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.”