How do you write about a nineteen-year-old? How can you know them when they don’t even know themselves yet? Nineteen is an inherently stupid age; a lost year between childhood and adulthood. “At nineteen, I felt confused and alone and scared, scrambling around, no idea what my life could be. At nineteen, Kylian Mbappé won the World Cup.”
It’s hard to measure a young player’s worth: for every Neymar, a hundred Lulinhas, Kerlons, and Gabigols. At nineteen, their brains are changing, their musculature changing, there are hundreds of variables all of which can affect the perfect white line that they must tiptoe to success, factors just begging to blow you off course. But, at nineteen, Mbappé had already reached the pinnacle of a professional footballer’s career, one that puts him into the upper echelons of the game. That must write him into the history books as one of the all-time greats, as the key man in a World Cup-winning squad. At nineteen!
Even now he has reached the grand old age of twenty, Kylian Mbappé is not like the rest. For the last decade and a half, the sport has been dominated by two people—you know who—and now there is one more, the first player of his generation—the true FIFA generation—to break from the primordial soup of 99.99% of his peers, to strut with the front-running duo, a huge smile on his face, arms crossed, thumbs tucked up under his armpits like a toddler, scoring goals and moving in huge, abstract arcs across the pitch, making defenders shit their cycle shorts.
And yeah, there are better players right now. More well-rounded, more complete. But who can challenge the sweep of the young man’s influence? On multiple planes—domestic, international, commercial, cosmic—he dominates. Whenever I watch him, he looks like a player—at nineteen!—who is not real, playing like none of this is real. Not like he is untouched by the clammy hands of pressure—he has the odd quiet game—but just that he plays in a way that seems to defy the prevailing wisdom of what a young attacker’s career should look like.
As the second-most expensive player in history, some fans are desperate to call him a fraud. He is perennially expected to disappoint, and yet he remains consistent, doing big things in big matches. His game against Argentina in the World Cup Round of 16 was an all-time great performance in one of the all-time great World Cup games, one of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere: We watched it in a steaming-hot room filled with people drinking questionably-flavoured slushes and watched agog at absolute 10/10 goals scored by Angel Dí Maria and Benjamin Pavard (who hit a gravity-defying half-volley that I’m still not sure I completely understand) and yet the defining, most breathtaking, moment was Mbappé’s.
As the pre-match national anthem played, his eyes were lit with excitement, his mouth opening into a half-grin as the camera glided past his French side. Thirteen minutes in, we found out why: The ball bobbles to him at the edge of his own area after a poor touch from a nervous Argentine midfielder and then he’s off, Mbappé turning and running, a lane opening before him, past one, two, three, before they can even get their feet set he’s flying away from them, the crowd rising, and he’s past the halfway line now with Marcos Rojo’s evacuating his bowels ahead, the Frenchman at full-tilt, streaming forward, before he sloooows for just a second, maybe a half-second, to beckon Rojo on before knocking the ball past him, a forceful push, a pass to his future self, a self-contained through-ball, and he’s like lightning again and Rojo has no idea what to do, panicking, clawing at him, the wires in his brain fritzing and fraying, steam spraying wildly, nuts and bolts coming off him, as he hauls Mbappé to the floor, the only way you can stop this nineteen-year-old boy who exists in a different realm to everyone else around him.
Mbappé wins the penalty, Rojo looks like he’s about to vomit, Griezmann converts. That’s 1–0. Mbappé will score two more as France march on, the first teenager since Pelé to score more than once in a World Cup knockout game. This young man laid down a marker to everyone else around him—to seasoned pros, to world-class players, to teammates and opposition, the 45,379 in attendance plus the rapt backroom staff, substitutes, team coaches, security staff, and caterers, the millions watching at home, the 150-or-so of us watching in that room in East London, sweating and breathless, hunched forward, eyes lit now like the Frenchman’s as ‘La Marseillaise’ played, millions and millions let in on a secret, the worst kept secret in football: That this is it, this is his game, his ball, his grass. His alone is the true understanding of speed and skill, this nineteen-year-old boy in blue from the Parisian suburb of Bondy, one of the most deprived areas in the borough, its forest once dominated by the dangerous—killers, bandits, thieves, highwaymen—now known for one man—a boy, really (nineteen!)—his face looking down from billboards or from giant murals spray-painted onto factories. Next to him, the motto "Ville des possibles”—the city of possibilities—is written. He is a player whose grin transports me back to my own pure, naïve enjoyment of sport as a child, where every time you ran you felt like the fastest boy alive, but his feet remind you that there are levels to this game, levels which even professionals will never reach, professionals infinitely more talented than you, who can only dream to touch the hem of Mbappé, this boy who has only played first-team football for a little over three years.
When you watch him play, it can be exhausting as much as it is exhilarating. The tension is a put-yourself-in-their-shoes kind, but you are only ever the defender: It is impossible to picture yourself as Mbappé. I sit there and close my eyes on the train and picture him running at me, my feet in quicksand, my body turned backwards, my heart stuffed into my throat. I have no context: you cannot know how he moves like he moves, thinks like he thinks, does what he does, because—even as he turns twenty as you read this, the new decade where all of the pieces are supposed to make sense—maybe he doesn’t either, not yet. All you can do is ask one question: What will he do in his prime?
This article was originally published in MUNDIAL Magazine Issue 16. Some of it is a review of 2018, most of it is about other things. You can get it sent to your door by clicking here, or subscribe so that you get four issues a year through your door here.