Kylian Mbappe is just 23 years old but he already pockets the highest salary in the football world – reportedly a whopping €630 million ($A1bn) over three seasons.
He is also the face of France’s world champion team, the razor-sharp cutting edge of an attack that has scythed through opponents this World Cup.
That team is already in rarefied air as one of a select few to reach the final of the tournament as defending champions. On Monday morning (2am AEDT), they face Lionel Messi’s Argentina in a bid to become just the third team in Cup history to go back-to-back, and the first since Brazil in 1962.
Four years ago, the teams met in the Round of 16 in Russia. On that day, Mbappe announced himself on the world stage by instigating a remarkable 4-3 comeback in one of the most memorable and thrilling games of the tournament.
Mbappe earned a penalty with a stunning 75-yard run early in the match, before scoring two goals in quick succession in the second half to send the Albiceleste packing. In a match of two masterful No 10s – Messi and Mbappe – it was the youngster who dominated proceedings and presented himself as a truly world-class player, and potentially the future best player in the world.
Little did the two superstars know that they would become club teammates before Qatar. It has been a rocky road to superstardom for Mbappe, rocked by ugly drama for club and country.
But on Monday morning, should he repeat the feats of 2018 and lead France to victory, he can put those dramas behind him – and perhaps proclaim himself the best player in the world.
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THE RISE TO STARDOM
On December 2, 2015, a precocious 16 year-old entered the field for French heavyweights Monaco. Just 18 days shy of his 17th birthday, he was their youngest-ever debutant – breaking the record of a French great in Thierry Henry.
He had been an almost unbelievably talented junior – a member of France’s renowned Clairefontaine Academy, chased by a barrage of French clubs as well as the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich by the time he became a teenager.
He needed just three weeks in Monaco’s reserve squad to burst into the main team – and less than two months from his debut, he’d bagged his first senior goal, breaking another Henry record in the process. The following season – 2016-17 – Mbappe hit the limelight in a big way. At one point, he had managed nine goals and five assists in just 822 minutes of league action. Under the tutelage of legendary Colombian striker and that nation’s all-time top scorer Radamel Falcao, he finished with 26 goals in 44 matches (all competitions). Monaco won Ligue 1 – the first major trophy of Mbappe’s career, and one he would become all-too-used to winning.
There was little doubt by this point that Mbappe was the most promising attacker in the world. Real Madrid came calling, as did Manchester City and mega-rich French giants Paris Saint-Germain.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane already boasted a line-up featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale – and he would not promise Mbappe a starting spot.
PSG pounced. Coach Unai Emery reportedly believed Mbappe wasn’t quite ready to start in the Champions League – the elite European competition that remains PSG’s greatest ambition – but he took the gamble, guaranteeing the youngster would be a key part of his plans.
The club’s sporting director, Antero Henrique, believed they had discovered a future great.
And in iconic French fashion, it took some croissants to seal the deal. The club’s chief recruiter, Luis Ferrer, told Le Parisien: “But one evening, I returned to Paris at 10:30pm. When I arrived, I called Antero to take stock and he was surprised that I hadn’t stayed in the South. The next day, at 6am, I took the first flight. Two hours later, I rang at the Mbappé doorbell with the croissants.”
The deal was done: reportedly €145 million ($A230m) plus €35 million in add-ons, making the 18-year-old the second-most expensive player in history behind PSG’s other mega-signing that month, the €222 million ($A350m) Neymar.
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THE NEW KING OF PARIS
Initially, the pair had a strong relationship. Neymar was the more established figure and the new number 10, while Mbappe had been given the shirt number 29. They formed a devastating trio in attack with Edinson Cavani and romped to a domestic treble – despite Neymar fracturing a metatarsal and requiring surgery. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come.
The dazzling Brazilian would battle injuries as Mbappe continued his meteoric rise. The following season, Mbappe was awarded Ligue 1’s player of the season after 33 goals in 29 league matches as PSG continued to rack up trophies.
Meanwhile, another foot injury had forced Neymar to miss their Champions League knockout match against Manchester United as PSG were dumped out. He raged at VAR on social media, an ugly explosion that earned him a three-match ban from UEFA. And his unhappiness only grew from there. After their collapse in the Coupe de France final, Neymar punched a spectator in the face.
In the space of just two seasons, Mbappe had become the face of his hometown club. Neymar, struggling with injuries and ill-discipline, had all-but-lost his mantle as the club’s talisman.
And the 2018 World Cup proved beyond all doubt who the new king of Paris was.
