Kylian Mbappé: No limits

“I try to push my boundaries and see where that takes me.” It has already taken Kylian Mbappé a long way, from the Parisian suburb of Bondy to the top of the world. And the foremost talent of his generation is just getting started. The Paris Saint- Germain forward was a World Cup winner before the age of 20 and now has the biggest prize in the club game back in his sights. Here Mbappé shares an insight into the mindset of a champion whose ambition knows no bounds

WORDS Chris Burke | INTERVIEW Jérôme Vitoux & Gary Davies

Interview
During the latter years of Brian Clough’s reign at Nottingham Forest, his rugged left-back Stuart Pearce went in for a typically full-blooded challenge and came out in a daze. Pearce was concussed, and the worried Forest physio reported back that the England defender didn’t even know who he was. No problem, thought Clough, sparkling with the offbeat genius that had turned Forest into two-time European champions. “Tell him he’s Pelé,” the coaching great quipped, “and that he’s playing up front for the last ten minutes.”

The story could well be apocryphal, but it’s one that Kylian Mbappé would surely appreciate. Like Clough, the Paris Saint-Germain forward knows self- belief is crucial to success. Talent too, of course, but even the most talented can fall into the trap of doubting their ability. From there, the spiral of sapped confidence and wasted potential can swirl away to infinity. Better to believe you’re Pelé and see what happens.

“You have to convince yourself that you’re capable of doing big things,” says the 22-year-old, whose piercing intelligence has radiated in tandem with his pace and finishing since his Monaco breakthrough. “Every time I step onto the pitch, I tell myself I’m the best, and yet I’ve played on the same pitch as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and they’re better players than me. They’ve done a billion more things than me, but in my head I always tell myself I’m the best – because then you’re not putting limits on yourself and you’re trying to give the best version of yourself.”

Let’s be clear: Mbappé is no Stuart Pearce. He is perhaps the most gifted forward of his generation, but the fruits of the Mbappé method were obvious for all to see at the Camp Nou in February. Messi himself had put Barcelona in front from the penalty spot when Mbappé responded with a spectacular hat-trick in a 4-1 win, setting Paris on course for the Champions League quarter-finals.

Inevitably, the post-game narrative zeroed in on a symbolic passing of the flame. “Le messie, c’est Mbappé,” declared Le Parisien, indulging in a little French wordplay to hammer the point: “The messiah is Mbappé.”

The 2018 World Cup winner then continued the theme during the second leg, scoring in a 1-1 draw to become the youngest player to reach 25 Champions League goals, a record he took from… you guessed it, Messi. Already the third highest scorer in Paris history in his fourth season at the club, he stands at the outset of a career that could yield many more records yet – not that he sees the wisdom in setting targets.

“I’ve never said I was going to be the greatest player in history, but I’ve never put limits on myself. If I get to a certain level, I’m not going to stop myself by putting a barrier up, like, ‘If I get there, then that’s it, that’s my maximum.’ No, I try to push my boundaries and see where that takes me. For the moment, it’s working well, and I’ll keep doing that until the end of my career.”

That approach has not always gone down well in France, where Mbappé has been accused of selfishness on the pitch and critics have often interpreted a haughtiness in his body language. Discussions of his ego are a recurring media topic, but this is a nation which has a complex relationship with its champions, quick to share in their glory while frowning if they show a perceived lack of humility. ‘Perceived’ being the key word there, as Mbappé is nothing if not humble in person, taking time to greet each member of our camera crew individually and generous with his honesty.

It was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”
"When you're in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you're capable of moving mountains"

Rather, in the country that produced Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, his thoughts on the game feel like a modern take on Left-Bank existentialism. “When you’re in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you’re capable of moving mountains,” he says. “Of course, people don’t understand ego, but when you’re low, nobody’s going to come round and tell you that you’re capable of doing whatever it is. There’s only you and your mindset. There’s only you.”

