The Best Young Players
This is the world’s next gen of awesome. Meet the new Messis and Ronaldos...
This time last year, Kylian Mbappe had started just 19 senior matches for Monaco, was uncapped by France and largely unknown – now he’s a superstar who has Champions League and World Cup glory in his sights
“THIAAAAAAGO!” It’s a sunny afternoon over at Paris Saint-Germain’s Camp des Loges training facility, nestled in woodland to the north of the chic residential district of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, around 30 minutes west of Paris. Long-limbed and lithe, Kylian Mbappe has come bounding into the room and now he’s standing with his nose pressed up against the window, gazing out onto the first-team training pitches. They appear in pristine condition thanks to the sterling work of two groundsmen, who have only just finished pushing a pair of industrial-strength lawnmowers across the turf in perfect straight lines. Thiago Motta is doing some one-on-one fitness work with a member of PSG’s coaching team on the far side of the pitches. It was Mbappe who’d shouted out the name of the Brazil-born Italy international, in that way excitable teenagers do when they spot one of their favourite players at close quarters. But Mbappe is no ordinary teenager. Rather than merely being a fan, of course, he’s Motta’s team-mate, and provisionally the second-most expensive player in the world behind Neymar. Increasingly, he is also the poster boy for PSG’s oil-powered project, and the French game in general. On top of all that, he’s widely regarded as the most naturally brilliant footballer under the age of 21 alive and kicking anywhere on the planet right now. Yet standing here on this sunny afternoon – wearing a camouflage tracksuit and trainers, bristling with youthful energy, chattering away about how PSG often train after lunch these days and wondering aloud when Motta will be fit and ready for first-team action again – he looks and sounds just like any other football-mad 19-year-old boy, eager to gossip about his favourite team before shooting outside for a kickabout with his best friends. “Shall we sit down?” he asks FFT in perfect English, approaching the chairs in one of many first-floor rooms set aside for player interviews. Ah, tres bien! He then explains that he speaks a bit of English having learnt it in school, but finds it quite tough. Sounds like modesty – the ease with which he delivered his ‘shall we’ suggested he’s got a little more anglais in his locker than he’s letting on. Whether or not he gets to use his English in the Premier League at some stage in his career, 2016-17 will always be the campaign where Mbappe broke through in sensational style. He’s now such an instantly recognisable name on the international football scene, it’s very easy to forget how fast he’s gone from being just another dazzlingly talented teen off the never-ending French centre de formation (youth academy) production line, to a possible heir to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best player. The rise has been suitably rapid – and he’s nowhere near done yet...
CHELSEA, REAL MADRID… AS BONDY?!
Mbappe was born and raised in Bondy, 11km north-east of the centre of Paris. His father played football to a decent amateur level and then became a coach at the local club AS Bondy, while his mother played handball in the French first division – Kylian clearly had the appropriate pedigree. “My family having a sporting background definitely helped me because it meant they understood what I wanted to do with my life,” explains Mbappe. “It’s something they had already lived through themselves, so their experiences meant I had their support and was able to avoid making certain mistakes.” His older brother, Jires Kembo Ekoko, is a professional footballer as well. Now 30, he plays for the Turkish outfit Bursaspor after starting out with Rennes, with whom he racked up 110 appearances in France’s top flight, primarily as a winger, and scored 16 goals. Talking about his sibling, Mbappe’s eyes light up. “When I was younger, Jires was my idol and he used to inspire me,” beams Kylian. “I don’t think I’m unusual in that respect, because I think there are lots of younger brothers out there that look up to their older brothers and want to do the same thing as them. I used to try to watch all of his games. We often went to watch him play live in the stadium when he was at Rennes. Having him as my brother definitely made me even more keen to become a footballer.” The more Mbappe talks, the more apparent it becomes that part of the reason – perhaps the primary reason – he has dealt with his rapid ascension so level-headedly is that he’s essentially been preparing for life as a professional footballer since he was at primary school. Chelsea, Clairefontaine, Real Madrid, Monaco – he talks through the moments and milestones that marked out his childhood the way the rest of us might recall the day we went to big school. Yet he recounts his singular adolescence without a hint of arrogance or ego. This was, quite simply, his reality. “I started out with local team AS Bondy when I was only four or five years old,” he says. “I played for them all the way up until I signed for Monaco, because while at Clairefontaine I played for AS Bondy on the weekends. My father was my coach. At the football, we definitely had a player-coach relationship, though he probably shouted at the other players a bit more than he did at me!” Even at this early stage, news had got out that the boy from Bondy might be something a bit special. Chelsea had become aware of the youngster’s potential and invited him to London for a trial. It was his first taste of the big time. “I was still young back then, maybe 10 or 11,” he continues. “I went to London and spent just under a week over there. I trained at Chelsea and we played a friendly match against Charlton. We won 6-0 or 7-0.
