MOSCOW — He is still only 19 years old, but Kylian Mbappe has already gone one better than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The France prodigy now has a World Cup winners’ medal in his pocket, and Messi and Ronaldo have spent all of their careers chasing that elusive piece of gold.
Their failure — a harsh word considering their respective stellar careers — to win a World Cup is something that continues to be used as a negative when the debate about who is the greatest of all time kicks into gear. It is still what sets Pele and Diego Maradona apart in the eyes of many. Mbappe has a long way to go before his name gets through into that bracket, but when he does — it feels more like when than if — there will be no asterisk alongside it that says “yet to win a World Cup.”
The Paris Saint-Germain forward is the heir apparent to Messi and Ronaldo, and the 2018 World Cup final felt like a changing of the guard. The new kid on the block is ready to take over.
Not only has he won a World Cup, but he has joined Pele in the record books by becoming the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since the Brazil icon managed it as a 17-year-old in 1958. His goal in France’s 4-2 win against Croatia in Moscow was no mere footnote, either. It was the fourth for Mbappe at Russia 2018 in seven games and further proof of what a central figure he has been in France’s success.
Mbappe’s stunning two-goal display in the second-round victory against Argentina in Kazan was a decisive contribution and set Didier Deschamps’ team on course for the glory they tasted in the Luzhniki Stadium. When the story of France’s second world title is told, Mbappe will be front and centre.
He was already a star before this final. His Champions League feats with Monaco in 2016-17, which earned him a £160 million move to PSG, ensured he was no unknown rookie in Russia, but he has elevated himself to global stardom now, and many within the game expect him to dominate the biggest stage for years to come.
“Kylian Mbappe is the guy that Ronaldo and Messi are handing the crown over to,” former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand told the BBC. “He is the guy who will be standing up on that Ballon d’Or podium in years to come. Easy.
“To come to a World Cup with all eyes on you, and to do this at 19 years old … It’s the intelligence and the decision-making. Mbappe makes the right decisions so often. There is already maturity beyond his years.”
Jurgen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with Germany, also predicts Mbappe to become the world’s biggest star after his performances in Russia.
“There is so much to come down the road,” said the former United States coach. “He is shaking up the market. With Ronaldo moving and Neymar being linked with other clubs, where is it finishing with this kid?
“What impresses me most is that he is already a part of the French team that is like a family. He looks so comfortable in this side as if he’s been playing in it for 10 years.”
Klinsmann’s observation about the bond within the French squad is important. Mbappe was a big part of this triumph, but the team and squad were a tight-knit unit, and they have a dazzling future.
It has not always been the same with France. Their World Cup meltdown in 2010 was a reminder of what can happen when relationships turn sour, but Deschamps has led this young squad to success after the disappointment of losing the final of Euro 2016 to Portugal in Paris.
Only Brazil (1970) have won the World Cup with a younger squad than this French group — Brazil had an average age of 25 years and 9 months in 1970, while the French squad average out at 25 years and 10 months — so France could dominate in a similar fashion to Spain in the early part of this decade or the first French world champions, who won Euro 2000 after lifting the World Cup in 1998.
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Mbappe is the young star, and Paul Pogba is only 25, while Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez are all in their early 20s.
“How marvellous,” Deschamps said. “It’s a young team, who are on the top of the world. Some are champions at the age of 19.
“The group worked so hard, and we had some tough moments along the way. It hurt so much to lose the Euro two years ago, but it made us learn, too.”
This team still has plenty to achieve. Antoine Griezmann is the comparative veteran of the squad at the age of 27, so for all the hope in England of a new generation of talent challenging for honours, they don’t come close to the French.
And nobody has a player like Mbappe. His pace, finishing ability and awareness set him apart from all of his contemporaries, and he really does have the world at his feet while having the World Cup in his arms.
There is no limit to what he can achieve from here.