In Mbappé’s case, that means a player who covered the walls of his childhood bedroom with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane, two fierce competitors whose own drive for perfection always seemed to have been nurtured during solitary moments in a dark and quiet room. For Mbappé, the perpetual wrangling over ego in football – and the size of his own – comes off as short sighted and simplistic, the product of people afraid of pursuing their dreams for fear of upsetting anyone. It’s one thing to sit back and enjoy the World Cup on TV, it’s another entirely to harness mind and body to the goal of winning it.

“People don’t always understand because there’s maybe this barrier created around the issue where we don’t really explain what ego is,” he says. “For people, ego is only about not letting a team-mate take a penalty or having a better salary than a rival player. No, it’s not just that. It’s also about how you prepare. It’s a personal thing, it’s about surpassing yourself. It goes way beyond the superficial stuff about how ego is ‘Me this, me that.’ I think there’s a lot to say about it.”

Mbappé as the pensive Parisian thinker may seem like a mainstream French trope, but in truth there’s an outsider edge to his motivation as well. Raised by a Cameroonian father and mother of Algerian descent in the northeast Paris suburb of Bondy, Mbappé owes much of his unbounded ambition to his banlieue background, and the often-unspoken understanding in France’s marginal communities that they need to try harder than most to earn their place.

As he explained in an open letter to “young Kylians” last year, it was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”

It’s probably no coincidence either that he has become known for scoring goals rather than missing them, averaging around three every four games since he joined Paris in 2017. Otherwise, he sees few lessons to be learned from failure, and certainly not the idea that players improve thanks to defeats. Having picked up his first Ligue 1 title at the age of 18 and the World Cup before he turned 20, Mbappé rejects that message as a hollow cliché – and, reading between the lines, perhaps further evidence of a society struggling to appreciate successful athletes and what makes them tick.

“I haven’t needed to lose to learn, and you don’t need to lose to learn,” he argues. “That’s something you say to console someone. Of course, once you lose, you need to learn from it because you’re not going to keep thinking about the defeat without learning from it. But I don’t believe in the logic that you need to lose to learn. For me, before my recent defeats, I’d won almost everything and yet I’d still gained a lot of experience and come on a really enriching journey. I’d learned so much from the players around me, from the coaches, from everyone, and I didn’t need to lose to get that. For me, that’s all about consoling a loser.”

It is a stark, confident statement, and another that feels like the end product of careful reflection away from the cameras. His target again seems to be a nation more comfortable with heroic also-rans than thoroughbred winners, albeit one which boasts the reigning world champions. But although France lifted the World Cup in Russia – their second title in 20 years – it’s worth noting that even Mbappé’s friends were stunned by how quickly he turned the page following that triumph.

“For me, it wasn’t a lifelong aim,” he explains. “It was a monumental step. I can’t play down the World Cup, but it was one step and I’ve always said I’ve never wanted to limit myself. So, for me, once the World Cup box was ticked, the aim was to tick another one and to work hard to tick another after that, because a career is 15 years long. If you’re really good, it’s 15 years. You’ve got 15 years, so give everything for 15 years, and then afterwards you’ll have time to see what you’ve done. And you’ll have your whole life to say, ‘I won this, I did that.’”

As for the next box to be ticked, no secrets there. Mbappé has unfinished business in the Champions League, the competition he and Paris came close to winning last season. The manner of their 1-0 final loss to Bayern was especially galling to the former Monaco marksman, unable to perform at his terrifying best due to the ankle injury he had suffered in the French Cup final the previous month.

“The Champions League holds a very important place. With the World Cup, the fact that I won it so early... Maybe if I get the chance to win another at 30, it’ll be much more emotional and symbolic than the one I won. For me, that was my first. You win it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, we’ve won it, we can go back now.’ I didn’t really have to struggle to win it. And the Champions League is completely different because we’ve lost at different stages, we’ve suffered. If I win that, there’ll be a lot of emotion. Even though the World Cup is the Holy Grail, for me, at club level, the Champions League is the best.”