“AT BONDY MY FATHER WAS MY COACH A ND HE PROBABL Y SHOUTED AT ALL THE OTHER PLAYERS A BIT MORE THA N HE DID AT ME”
I played upfront, but I don’t think I scored any goals. It was great – it was my first experience abroad and a chance for me to see what the game was like in England.” Then it was back to Bondy before, at 13, Mbappe was invited to join France’s prestigious national training academy at Clairefontaine. The best boys from the Paris region live and train there from 13 to 15, with Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka among the famous alumni. “Clairefontaine was great,” says Kylian. “It’s mainly about preparing you step by step for joining a professional team’s youth academy, so that the shock’s not too dramatic when you finally do that. You start to learn about what football will be like as a job as well. Even though the game at that age is mainly about having fun, you want it to end up as your full-time career. “We all lived together during the week and then went home to our families at the weekends. For me it was easy because Clairefontaine’s just one hour from the family home.” While there, he was invited to train with Real Madrid, and you get the impression that, for Mbappe, this was even more exciting than going to England to play for Chelsea. “It was a dream because it was the week of my 14th birthday,” he reveals. “I celebrated my birthday there with the Real Madrid players. It was during the holidays and Clairefontaine gave me permission to travel. I played in a friendly match while I was there but it was against a local amateur team, not a professional side. Overall the trip was an amazing experience for me.” After two years training at the academy, the time had come to join a professional club. There were plenty of offers, but rather than taking the obvious choice and staying closer to home, he and his family opted for Monaco. With a billionaire owner in Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev and a history of royal patronage, Les Monegasques may be seen as a rich man’s plaything, but their centre of excellence has always maintained a terrific reputation, providing four graduates for France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad (Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet). Taking himself out of his comfort zone, a 15-year-old Mbappe decided to make the 1,000km move down south and installed himself on the French Riviera. “At that point in time Monaco were just starting to put together an exciting new playing project, signing people like Radamel Falcao,” he says. “I was searching for a big challenge from a football point of view, but the school side of things was also important. Taking all factors into account, Monaco was the best opportunity for me to develop both as a footballer and also as a teenager. It was a long way from home, but during that first year my father moved down with me to help me settle in. After that, my family also came to Monaco to visit me frequently, so I didn’t get homesick.” The youngster then tells FFT something that offers an insight into his astonishing maturity. It proves that his ability to assess a situation and identify how to quickly turn it into a positive exists off the pitch as well as on it, too. “Being at a youth academy’s really difficult – you go on such a long journey and, at the end of it, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you will make it,” he says. “There are a lot of you in an academy – 40 or 50 boys, I think – and by the end perhaps only one or two of you will make it. But then, life’s all about taking risks.” It’s rare to hear a young player so succinctly and accurately analyse how hard it is to make the grade as a professional, while also realising that taking risks is inevitable if you want to achieve your dream. Some players’ downfall is that they think they’ve made the grade before it’s a reality, while others are overwhelmed by the odds being stacked so heavily against them from the start, and fade from view. In contrast, Mbappe understood exactly what was required and set about acting on that information, highlighting the focus, drive, determination and brains, as well as talent, that have got him where he is today.
