Can Kylian Mbappe really become the next Pele?

Mbappe celebrating his first World Cup win.
Mbappe celebrating his first World Cup win.

When it comes out of Rio Ferdinand’s face, it matters. The former Manchester United defender claimed that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are, ‘handing over their crown,’ to France’s World Cup hero Kylian Mbappe. The talk is of an old guard departing the game as a new generation comes to the fore.

Mbappe emerged as an overnight success at the World Cup, if you ignore the two seasons of superb performances in France, first for Monaco and then for Paris Saint-Germain. He will soon complete his permanent transfer to them, making the 180 million euro transfer agreement seem something of a prescient bargain rather than a grotesque display of gratuitous petrodollars.

It is tempting to see each major final as a defining moment in football, to use arbitrary dates to mark the changing of the guard from one era to the next. Often, we are mistaken. Germany’s second string looked brilliant in the Confederations Cup in 2017 and it seemed at times to be a question of which German side would win the title in 2018, not of whether they would.

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Instead, they went home after a miserable experience which will likely cost Joachim Low his job, and Mesut Ozil has become a pariah on the basis of playing exactly as he always has and for a cack-handed publicity stunt beyond his ken.

The point is, then, that in 2014 we were in thrall to the German’s development plans, only to see it blow up in 2018. Mbappe looks great. He could be greater; we even dream that he could be the greatest. Could.

We should not look too much into France’s success. Humans are dreadful at predicting anything, let alone something with as many moving parts as a football team. Age, injury and personality could make France the greatest side of all time in 2019, only to see them turn in a wretched effort in Qatar’s winter 2022 reputation-laundering jamboree. Much of that depends on Mbappe’s evolution.

With these caveats established, let’s make some firm declarations. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are cooked in international football, and perhaps are on the verge of obsolescence in domestic football.

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Ronaldo has rescued his side before, and even in this tournament grabbed a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw against Spain, rescuing a point by scoring his first international free-kick in over 14 years.

Messi flashed intermittently after a relatively dull season for Barcelona, but it is clear that one player is not enough to carry a side at the World Cup. Ronaldo is 33, Messi is 31, and both have exceptional physical attributes that will likely have departed them when they reach 37 and 35 respectively. We should not expect either of them to come to Qatar.

How they compare.
How they compare.

Mbappe, though, could be at the next three World Cups. In 12 years he will be only 31, possibly at his peak. His technique, most recently displayed with a calm, sudden belting of the ball past Danijel Subasic for France’s fourth, will not leave him if he maintains his discipline.

By all accounts, he is an exceptionally thoughtful man for his age, so the danger for him is burnout rather than blowout. In Qatar he should be at his peak for the kind of player he is. He will still have his exceptional pace, but playing regular Champions League football and learning alongside Neymar, or a rolling cast of superstars, managed by the perceptive Thomas Tuchel, should refine his talents.

After scoring in the final, even Pele was moved to acknowledge his excellence. Tweeting that he would consider coming out of retirement in order to retain his status as the greatest, Mbappe responded with admiration and humility.

While it is unfair on Mbappe, expectations upon him only increase when he seems so completely sound. Donating his World Cup fees to charity might serve to enhance his reputation, but it fits with the pattern of a considerate player aware of his fortune.

The 19-year-old displayed exceptional poise throughout the competition. His pace that helped him stand out against a team reduced to world class water-carrying by Didier Deschamps. His ability gave Deschamps no choice but to allow him to attack with abandon. At 19, two seasons of football is not enough to blunt his fearlessness. While playing the percentages reduces the magic in a player – Wayne Rooney went from a savant to a bottleneck – Mbappe has the talent and serenity to excel however pragmatic he chooses to be.

The fun, life-enhancing and happy approach to Mbappe is this – a brilliant young kid is already miles better at his job than any of us are at ours, and entertains millions while (temporarily) uniting a country.

The realistic, life-dented approach is this – none of us know the awkwardness and troubles that he must overcome to become even better, and this could even be a peak. In the aftermath of the best World Cup in recent memory, against tempestuous backdrop, maybe we can allow ourselves a rare moment of optimism.