Nobody doubts his ability to add the European Cup to his list of honours, whether he gets there with Paris or a club further afield. Nor would it be any surprise to watch him dominate the final, emulating the landmark talents he admired growing up. After all, he has already scored in a World Cup decider, becoming the first teenager to register in the showpiece since Pelé in 1958. And the Brazil legend has followed him closely ever since, commenting in March that “Mbappé can become my successor … I see myself in his ability to play the game quickly.”

Pelé’s thoughts on Stuart Pearce are unclear, but Mbappé does not need to believe he is O Rei, Messi, Ronaldo or anyone else. Living up to his early promise, and with his peak years still to come, he is doing rather well as himself. As Kylian Mbappé. The pride of the Paris banlieues, terroriser of defences and clear-sighted football sage. “You’re in charge of your own destiny, we’re all in charge of our own destiny, and that’s how it is,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to be here, to be who I am, and now that I am, I really want to keep growing and keep improving. It’s as simple as that.”

Insight
Let me entertain you

Of all the thrilling sights in football, perhaps none can match the spectacle of a player turning on the afterburners to beat a string of defenders before slotting the ball in the net. The combination of almost superhuman pace and exquisite control serves up the perfect distillation of the game’s reliance on physicality and skill – and it is one that Kylian Mbappé provides week after week, precisely as intended.

“When I used to go to games – and I don’t think I’m any different now – I would pay to be entertained,” says the Paris Saint- Germain star, once clocked sprinting with the ball at 38km/h. “There are players who are worth the price of the ticket. People come to be entertained. People have all kinds of problems in their lives, and they don’t come to games to have even more of them. They come to savour and enjoy it.”

Few players offer the same value for money as Mbappé, whose embrace of football as entertainment extends to his active social media presence and carefully considered goal celebrations – each guaranteeing headlines and imitators around the world. “I don’t think you should ever forget that concept of enjoyment. Even if there’s an obligation and pressure to get results, it should never come before enjoyment. People come to enjoy themselves, so that’s what we’re here to give them.”

The story could well be apocryphal, but it’s one that Kylian Mbappé would surely appreciate. Like Clough, the Paris Saint-Germain forward knows self- belief is crucial to success. Talent too, of course, but even the most talented can fall into the trap of doubting their ability. From there, the spiral of sapped confidence and wasted potential can swirl away to infinity. Better to believe you’re Pelé and see what happens.

“You have to convince yourself that you’re capable of doing big things,” says the 22-year-old, whose piercing intelligence has radiated in tandem with his pace and finishing since his Monaco breakthrough. “Every time I step onto the pitch, I tell myself I’m the best, and yet I’ve played on the same pitch as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and they’re better players than me. They’ve done a billion more things than me, but in my head I always tell myself I’m the best – because then you’re not putting limits on yourself and you’re trying to give the best version of yourself.”

Let’s be clear: Mbappé is no Stuart Pearce. He is perhaps the most gifted forward of his generation, but the fruits of the Mbappé method were obvious for all to see at the Camp Nou in February. Messi himself had put Barcelona in front from the penalty spot when Mbappé responded with a spectacular hat-trick in a 4-1 win, setting Paris on course for the Champions League quarter-finals.

Inevitably, the post-game narrative zeroed in on a symbolic passing of the flame. “Le messie, c’est Mbappé,” declared Le Parisien, indulging in a little French wordplay to hammer the point: “The messiah is Mbappé.”

The 2018 World Cup winner then continued the theme during the second leg, scoring in a 1-1 draw to become the youngest player to reach 25 Champions League goals, a record he took from… you guessed it, Messi. Already the third highest scorer in Paris history in his fourth season at the club, he stands at the outset of a career that could yield many more records yet – not that he sees the wisdom in setting targets.

“I’ve never said I was going to be the greatest player in history, but I’ve never put limits on myself. If I get to a certain level, I’m not going to stop myself by putting a barrier up, like, ‘If I get there, then that’s it, that’s my maximum.’ No, I try to push my boundaries and see where that takes me. For the moment, it’s working well, and I’ll keep doing that until the end of my career.”