Mbappe – still 19 – scored the winner against Peru before that incredible man-of-the-match showing against Argentina. He capped the tournament with a long-range belter in the final against Croatia. The teenager was the toast of France and a World Cup champion.
Neymar, meanwhile, endured a battering from the football world for his petulant performances in Russia – not to mention his habit of exaggerating even the slightest hint of contact from an opponent. His Brazil were dumped out in the quarter-finals, another disappointment after their humiliating 7-1 defeat in the semi-finals on home soil four years prior.
Thoroughly fed up, the Brazilian sought to quit PSG and engineer a move back to Barcelona. He skipped training in an ugly stoush that only damaged his reputation further. Despite his desperation, the deal fell through.
But Neymar’s relationship with the PSG hierarchy had crumbled. Mbappe, the young heir, had taken over.
MBAPPE LOSES HIS WAY
Mbappe had been praised far and wide for his relative modesty. At Monaco, he once left their title-winning after-party early in order to get a good night’s sleep. After the 2018 World Cup, he donated his entire winnings – reportedly around £400,000 ($A634,000) – to a children’s charity. He has since gone on to found his own children’s charity.
But, like Neymar, the boy wonder’s reputation began to take a hit as the years rolled on.
His performances on the field remained brilliant – despite struggling at Euro 2020 and missing the decisive penalty as France were dumped out by Switzerland. He was Ligue 1’s Player of the Year in 2018-19, 2020–21 and ‘21–22.
But there were hints that the exuberant teen was turning into a different beast. His first red card came in September 2018 for a bust-up with a rival in stoppage time – only to declare afterwards: “If I had the chance to do it over again, I would do the same thing.”
If Neymar had been painted the villain for years for his lavish lifestyle on the pitch and theatrics on it, Mbappe was slowly developing a reputation for being too big for his boots.
In 2019, French former World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry delivered a worrying prophecy.
“I’d rather Mbappe hung out with Idrissa Gueye, Ander Herrera or Angel Di Maria. It’s less fun to hang out with these guys, it’s more of a party with Neymar, but hey! … I’m afraid the dream could be broken with this boy; I feel that things could quickly turn bad,” he told RMC.
Dugarry added the club could face a “war of egos” if Mbappe – rather like Neymar – became too hungry for the spotlight and for money. It would sadly come to fruition.
Over time, the relationship between the two stars broke down. With Messi’s arrival from Barcelona – and Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid – the dressing room reportedly became split between a South American clique and Mbappe’s own supporters.
Last season, Mbappe was PSG’s key man as Neymar battled with injuries and Messi struggled to acclimatise to life in France. But the Frenchman reportedly felt he was not receiving enough respect from the dressing room, and rumours of an exit to Real Madrid grew.
Mbappe had reportedly even agreed contract terms in January for a free transfer at the end of last season. But even France’s president Emmanuel Macron stepped in to attempt to convince Mbappe to stay in France – and PSG eventually won the war.
But PSG had paid a staggering price for Mbappe’s loyalty: a reported €630 million over three years – not to mention immense control over the squad and the club. For a player who had been viewed as a charitable and humble young man, the eye-watering sum was widely seen in France as greedy – and giving up on his childhood dream of playing for Madrid to pocket huge wads of Qatari cash didn’t help his reputation.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez slammed the player in an interview with El Chiringuito, saying: “[PSG] practically offered him not only to be the leader of the team, but also of the management.
“It was at that point that we saw it wasn’t the same Mbappe that we wanted to sign. He changed his dreams as a result of pressure … Madridistas will be disappointed, but the Mbappe who wanted to come to Real Madrid was not this (real) Mbappe.”
PSG denied reports they had handed Mbappe extraordinary control over the squad and the club. But French media reported he demanded the exits of 14 employees – including Neymar, ex-coach Mauricio Pochettino, and sporting director Leonardo. Mbappe also denied those claims. But the latter pair soon departed – with Leonardo replaced by Mbappe’s good friend and former Monaco counterpart Luis Campos.
Neymar remained at the club, refusing to depart ahead of the World Cup. Mbappe hadn’t got his way, and things would soon boil over.
According to Spanish outlet Marca, Mbappe felt “betrayed” by the club over broken promises. RMC reported in France that Mbappe’s relationship with the club was “completely broken”, and claimed he had asked to leave the club in the off-season – and was even pushing for an exit in January 2023.
The club, meanwhile, was also accused of running a social media campaign for years using fake or bot accounts to criticise their own players including Mbappe.