FROM SUBSTITUTES’ BENCH TO GOLDEN BO Y
It’s hard to believe now, but at times during the first half of last season Mbappe ranked as low as fourth or fifth-choice striker for Monaco. So concerned was his father, Wilfried, that at one point he took the step of speaking to the press, telling the media he was unhappy at his son’s lack of game time at the Stade Louis II, and querying whether he had done the right thing in advising his son – who has no agent – to reject overtures from abroad and agree to pen his first professional contract at Monaco in March 2016. Within weeks of his father’s comments, Mbappe found himself in the first team. On December 14 – a week shy of his 18th birthday – Kylian made what was his sixth start of the season in a Coupe de la Ligue tie at home to Rennes. He scored a hat-trick in the Principality side’s 7-0 thrashing, and never looked back. The higher the stakes, the better Mbappe played. As Monaco chased domestic and continental prizes in the spring he upped his game, and from February onwards he scored 18 goals in 21 starts. The fact he’d begun the season as a rookie, playing for Monaco’s under-19 team in
“MOnACO WAS THE BEST PLACE TO DEVELOP BOTH AS A FOOTBALLER A nD AS A TEE nAGER”
front of a few parents at the club’s La Turbie training facility, made his impact all the more remarkable. He ended 2016-17 as a Ligue 1 title winner, Champions League semi-finalist and Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year with 26 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, including six Champions League strikes converted at a rate of one every 89 minutes. Among Europe’s elite strikers, only Barcelona genius Lionel Messi boasted a better goals-per-minute ratio in the continent’s premier knockout tournament. The prizes and plaudits have kept coming ever since. His trademark jet-heeled accelerations that leave defenders eating dirt have drawn comparisons with the original Ronaldo and Thierry Henry, while his sniper-like finishing is reminiscent of a fearless, teenage Michael Owen. In October 2017, Mbappe won Italian sports daily Tuttosport’s ‘Golden Boy’ trophy, awarded to the top U21 player in Europe. He collected almost twice as many votes as his second-placed compatriot Ousmane Dembele (right) and was way ahead of other contenders like Marcus Rashford (3rd) and Gabriel Jesus (4th). The attention and almost impossible expectations would surely have floored a less grounded, well-rounded player. Impressively mature on and off the pitch, the French sensation has taken the acclamation as he does through-balls from Neymar, Thomas Lemar and others lucky enough to line up alongside him – in his stride. “After growing up anonymously in Paris, it’s not weird to be so well-known – no, no, no,” he tells FFT. “I have a normal life. I live with my family, I go to training, I come back again. I don’t have any problems. It’s also been much easier for me to adapt to a move like this [to PSG] than I might have done with a move abroad, because there’s no language barrier. “Plus I grew up living in Paris when I was younger, so I know what the weather is like here,” he laughs. “OK, it’s a bit cold. It’s definitely colder than in Monaco, no contest, but then you can’t have everything, right?” Looking back on his breakthrough season on the south coast, Mbappe acknowledges that the club charmed fans across the continent, but says he and his team-mates only recognised what they had all accomplished when it was over.
“The truth is we didn’t realise what we’d done was that special,” he says with a shrug. “It only really dawned on us when the season had finished. We were caught up in our own little world. We were playing, winning and putting together a run of results, but no one understood quite how well we were actually doing. It was a bit like being locked in your own room; we didn’t see what was happening outside.” Mbappe explains the moment that Monaco’s players truly believed they could achieve what many had said was impossible – wresting the Ligue 1 title away from a seemingly untouchable Paris Saint-Germain team, four-times winners from 2013 to 2016 – came on matchday 26 of the 38-game campaign. “I remember it very well,” he says. “It was the weekend just before our Champions League last 16 first leg game against Manchester City. We were at Bastia and only drew 1-1. It was a disappointing result. The same weekend PSG were hosting Toulouse. A few days earlier they had thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in their Champions League last 16 first leg. We knew that if they beat Toulouse, they’d move to within one point of us and would be difficult to hold off. But they drew 0-0. They slipped up as well. It kept us three points ahead of them at the top of the table. From that point onwards the players really felt as though we could go on and win the league title.” Monaco then headed straight into their Champions League match against Man City, one of the most exciting and memorable knockout phase clashes in recent history. Mbappe officially announced himself to an English audience in breathtaking fashion, smashing a powerful strike high into the net after breaking behind the City defence. Erratic defending meant Les Monegasques lost 5-3 at the Etihad Stadium, but Mbappe stood out in the second leg as well. He set the Principality side on their way to a 3-1 win on the night – and away goals triumph – with an instinctive close-range toe-poke, giving Monaco the lead only eight minutes into the Stade Louis II showdown. Listening to him reflect on those two gripping encounters now, you sense that, from Monaco’s point of view, there was almost a sense of destiny about the way the tie turned out. “The nearer the second leg drew, the more we started to believe we could go through,” he remembers. “When we stepped onto the pitch we felt confident that we were going to do it. Nobody thought it was possible that we would come off at the end of that game having been dumped out of the competition. “Everyone knows that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are all about attacking football. They were two terrific contests – end-to-end. Even though Manchester City lost, I imagine their players were pretty happy to have taken part in such fantastic games.” Monaco were eventually knocked out by Juventus at the semi-final stage but they’d gone further than anybody expected. Against all odds, they also captured the Ligue 1 crown for the first time since 1999-00, finishing eight points ahead of favourites PSG. Mbappe believes the key to Monaco’s success was that the players genuinely liked each other. “We had a young squad,” he explains. “We were more like a bunch of friends than anything else. We all got along with each other really well and there was a lot of quality in the squad, too. When you look at the players that left at the end of last season – Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva – they all joined big clubs. I think we had the perfect mix to achieve things together. It was the right year, the right time, and we had the right players.” He reserves particular praise for Colombian forward Radamel Falcao, with whom he formed one of Europe’s deadliest strike duos. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – starting out my career with a striker like Radamel Falcao was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me,” insists the 19-year-old. “Everyone knows Falcao the player and what a fantastic goalscorer he is, but he’s a great man as well. As a person he was truly sensational with me, and he guided me through the season. “He wasn’t slow to put me in my place at times, either, but you need a telling-off now and again. I was 17 years old at the time. It was my apprenticeship. That’s absolutely the way it should be. He was a terrific influence on me and I’ll always be thankful.” With the help of Falcao and his Monaco team-mates, Mbappe was quickly destined for the very top.