That approach has not always gone down well in France, where Mbappé has been accused of selfishness on the pitch and critics have often interpreted a haughtiness in his body language. Discussions of his ego are a recurring media topic, but this is a nation which has a complex relationship with its champions, quick to share in their glory while frowning if they show a perceived lack of humility. ‘Perceived’ being the key word there, as Mbappé is nothing if not humble in person, taking time to greet each member of our camera crew individually and generous with his honesty.

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It was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”
"When you're in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you're capable of moving mountains"

Rather, in the country that produced Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, his thoughts on the game feel like a modern take on Left-Bank existentialism. “When you’re in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you’re capable of moving mountains,” he says. “Of course, people don’t understand ego, but when you’re low, nobody’s going to come round and tell you that you’re capable of doing whatever it is. There’s only you and your mindset. There’s only you.”

In Mbappé’s case, that means a player who covered the walls of his childhood bedroom with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane, two fierce competitors whose own drive for perfection always seemed to have been nurtured during solitary moments in a dark and quiet room. For Mbappé, the perpetual wrangling over ego in football – and the size of his own – comes off as short sighted and simplistic, the product of people afraid of pursuing their dreams for fear of upsetting anyone. It’s one thing to sit back and enjoy the World Cup on TV, it’s another entirely to harness mind and body to the goal of winning it.

“People don’t always understand because there’s maybe this barrier created around the issue where we don’t really explain what ego is,” he says. “For people, ego is only about not letting a team-mate take a penalty or having a better salary than a rival player. No, it’s not just that. It’s also about how you prepare. It’s a personal thing, it’s about surpassing yourself. It goes way beyond the superficial stuff about how ego is ‘Me this, me that.’ I think there’s a lot to say about it.”

Mbappé as the pensive Parisian thinker may seem like a mainstream French trope, but in truth there’s an outsider edge to his motivation as well. Raised by a Cameroonian father and mother of Algerian descent in the northeast Paris suburb of Bondy, Mbappé owes much of his unbounded ambition to his banlieue background, and the often-unspoken understanding in France’s marginal communities that they need to try harder than most to earn their place.

As he explained in an open letter to “young Kylians” last year, it was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”

It’s probably no coincidence either that he has become known for scoring goals rather than missing them, averaging around three every four games since he joined Paris in 2017. Otherwise, he sees few lessons to be learned from failure, and certainly not the idea that players improve thanks to defeats. Having picked up his first Ligue 1 title at the age of 18 and the World Cup before he turned 20, Mbappé rejects that message as a hollow cliché – and, reading between the lines, perhaps further evidence of a society struggling to appreciate successful athletes and what makes them tick.

“I haven’t needed to lose to learn, and you don’t need to lose to learn,” he argues. “That’s something you say to console someone. Of course, once you lose, you need to learn from it because you’re not going to keep thinking about the defeat without learning from it. But I don’t believe in the logic that you need to lose to learn. For me, before my recent defeats, I’d won almost everything and yet I’d still gained a lot of experience and come on a really enriching journey. I’d learned so much from the players around me, from the coaches, from everyone, and I didn’t need to lose to get that. For me, that’s all about consoling a loser.”

It is a stark, confident statement, and another that feels like the end product of careful reflection away from the cameras. His target again seems to be a nation more comfortable with heroic also-rans than thoroughbred winners, albeit one which boasts the reigning world champions. But although France lifted the World Cup in Russia – their second title in 20 years – it’s worth noting that even Mbappé’s friends were stunned by how quickly he turned the page following that triumph.

“For me, it wasn’t a lifelong aim,” he explains. “It was a monumental step. I can’t play down the World Cup, but it was one step and I’ve always said I’ve never wanted to limit myself. So, for me, once the World Cup box was ticked, the aim was to tick another one and to work hard to tick another after that, because a career is 15 years long. If you’re really good, it’s 15 years. You’ve got 15 years, so give everything for 15 years, and then afterwards you’ll have time to see what you’ve done. And you’ll have your whole life to say, ‘I won this, I did that.’”

