Mbappé poised to take it to the next level

Victory in a second successive World Cup would catapult France’s star player to heights rarely reached in the sporting world

The cheat codes are in, America.

“They got that boy Mu-bappé over in France, he ain’t no joke,” said Charles Barkley, eyes to camera, on Inside the NBA.

Not since Pele went to the New York Cosmos has this happened: a soccer athlete puncturing the primetime US sports bubble. When basketball royalty Barkley, Shaq and Kenny ‘the Jet’ Smith are riffing with your name, the game has landed stateside. Permanently.

Kylian Mbappé has selfies. There is one after keepy-uppys as an 18-year-old beside Kobe Bryant, the football-obsessed LA Laker having lived in Italy when his Dad finished a middling pro career in Europe.


Bryant went straight to the NBA from high school. At the same age that Kylian Mbappé was slicing up Argentina at Russia 2018, Bryant was shooting air balls in the play-offs, still trying to find his equilibrium. Mbappé came fully formed at his first World Cup.

More selfies. A snap with Thierry Henry age four, his gums visible alongside the man whose French record of 51 goals in 123 matches was surpassed by Olivier Giroud, in Qatar, who has since climbed to 53.

Mbappé has 33 international goals and counting, zipping past Henry’s six World Cup strikes to reach nine, with five in Doha.

It was Sweden 1958 when a 17-year-old Pele came, like Mbappé, fully formed to capture the Jules Rimet trophy at his first swing.

Giroud will be reeled in. Miroslav Klose’s 16 goals over four tournaments will be caught too, probably at North America 2026. The US market awaits, and Kylian Mbappé is coming for them all.

He has selfies. The Trump family got one after Denmark. Not the big orange clown but Mr Peace-In-The-Middle-East, Jared Kushner, and wife Ivanka slipped back stage where the Parisian, of Cameroon-Algerian descent, obliged. What’s he supposed to do, refuse three children?

Kylian Mbappé fronts the EA Sports Fifa 2023 game. Kylian Mbappé does selfies with LeBron James because game respects game, and because that’s the only athlete worth chasing. The rest are behind him. Only LeBron is out in front. That’s the standard, the global reach. He has the signature Nike shoe to prove it.

That’s the mountain to climb next, Hollywood. Because Kylian Mbappé transcends football, sorry, soccer. Zebra Valley is his production company. The WME Sports agency, a division of Endeavour (formerly The William Morris Agency) operating out of Beverley Hills, added him to their roster last summer. Because they need to. Because Mbappé takes them into Africa.

“There were some topics that are dear to my heart,” Mbappé has said. “Even if I am French, I have African roots.”

“Mbappé wears these multiple identities without effort,” claimed Popullous magazine in last year’s profile, “middle-class, working-class, French, African, cosmopolitan, suburban, athlete, politician, global, local. How appropriate this is in France, the country of existentialism – a philosophy that theorises that an authentic life is about whether one succeeds in making oneself.”

Kylian Mbappé cannot be doing regular press conferences in Qatar. His media footprint is too large. He controls when, where, with who and for how long.

“I’ve nothing against you guys,” he told the French fourth estate, “I just want to concentrate on my game, I know there is a fine for the federation, but I’ll pay that myself.”

From his perch, there is good reason for this stance. Mbappé missed a penalty last year and Switzerland progressed to the European Championships quarter-final. French football struggled to cope with the aftershocks.

Last June, The Athletic reports, during an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, the French Football Federation’s president Noël Le Graët said: “I met with him after the Euros, he felt the federation had not defended him after his missed penalty and the criticism on the [social] networks. We met for five minutes in my office. He was angry. He didn’t want to play for the French team anymore – which he obviously didn’t mean.”

Mbappé took to Twitter, pointing out the problem was not the penalty it was the avalanche of abuse on social medial where he felt unprotected.

“I explained to him that above all else, it was in relation to racism and NOT to the penalty. But he believed there had been no racism.”

He told L’Equipe: “I have always placed the French national team above everything and I will always put it above everything. I have never taken a single euro to play for France and I will always play for my national team for free.

“What shocked me, again, was being called a monkey for the penalty. That is what I wanted support around.”

When Real Madrid came for him, the Qatari owners of Paris Saint Germain did their usual trick. His new contract is worth €40 million a season. At least.

Kylian Mbappé cannot rest. The throne is never safe. Tunisia had France on the rack at half-time in Education City because Mbappé was benched beside Ousmane Dembele as Didier Deschamps rested his stars ahead of the knockouts stages. When Wahbi Khazri twisted and turned in a goal that gave voice to the Tunisian crowd, Deschamps glanced over his shoulder.

At 0-1 down France still topped the group, but Deschamps sent Mbappé on with 62 minutes clocked. The play wouldn’t come wide left so he repositioned himself as a number 10, just off the striker. It proved too late, Tunisia were playing for history, a stand-alone victory.

Still, there was a flash of alchemy: collecting the ball on the left, he flips and flaps his feet to beat the defender on the end line before drawing a fine save from Aymen Dahmen

France had no rhythm with Mbappé out of his.

Kylian Mbappé is to this World Cup what Maradona was to 1986, Zinedine Zidane to 1998, the second coming of the undisputed number one player in the game.

This tournament needs him, the sports needs him to take it to the next plain, the place where American athletes exists. The defeat of Poland showed as much. France were coasting after Mbappé's quick pass found Giroud who made it 1-0.

The contest ended when Mbappé, with four defenders rooted to the grass in front of him, whipped the ball into the near side roof of Wojciech Szczęsny’s net from what seemed an impossible angle. His second goal, to make it 3-0, was from the exact same place, majestically swerving a shot to the far top corner.

Bryant and LeBron would understand. Once the NBA bucket machines get to their “spot” and they are feeling it, swish. It was like watching a hardwood floor general, but on grass.

When Morocco needed finishing during Wednesday’s semi-final in Al Bayt, he weaved around Sofyan Amrabat and Achraf Hakimi to punch a shot that deflected for Randal Muani’s tap in.

Kylian Mbappé is already something Ronaldo and Messi have never been. A rising star with a World Cup medal in the back pocket, intent on devouring all before him, for this decade and into the next.

America ‘26 awaits, his absolute peak at age 27. Let the Lusail rocket launch commence.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent