going to win. You walk onto the field and the trophy is there, between the two teams, and you tell yourself it’s impossible that the other team will take it. That’s why there’s such disappointment afterwards if you don’t win.”
Half of Bondy gathered in front of a giant screen to cheer on the commune’s own “Kylian national”. Scoring in France’s 4–2 victory, he seemed to have reached his career apogee aged 19. He didn’t see it like that. Interviewed the night of the final, he described winning the World Cup as “already good” but only a start.
The next day, as the Bleus’ bus edged along a packed, ecstatic Champs-Élysées, writes Hermant, the ice-cold kid mused to the French Football Federation’s president Noël Le Graët: “Was all this really necessary?”
Mbappé explains now: “For me, it wasn’t an outcome, a finality. I don’t think of that trophy now at all. I don’t look at pictures of the World Cup before going to sleep. Honestly, it’s people on the street who come up and say, ‘You’re world champion, merci, merci.’”
He understood that his early triumph had upset football’s all-important hierarchies. Returning to PSG, he immediately reassured Paris’s Brazilian star Neymar: “I’m not going to walk on your flowerbeds. I’ll be a candidate for the Ballon d’Or [the award for world’s best footballer] this year because you won’t be, but I promise I don’t want to take your place.”
Soon after, he took the World Cup trophy to Bondy, where thousands came out to greet him. “It was a way to say, ‘Thank you.’ I’ve never forgotten which soup I have eaten. So it was important for me to return there after my first World Cup and first international title.” (Note that word, “first”.)
France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, recalls falling into “physical and moral apathy” the season after he lifted the World Cup as a player in 1998. Did Mbappé experience a hangover? He grins: “I finished as best player in the league, highest scorer, best young player, I was chosen in the team of the season, and we won the league.”
Winning the World Cup made Mbappé a national hero. Does he consider himself a star? “I think so. If your face is everywhere in the city, everywhere in the world, that’s for sure. Being a star is a status, but it doesn’t make me a better person than others.”
He lives like a luxury prisoner, who cannot leave home without being mobbed. “It takes an organisation just to go out,” he says. He has joked that when his future children ask him about his youthful adventures, he won’t have any.
“A fan gives you enormous love,” says Mbappé carefully, “but sometimes maybe an excess of love, and he might not respect your intimacy. We give our lives to the people, because we give them pleasure every three days, and we give them our time. It’s impossible to hope for a normal life, but just a little respect for one’s private life isn’t too much to ask for, I think.”
As a young man of non-white origins, he has a particular vulnerability with the French public, one-third of whom voted for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the run-off of the presidential elections in 2017. Even so, he has begun to speak out against police violence.
“I took time to start talking about it, because I wasn’t ready,” he admits. “I had a lot of things to digest: my change of status, my new life. But I have always opposed all types of violence.”
When I note that French police violence is disproportionately directed against people of non-white origins from suburbs like Bondy, his father stirs from his silence: “We’re not answering that. You’re orienting it as if the violence were only against people from the banlieues, which is false.”
French fans like their stars humble. Mbappé has explained “the French mentality” to Neymar, who favours a bling-bling, poker-playing party lifestyle. Mbappé says, “In Brazil, they are more festive, in France more serious. Here it’s not considered good to display your passions. People will think he’s neglecting PSG because he plays poker. I think he has begun to understand that. At first it was hard for him because he experienced it as an affront. When he arrived, they put his face on the Eiffel Tower, and six months later they’re asking him why he’s playing poker. In France, people know what you have but they don’t want to see it. They just want to see you playing football, smiling.”
But Mbappé believes humility isn’t enough. He thinks great footballers need big egos. “In high-level football, nobody will make a place for you or tell you that you’re capable of things. It’s up to you to persuade yourself that you are. Ego, self-love, isn’t just a caprice of stars. It’s also the will to surpass yourself, to give the best of yourself.” Every time he walks onto the field, he says, he tells himself, “I’m the best.”
In truth, he knows he isn’t the best — Messi and Ronaldo are better. “It’s not only me who knows that,” he laughs. “Everyone knows it. If you tell yourself that you’ll do better than them, it’s beyond ego or determination — it’s lack of awareness. Those players are incomparable. They have broken all laws of statistics. They have had 10 extraordinary years, 15.”
Still, he admits: “You do always compare yourself with the best in your sport, just as the baker compares himself with the best bakers around him. Who makes the best croissant, the best pain au chocolat? I watch matches of other great players to see what they’re doing. ‘I know how to do this, but can the other guy do it too?’ I think other players watch me, too. I think that pushes players to raise their game, just as Messi was good for Ronaldo and Ronaldo was good for Messi.”
Does Mbappé compare himself with the other great forward of his generation, Borussia Dortmund’s Norwegian Erling Braut Haaland? Mbappé’s reply sounds a touch patronising: “It’s his second year, we’re getting to know him. It’s the start for him. I’m happy for him, for what he’s doing.”
In this elite individual competition, the top spot may be coming free. Messi (34 this month) and Ronaldo (36) are “nearer the end than the beginning”, acknowledges Mbappé. In February, his hat-trick helped PSG thrash Messi’s Barcelona 1–4 at the Camp Nou. “The best match of my career,” Mbappé says, “because it was complete. I helped my team both offensively and defensively, and I succeeded in the creation and finishing of my moves, in one-against-ones. I won 90 per cent of my duels, if that stat is correct. All match, I never had a moment when I felt extinguished.” He then scored two at Bayern Munich, before PSG fell to Manchester City.
Some opposing teams now rearrange their entire tactical systems to combat the Mbappé counterattack. “There are quite a few anti-Kylian plans every match,” he says. “It means I’ve been recognised as a great player. It requires you to have multiple strings to your bow. I like that, because I adore challenges.”
Surely he’s now too big a player for the French league? He umms and aws: “France isn’t the best championship in the world, but it’s my responsibility, as a flagship player, to help the league grow.” Yet he may well leave this summer, to Real Madrid (where Zidane is manager) or England. The decision, perhaps the biggest he’ll face in his career, will be made inside his family. Almost uniquely for a star footballer, Mbappé doesn’t have an agent, just lawyers.
At 22, he considers himself an experienced footballer. He says he and Neymar “are now the two natural leaders” of PSG. When he kicks off the delayed Euro 2020 with France in June, it will be with more responsibility than at the World Cup. “The more you become an important personality, the more duties you have. I’m no longer the little kid. I’m Kylian Mbappé.”
Kylian Mbappé’s prime may have already arrived. Fast strikers usually peak between 20 and 24. A Euro and a World Cup within 18 months, while France’s generation of 2018 remains almost intact, may be his best chance to make football history. What are his career ambitions? That smile again: “To win everything.”
This story is from the July/Aug issue of Esquire. Subscribe here
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