As for the next box to be ticked, no secrets there. Mbappé has unfinished business in the Champions League, the competition he and Paris came close to winning last season. The manner of their 1-0 final loss to Bayern was especially galling to the former Monaco marksman, unable to perform at his terrifying best due to the ankle injury he had suffered in the French Cup final the previous month.

“The Champions League holds a very important place. With the World Cup, the fact that I won it so early... Maybe if I get the chance to win another at 30, it’ll be much more emotional and symbolic than the one I won. For me, that was my first. You win it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, we’ve won it, we can go back now.’ I didn’t really have to struggle to win it. And the Champions League is completely different because we’ve lost at different stages, we’ve suffered. If I win that, there’ll be a lot of emotion. Even though the World Cup is the Holy Grail, for me, at club level, the Champions League is the best.”

Nobody doubts his ability to add the European Cup to his list of honours, whether he gets there with Paris or a club further afield. Nor would it be any surprise to watch him dominate the final, emulating the landmark talents he admired growing up. After all, he has already scored in a World Cup decider, becoming the first teenager to register in the showpiece since Pelé in 1958. And the Brazil legend has followed him closely ever since, commenting in March that “Mbappé can become my successor … I see myself in his ability to play the game quickly.”

Pelé’s thoughts on Stuart Pearce are unclear, but Mbappé does not need to believe he is O Rei, Messi, Ronaldo or anyone else. Living up to his early promise, and with his peak years still to come, he is doing rather well as himself. As Kylian Mbappé. The pride of the Paris banlieues, terroriser of defences and clear-sighted football sage. “You’re in charge of your own destiny, we’re all in charge of our own destiny, and that’s how it is,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to be here, to be who I am, and now that I am, I really want to keep growing and keep improving. It’s as simple as that.”

Insight
Let me entertain you

Of all the thrilling sights in football, perhaps none can match the spectacle of a player turning on the afterburners to beat a string of defenders before slotting the ball in the net. The combination of almost superhuman pace and exquisite control serves up the perfect distillation of the game’s reliance on physicality and skill – and it is one that Kylian Mbappé provides week after week, precisely as intended.

“When I used to go to games – and I don’t think I’m any different now – I would pay to be entertained,” says the Paris Saint- Germain star, once clocked sprinting with the ball at 38km/h. “There are players who are worth the price of the ticket. People come to be entertained. People have all kinds of problems in their lives, and they don’t come to games to have even more of them. They come to savour and enjoy it.”

Few players offer the same value for money as Mbappé, whose embrace of football as entertainment extends to his active social media presence and carefully considered goal celebrations – each guaranteeing headlines and imitators around the world. “I don’t think you should ever forget that concept of enjoyment. Even if there’s an obligation and pressure to get results, it should never come before enjoyment. People come to enjoy themselves, so that’s what we’re here to give them.”

The story could well be apocryphal, but it’s one that Kylian Mbappé would surely appreciate. Like Clough, the Paris Saint-Germain forward knows self- belief is crucial to success. Talent too, of course, but even the most talented can fall into the trap of doubting their ability. From there, the spiral of sapped confidence and wasted potential can swirl away to infinity. Better to believe you’re Pelé and see what happens.

“You have to convince yourself that you’re capable of doing big things,” says the 22-year-old, whose piercing intelligence has radiated in tandem with his pace and finishing since his Monaco breakthrough. “Every time I step onto the pitch, I tell myself I’m the best, and yet I’ve played on the same pitch as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and they’re better players than me. They’ve done a billion more things than me, but in my head I always tell myself I’m the best – because then you’re not putting limits on yourself and you’re trying to give the best version of yourself.”

Let’s be clear: Mbappé is no Stuart Pearce. He is perhaps the most gifted forward of his generation, but the fruits of the Mbappé method were obvious for all to see at the Camp Nou in February. Messi himself had put Barcelona in front from the penalty spot when Mbappé responded with a spectacular hat-trick in a 4-1 win, setting Paris on course for the Champions League quarter-finals.