The dressing room schism spread onto the pitch. Against Montpellier in August, Mbappe threw a tantrum. He missed an early penalty then demanded to take a subsequent penalty attempt – only for Neymar to refuse to step aside. Neymar, who had been the undisputed penalty taker at the club until this season, scored.
Minutes later, Mbappe publicly sulked when a teammate passed the ball to Messi rather than him on a counter-attack. Mbappe threw his arms up in the air and turned his back on the play, refusing to continue his supporting run.
Sergio Ramos was reportedly forced to step between Mbappe and Neymar in the dressing room after the game as things threatened to get out of hand. And Neymar then took to social media to ‘like’ a pair of tweets criticising Mbappe for his penalty miss.
The first read: “Now it’s official, Mbappe is the one who takes the penalties at PSG. Clearly, this is a contract thing because, in no club in the club that has Neymar, he would be the second taker. None! It seems like, because of his contract, Mbappe is the owner of PSG.”
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Mbappe’s stroppy behaviour not only alienated his teammates, but also turned the tide of public opinion.
Former Chelsea player Craig Burley declared: “It’s an unpleasant thing to say, but Kylian Mbappe is out of control right now.
“This new contract has kind of permitted it to happen. And everything revolves around you … His demeanour is absolutely uncontrollable.
“There appears to be no way for him to respond. I believe he has passed that boundary. He’s crossed that line where he simply believes it’s all about him, and until he reels himself back in a little bit, which I don’t see, he’s entirely gone.”
Last month, ex-PSG coach Pochettino even hit out at Mbappe, telling Gazzetta dello Sport: “Mbappe is younger (than Neymar and Messi) and still immature.
“He is an animal; he has great charisma but he still needs to find himself. Leo and Ney are total players, they are more responsible although in different ways, while Kylian keeps looking for himself.”
Reports emerged in October that Mbappe had asked PSG for a transfer in the upcoming window – reports Mbappe denied. A week later, at the Ballon d’Or awards in Paris, a crowd of fans brutally booed Mbappe.
The hometown hero, the favourite son, had become a villain. If he believed the club had betrayed him, then fans believed he had betrayed them.
But if there was one way to regain the love of the parochial French fans, it was the World Cup.
THE QATAR JOURNEY
If Mbappe was a breakout star in 2018, this time around he is the face of France’s bid for back-to-back crowns in Qatar.
In the round of 16, he bagged a brace – just like in 2018 against Argentina – to see off Poland. It was his fourth and fifth goals of the tournament, taking his tally to nine across the two World Cups he has participated in.
Already, the 23-year-old has surpassed the World Cup scoring records of French greats like Zidane or Henry. No one has ever scored as many goals by the age of 24.
He has left defenders for dead with his pace, swept home goals with aplomb – and added a pair of assists to boot. One was for striker Olivier Giroud to overtake Thierry Henry as France’s all-time top scorer with a goal against Poland.
After the game, defender Jules Kounde told FIFA+: “He’s exceptional.
“He was superb yet again tonight, with two goals and an assist. But the most important thing is that he always plays for the team, it’s a collective effort.”
Mbappe has played like a man possessed – but equally has played for his teammates.
“This is the competition of my dreams”, he said. “My sole objective is winning the World Cup. That’s my dream, my only dream. That’s why I’m here.”
Money, fame and influence all seem to have no meaning when it comes to Mbappe’s motivations in Qatar.
Even if he does not lead them to back-to-back titles, Mbappe’s attitude and behaviour so far this tournament will go a long way to repairing his reputation in France and across the football world.
His friendship with PSG teammate Achraf Hakimi has also proven a highlight in Qatar, with the pair sharing a series of heartwarming moments throughout the tournament. When Hakimi’s Morocco were beaten by France in the semi-finals, Mbappe raced to console him, before the pair swapped shirts – and Mbappe even donned his rival’s jersey as he joined his French teammates in celebration.
Before the match, a wayward Mbappe shot in the warm-ups slammed into a fan’s head. The attacker raced to the hurt supporter, care and concern writ large on his face. In these moments, we have witnessed the best of the 23-year-old – humble and gracious as much as he is desperate for victory.
On Sunday, Mbappe will face another PSG teammate in Lionel Messi. The golden boot race is level, with both players on five goals. Both are in with a strong chance of winning the golden ball as player of the tournament.
Should Mbappe get the upper hand, he will – at just 23 – have lifted the World Cup trophy twice and enshrined himself in football history.
In doing so, he might just prove himself the best player in the world.
As teammate Aurelien Tchouameni told TyC Sports: “For me, Kylian is the best … and he will prove it on Sunday.”