MBAPPE TO PSG: A MOVE EIGHT YEARS IN THE MAKING
Even at Monaco, PSG were never too far from Mbappe’s thoughts. Last summer’s transfer didn’t come out of nowhere. Quite the opposite, in fact – it was part of a long-term flirtation that meant Kylian appeared destined to play for his hometown team one day. After just one full season at Monaco, some felt the move came too soon, especially given the additional pressure of the $300 million fee PSG will pay when his 12-month loan comes to an end in the summer. Yet Mbappe was on closer terms with PSG than many people realised, and as a teenager he already innately understood something that can take others years to work out: opportunities often pick you, rather than the other way around. “For me, it felt like the right moment, and the right choice,” he says. “PSG are a huge club and they want to win every trophy. I want to win every trophy as well, so it felt like we both had a common goal and an opportunity to develop together. “I’ve been in contact with PSG since I was about 10 or 11 years old. They had been interested in signing me when I joined Monaco’s youth
“FALCAO WAS A TERRIFIC I NFLUENCE O N ME AND WASN’T SLOW TO PUT ME IN MY PLACE”
academy. Over the years I’ve visited the training ground and facilities on several occasions. I’d met the previous owners and also the current owners, so signing for PSG wasn’t a big step into the unknown for me. I knew plenty of people at the club without having played here – PSG were always in a corner of my mind, I think.” He’s one-third of what is now the most famous attacking trident in world football alongside Edinson Cavani and Neymar, or ‘MCN’ as the French media occasionally like to call them. Between them, the front three contributed 63 goals in PSG’s first 35 matches of the season, and their opponents will be disappointed to hear that Mbappe believes the trio can become even more lethal. “We’ve been playing together for only five months, so we don’t read each other’s games by heart yet,” he reveals. “We keep improving and I think we can get even better. During training, we’re not always on the same side in matches, but the coach often gets us to line up alongside one another so we can work on improving our understanding.” Much has been made of the so-called special treatment Neymar has received since his record-breaking $350m switch from Barcelona last summer – occasional days off, an extravagant 26th birthday party in the French capital – and there was an embarrassing clash of egos with Cavani earlier in the campaign over who takes penalties. But Mbappe insists that Neymar has been misunderstood, and says he has a great relationship with the Brazilian. “When you get to know Neymar, he is completely different from the image that he has on the television,” claims Kylian. “He loves laughing and making loads of jokes. He’s got a real joie de vivre and gets along with everybody in the squad. “I really appreciate the relationship we have. He’s like a big brother to me. When the star player welcomes you as warmly as he welcomed me, it makes it easier for you to adapt to your new team. We are a bit different in terms of how we play, so he has not given me much advice from a footballing point of view. But he’s given me lots of advice about the game from a mental and psychological point of view. He’s told me about some of the mistakes he has made so that I can avoid making the same ones. “It’s amazing to play with him. I don’t really have to describe it – everyone can see what it’s like. I hope everyone realises how lucky we are to have a player like him playing in our league. We all hope he will stay for a very long time and help us to win lots of trophies.” Mbappe’s adamant he has no preference about where he specifically slots into PSG’s $750m forward line, but says PSG coach Unai Emery has a clear vision of how he wants the team to play. “I play on the right at PSG at the moment but I see myself as an attacker that can basically fit in anywhere,” he reveals. “At Monaco, for example, Falcao and I played as a two upfront and I liked that, too. I don’t really have a preference. As
a youngster, I played in all three attacking positions across the pitch, so I’m used to performing in different roles. For me, stability’s the main thing: it’s better to have a run of matches in one position, as changing position frequently isn’t easy. “The manager looks for us to switch roles during games in order to confuse the opposition. He’s very precise in what he asks us to do. He wants us to press high up the pitch, press quickly, combine well on the ball and launch quick counter-attacks. He has a very clear view of how he wants us to play and gets that across to us. He loves his job.”