Inevitably, the post-game narrative zeroed in on a symbolic passing of the flame. “Le messie, c’est Mbappé,” declared Le Parisien, indulging in a little French wordplay to hammer the point: “The messiah is Mbappé.”

The 2018 World Cup winner then continued the theme during the second leg, scoring in a 1-1 draw to become the youngest player to reach 25 Champions League goals, a record he took from… you guessed it, Messi. Already the third highest scorer in Paris history in his fourth season at the club, he stands at the outset of a career that could yield many more records yet – not that he sees the wisdom in setting targets.

“I’ve never said I was going to be the greatest player in history, but I’ve never put limits on myself. If I get to a certain level, I’m not going to stop myself by putting a barrier up, like, ‘If I get there, then that’s it, that’s my maximum.’ No, I try to push my boundaries and see where that takes me. For the moment, it’s working well, and I’ll keep doing that until the end of my career.”

That approach has not always gone down well in France, where Mbappé has been accused of selfishness on the pitch and critics have often interpreted a haughtiness in his body language. Discussions of his ego are a recurring media topic, but this is a nation which has a complex relationship with its champions, quick to share in their glory while frowning if they show a perceived lack of humility. ‘Perceived’ being the key word there, as Mbappé is nothing if not humble in person, taking time to greet each member of our camera crew individually and generous with his honesty.

It was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”
"When you're in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you're capable of moving mountains"

Rather, in the country that produced Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, his thoughts on the game feel like a modern take on Left-Bank existentialism. “When you’re in a tough spot, no one else will push you but yourself, and you have to convince yourself that you’re capable of moving mountains,” he says. “Of course, people don’t understand ego, but when you’re low, nobody’s going to come round and tell you that you’re capable of doing whatever it is. There’s only you and your mindset. There’s only you.”

In Mbappé’s case, that means a player who covered the walls of his childhood bedroom with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinédine Zidane, two fierce competitors whose own drive for perfection always seemed to have been nurtured during solitary moments in a dark and quiet room. For Mbappé, the perpetual wrangling over ego in football – and the size of his own – comes off as short sighted and simplistic, the product of people afraid of pursuing their dreams for fear of upsetting anyone. It’s one thing to sit back and enjoy the World Cup on TV, it’s another entirely to harness mind and body to the goal of winning it.

“People don’t always understand because there’s maybe this barrier created around the issue where we don’t really explain what ego is,” he says. “For people, ego is only about not letting a team-mate take a penalty or having a better salary than a rival player. No, it’s not just that. It’s also about how you prepare. It’s a personal thing, it’s about surpassing yourself. It goes way beyond the superficial stuff about how ego is ‘Me this, me that.’ I think there’s a lot to say about it.”

Mbappé as the pensive Parisian thinker may seem like a mainstream French trope, but in truth there’s an outsider edge to his motivation as well. Raised by a Cameroonian father and mother of Algerian descent in the northeast Paris suburb of Bondy, Mbappé owes much of his unbounded ambition to his banlieue background, and the often-unspoken understanding in France’s marginal communities that they need to try harder than most to earn their place.

As he explained in an open letter to “young Kylians” last year, it was his mother Fayza who set him straight after he froze in fear during a local tournament aged 11. Instead of consoling her son after the final whistle, she marched onto the pitch and grabbed him by the ears. “You are going to remember this all your life,” she told him. “You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.” Since then, Mbappé wrote, “I’ve never once been afraid on a football pitch.”

It’s probably no coincidence either that he has become known for scoring goals rather than missing them, averaging around three every four games since he joined Paris in 2017. Otherwise, he sees few lessons to be learned from failure, and certainly not the idea that players improve thanks to defeats. Having picked up his first Ligue 1 title at the age of 18 and the World Cup before he turned 20, Mbappé rejects that message as a hollow cliché – and, reading between the lines, perhaps further evidence of a society struggling to appreciate successful athletes and what makes them tick.

