We believed in Mbappe’s purity at the last World Cup because we really wanted it to be true and slowly that belief eroded
The 2018 World Cup belonged to Kylian Mbappé. He scored four times. He won the official award for the best young player of the tournament. He became the second teenager to score in a World Cup final, putting him in a two-man club with Pele.
The pre-tournament narrative was all about Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi, the great duopoly of the global football discussion. Mbappé gave us a glimpse into the future.
Watching Mbappé in this tournament was an immersive experience. He hadn’t even started 50 premier league games before the tournament started. He was a young player who seemed strictly designed around the holy trinity of offensive attributes: pace, skill, intelligence.
It wasn’t that Mbappé took on opponents and beat them; it was that you never believed they had a chance. He also messed up the field: before, there were 50, 40, 30, 20, and 10 yards from goal; with Mbappé he did it and then, two seconds later, he shot.
Mbappé wasn’t quite a pure good news story – is that something?
In fact, it’s fair to ask what Mbappé has accomplished since that World Cup. He scored (many) goals. He has won (some) trophies. But he didn’t win the Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain or the European Championship with France. After his missed penalty against Switzerland, Mbappé went alone to the center circle. It felt as symbolic as the celebration four years ago.
The accusation is that Mbappé had lost his way helplessly. His on-pitch performance hasn’t declined – he has scored exactly 100 goals for PSG since the start of the 2020/21 season – but his off-pitch performance has risen beyond good reason.
To some extent, transfer rumors are inevitable, although Mbappé has done little to contain them. But the implication that Mbappé needed influence over recruitment and decision-making at the club was seen as exaggerated.
If all of this makes you a little sad, why? Are we just seeing too much now? Johan Cruyff has made no secret of his desire for influence at Ajax or Barcelona and has been dubbed a ‘money wolf’ by former Ajax chairman Tom Harmsen.
The lack of mystique is ensured by a constant news cycle and the rise of sporting celebrity culture, which arguably has the Parc des Princes at its core. There’s a certain nudity to PSG’s project, which means even their star tournaments will leave you unfulfilled unless they literally win everything. Mbappé caught up with it and, worse, may have embraced it.
Or is it just that Mbappé’s path since 2018 isn’t sad at all, it’s just inevitable. He didn’t make the mistake, we did. We believed in purity because we desperately wanted it to be true, and slowly that belief was being eroded. We convinced ourselves with the feints and dips and boyish smiles that seemed to see the wonder in this tournament that Mbappé was just like us, not one of them.
Four years later, what was once unthinkable is now true. Then Mbappé felt like Fifa’s new golden boy, a marketing dream. Now he needs this tournament more than it needs him. If there’s one theme on the pitch at this tournament, it’s the farewell to this stage for many of the modern greats: Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Modric, Bale, Neuer – Benzema is already gone. Mbappé was the only player in the top seven of this year’s Ballon d’Or who was under the age of 30.
France suddenly have a leadership vacuum after losing N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, and without Benzema a goal vacuum – it’s time to step up. Just like in 2018, the opportunity is within reach.
All of these are Mbappé’s aspirations, a complex web of personal ambition and patriotic hunger complicated by Qatar’s influence on his professional career.
For the rest of us, a much simpler wish: give us a recap, if only for fleeting moments, over the next four weeks of what made us all think you were so different.