GEARING UP FOR A RIP- ROARING WORLD CUP
Once the club season’s over, Mbappe will have a few weeks to gear up for the next big challenge of his career: the 2018 World Cup. He is yet to study France’s group stage opponents in any detail, but admits he’s already thinking about the extravaganza in Russia. “Of course I am – you’re bound to, especially if you haven’t played in a World Cup before,” he says with tempered enthusiasm. “I’ve got so many objectives with my club first, so I’m not thinking about it all the time. We will have two to three weeks between the end of the season and the tournament to look at the teams we’ll be facing. During that period I will be eating and drinking Australia, Denmark and Peru every single day. But I’m already looking forward to the tournament starting and can’t wait for it to arrive.” The only minor setback in Mbappe’s career so far is that the striker was frequently overlooked by France at age-group level. For example, he was left out of the France squad that won the 2015 European U17 Championship in Bulgaria, and never once represented his country at either U16 or U18 level. Other attackers born in 1998 were selected ahead of him: Odsonne Edouard, on loan from PSG at Celtic this season, was the generation’s favoured centre-forward, while wingers Jonathan Ikone (another PSG starlet, on loan at Montpellier) and Arsenal’s Jeff Reine-Adelaide (on loan at Angers) were picked ahead of Mbappe almost every time the squad got together. Mbappe dealt with the situation the same way that he deals with all positive and negative circumstances that come his way – with unerring composure – and when he talks about it now, Kylian’s inner confidence comes to the fore. “It was purely a footballing decision to leave me out,” he explains to FFT. “I knew the FFF [French FA] were following me but they made their choices. Football’s a question of choices, so you must never question decisions like that. But I knew all of the other players in my generation. It wasn’t a problem for me.” He’d soon caught up with and overtaken his peers. Mbappe was one of two under-age players (Faitout Maouassa of Nancy, now at Rennes, being the other) named in France’s squad for the 2016 European U19 Championship in Germany. Kylian proved a key member of the side as France beat Italy 4-0 in the final, and was the tournament’s five-goal second-highest scorer behind team-mate Jean-Kevin Augustin (who was at PSG at the time and is now at RB Leipzig). That summer, France came within a whisker of winning Euro 2016 on home soil, only to lose 1-0 after extra time to Portugal in the final. And that’s the latest indication of just how rapid Mbappe’s rise to fame has been. As a 17-year-old kid he watched Eder score the extra-time winner that left Didier Deschamps’ players crestfallen at the Stade de France. And now here he is just two years later, heading into the World Cup as potentially Les Bleus’ most important player. “I watched the Euro 2016 final on the television with other members of the U19 squad as were already out in Germany for our tournament,” says Mbappe. “We were supporting France, the same as everyone else. It’s weird how quickly things have turned around, and it’s great to be a part of the squad now. “Do I feel under pressure heading into the World Cup? No, not at all. Pressure comes from other people, not from us. For me, football is all about pleasure. A World Cup comes along only once every four years. You can’t afford to let it pass you by because of pressure. You have to play it when it happens – right now, straight away. I’m ready.” Then on goes the PSG jersey and he’s following the photographer’s instructions, looking this way and that, then pointing and grinning as his mother pulls faces behind the camera. “I know how to make him laugh,” she giggles. He shakes hands with everyone in the room before heading down the corridor and turning the corner, out of sight. A couple of minutes later, there he is, out on the manicured training pitches, laughing and joking with his mates like any other 19-year-old would on a sunny afternoon. In an instant, Mbappe is dazzling them – not to mention everybody watching through the glass - with the kind of flicks and tricks most lads his age would be restricted to pulling off at home on their Playstation. This isn’t an everyday teenager – this is a superstar-in-waiting.
“I WATCHED THE FINAL OF EURO 2016 O N TV – IT’S WEIRD HOW QUICKLY THI NGS HAVE CHA NGED. I’M READY FOR THE WORLD CUP”
Below Mbappe celebrates with Monaco pals Bernardo Silva and Radamel Falcao
Below left Best. Birthday. Ever! Kylian trialled at Real Madrid when he turned 14
Above Rampaging against Rennes: Kylian scored two goals in PSG’s 6-1 cup rout at the beginning of January
Below Mbappe has hit the ground running alongside Neymar this season. They ran riot in a 5-0 mauling of Celtic last September
Top Monaco players party after sealing a first league title since 1999-00 Bottom Kylian and Cavani make up two-thirds of PSG’s ‘MCN’