“I haven’t needed to lose to learn, and you don’t need to lose to learn,” he argues. “That’s something you say to console someone. Of course, once you lose, you need to learn from it because you’re not going to keep thinking about the defeat without learning from it. But I don’t believe in the logic that you need to lose to learn. For me, before my recent defeats, I’d won almost everything and yet I’d still gained a lot of experience and come on a really enriching journey. I’d learned so much from the players around me, from the coaches, from everyone, and I didn’t need to lose to get that. For me, that’s all about consoling a loser.”

It is a stark, confident statement, and another that feels like the end product of careful reflection away from the cameras. His target again seems to be a nation more comfortable with heroic also-rans than thoroughbred winners, albeit one which boasts the reigning world champions. But although France lifted the World Cup in Russia – their second title in 20 years – it’s worth noting that even Mbappé’s friends were stunned by how quickly he turned the page following that triumph.

“For me, it wasn’t a lifelong aim,” he explains. “It was a monumental step. I can’t play down the World Cup, but it was one step and I’ve always said I’ve never wanted to limit myself. So, for me, once the World Cup box was ticked, the aim was to tick another one and to work hard to tick another after that, because a career is 15 years long. If you’re really good, it’s 15 years. You’ve got 15 years, so give everything for 15 years, and then afterwards you’ll have time to see what you’ve done. And you’ll have your whole life to say, ‘I won this, I did that.’”

As for the next box to be ticked, no secrets there. Mbappé has unfinished business in the Champions League, the competition he and Paris came close to winning last season. The manner of their 1-0 final loss to Bayern was especially galling to the former Monaco marksman, unable to perform at his terrifying best due to the ankle injury he had suffered in the French Cup final the previous month.

“The Champions League holds a very important place. With the World Cup, the fact that I won it so early... Maybe if I get the chance to win another at 30, it’ll be much more emotional and symbolic than the one I won. For me, that was my first. You win it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, OK, we’ve won it, we can go back now.’ I didn’t really have to struggle to win it. And the Champions League is completely different because we’ve lost at different stages, we’ve suffered. If I win that, there’ll be a lot of emotion. Even though the World Cup is the Holy Grail, for me, at club level, the Champions League is the best.”

Nobody doubts his ability to add the European Cup to his list of honours, whether he gets there with Paris or a club further afield. Nor would it be any surprise to watch him dominate the final, emulating the landmark talents he admired growing up. After all, he has already scored in a World Cup decider, becoming the first teenager to register in the showpiece since Pelé in 1958. And the Brazil legend has followed him closely ever since, commenting in March that “Mbappé can become my successor … I see myself in his ability to play the game quickly.”

Pelé’s thoughts on Stuart Pearce are unclear, but Mbappé does not need to believe he is O Rei, Messi, Ronaldo or anyone else. Living up to his early promise, and with his peak years still to come, he is doing rather well as himself. As Kylian Mbappé. The pride of the Paris banlieues, terroriser of defences and clear-sighted football sage. “You’re in charge of your own destiny, we’re all in charge of our own destiny, and that’s how it is,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to be here, to be who I am, and now that I am, I really want to keep growing and keep improving. It’s as simple as that.”

Insight
Let me entertain you

Of all the thrilling sights in football, perhaps none can match the spectacle of a player turning on the afterburners to beat a string of defenders before slotting the ball in the net. The combination of almost superhuman pace and exquisite control serves up the perfect distillation of the game’s reliance on physicality and skill – and it is one that Kylian Mbappé provides week after week, precisely as intended.

“When I used to go to games – and I don’t think I’m any different now – I would pay to be entertained,” says the Paris Saint- Germain star, once clocked sprinting with the ball at 38km/h. “There are players who are worth the price of the ticket. People come to be entertained. People have all kinds of problems in their lives, and they don’t come to games to have even more of them. They come to savour and enjoy it.”

Few players offer the same value for money as Mbappé, whose embrace of football as entertainment extends to his active social media presence and carefully considered goal celebrations – each guaranteeing headlines and imitators around the world. “I don’t think you should ever forget that concept of enjoyment. Even if there’s an obligation and pressure to get results, it should never come before enjoyment. People come to enjoy themselves, so that’s what we’re here to give them.”

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