Kylian Mbappe is the most talented young soccer player on the planet today, but he seems to want to be the GOAT overnight and Qatar may become his early reckoning that individual generational superstardom is not guaranteed to anyone.
His summer’s ridiculous PSG-Real Madrid theater and his recent comments about wanting to leave PSG because he was not getting all of his whims catered to sounded bad for someone who always seemed to come across as a calm, good-natured young man, mature beyond his years. Hopefully, the international news media got that story wrong. But his on-field attitude and demeanor with his star teammates seem to indicate there is something to those rumors.
Let’s take a moment and put Mbappe in context.
Using Pele as a yardstick, the then 17-year-old Brazilian dominated World Cup 1958 and yet it was teammate Didi who was considered the top player at the tourney, the way Luka Modric was in 2018, Mbappe’s first cup. Pele was injured after performing incredibly in his team’s opening match in 1962 and then spent the tourney on the sidelines. Garrincha and Vava carried the weight of that World Cup trophy win. Hopefully, Mbappe’s 2022 will be injury-free.
In 1966 Pele again began the cup playing incredibly well in the opening match but he was targeted and fouled out of the cup by Bulgaria and Portugal in subsequent games and Brazil were eliminated. It was not until 1970, twelve years after his debut, when Pele was 29 years old, that he once again dominated a cup and brought home Brazil’s third Jules Rimet. Mbappe is about to play his second cup at age 23, with any luck he will be able to play another two and thus have an opportunity to cement a historic legacy. But cup holders France, and Mbappe in particular, should be wary of coming into the Qatar World Cup with the hubris Spain displayed in 2014.
Now we fast forward to Mbappe’s upcoming visit to Qatar with his entourage and stellar national team squad.
France is one of the 2022 World Cup’s favorites to raise the trophy in December. They have deep ranks of talented players at all positions, and a famous pedigree at the cup—from Just Fontaine to Michel Platini, and from Zinedine Zidane to Paul Pogba, they have established themselves as a global power for over 60 years. Today, the team’s hopes are partially pinned on a wicked-fast 23-year-old striker who can’t stop scoring goals—putting one in every 0.77 appearances.
Mbappe has Erling Haaland’s speed and goal-scoring prowess with a better dribble and a better and stronger weaker-foot shot. Other than Pele, he is the youngest scorer at a World Cup final. He won the 2018 FIFA World Cup Best Young Player award and was the top goal scorer in Ligue 1 for the past four years in a row. Playing for PSG alongside Neymar and Lionel Messi, Mbappe has been the team’s most consistently productive attacking force. That is heady company, incredible performance, and reason enough for a young gun to let things get to his head. But just as Pele was a known quantity after his stellar debut so is Mbappe now and come Qatar he will have to substitute that prior element of surprise with an even higher caliber of play at a cup where he will be targeted (see Neymar) and he may not have the likes of Pogba and N’Golo Kante behind him.
Mbappe’s PSG form is great, and his recent and consistent ability to outplay his famous teammates is something to behold, but it is at PSG and in Ligue 1 that he is shining. The World Cup is the one tournament at which everyone wants to shine and comes ready to bleed to ensure they are not “posterized.” Furthermore, this tourney has an outsized number of legends waiting to take their last bow—can we say, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luka Modric, Kevin de Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski, Sadio Mane, and Luis Suarez…so a little humility can go a long way.
France may yet win this tourney, they are that good even without Pogba and Kante, but the tealeaves Papa is reading seem to say the Gods are ready for change and not ready for a third repeat champion (after Italy 1933 & 1938 and Brazil 1958 & 1962). Mbappe may become the tourney’s top player, an accomplishment on its own, but the French team does not seem to have their mojo at the moment and only have a little over a month to reclaim it.
So here is hoping Mbappe takes his sweet time enjoying his high perch, continues to improve, does not let it all get to his head, and thus does not implode in Qatar. If he is content playing his own magnificent game, not letting the media, his ego, and others get into his head, who knows how far France can go.
But here’s the rub, if his team gets eliminated along the way in Qatar, all Mbappe has to do is give his supporting cast time, and the likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, and Christopher Nkunku, to name but a few of his incredible peers, will reach their potential world-class plateaus too, and at that time, when Mbappe is 27 years old, they can jointly take another stab at the cup when they are all at their peaks together. Seems like a win-win worth waiting for and the type of post-tourney assuaging few other national teams can rely on.