The Best Young Play­ers

This is the world’s next gen of awesome. Meet the new Mes­sis and Ron­al­dos...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words James Eastham Pho­tog­ra­phy Cyril Mas­son

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

31

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’

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