For a man as articulate with his feet as Kylian Mbappé, words must currently feel like a hazardous extravagance. There is no ambiguity to his play. Watch his poise and balance while dribbling and there is a purity of purpose, a directness that defies misinterpretation. But as soon as he opens his mouth, he invites conjecture and judgment about his relationships with France team-mates and his fellow Paris-Saint Germain Bourbons, about his salary and commitment, and his significance to Qatari prestige at PSG and this World Cup.
Little wonder, then, that he chose to hold his peace, risking fines for swerving his contractually obligated media duties after France’s victories over Australia and Denmark, only turning up after knocking out Poland to play the straightest of side-before-self bats.
His manager has no need to be so reticent. After Mbappé’s towering near-post header against Australia, Didier Deschamps said something striking: “I knew he would be ready tonight because this is his competition.” We can decode that in two ways, both of them casting him in favourable light. Either this tournament is Mbappé’s to own or that in an age when the snake of elite European club competition has swallowed the pig of the international game, here is a player, already a world champion by the age of 19 but yet to lift the Champions League PSG’s owners so desperately crave, whose objectives seem refreshingly proportionate. “The Big One”, as Alan Ball called it, still matters most to a man who is on course to be a billionaire by the time he turns 30.
Players who dominate World Cups so comprehensively that they come retrospectively to symbolise them are scarce: Pele in 1970, Diego Maradona in 1986 and Ronaldo in 2002. All three were utterly riveting, audacious and instinctive, exuding the soul-stirring swagger and physical charisma that allowed them to transcend the collective achievements of their teams.
Jairzinho may have outscored Pele in Mexico but it is the great man’s vivid smile, his insouciant 62-yard chip against Czechoslovakia, his graciousness with Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore, the steepling header and seemingly nonchalant pass to tee up Carlos Alberto’s perfect fourth goal in the final, that we remember. Maradona did not score in the 1986 final but their victory, a triumph of his will, is unimaginable without his imperishable, urchin-genius performances against England and Belgium in the last eight and semi-final.
Similarly one could not contemplate Brazil, who qualified in third place and by a margin of a mere three points after 18 matches for the 2002 World Cup, having even a sniff of winning it with any other centre-forward. After almost two years out with a ruptured ACL and shredded hamstring, Ronaldo did not simply blow off the cobwebs in Japan/South Korea, he shook up the world, scoring eight goals, while sporting a Dairylea hair triangle on the top of his head.
Can Mbappé make the same impact, graduating in four years from young player of the World Cup to the Golden Ball? He will if he carries on in the same vein against England and beyond Saturday's quarter-final. He is not the same player he was four years ago, when he played predominantly on the right. He still makes the pitch look like a postage stamp when he latches on to possession 50 yards out and hares towards his shooting gallery but the years of being asked to play through the middle at PSG, when he prefers a wider brief, have whetted his predatory and scavenging skills inside the box. That front-post run to score against Australia, the finish with his studs for his first goal in the victory over Denmark and the way he blindsided Rasmus Kristensen to bundle in the winner with his thigh, highlight the gilt-edged efficiency he has brought to his game.
The hot-shot, right-foot strikes against Poland, demonstrating the flexibility of his ankles, as supple as the Pinball Wizard’s wrists, were a return to showcasing his more outrageous gifts. The power and accuracy with which he hooked the first to Wojciech Szczesny’s right and arced the second to his left were not merely toying with a fine goalkeeper’s intuition but rendering his judgment and reflexes redundant.
There is no ‘swazz’ about his play now, relying on the odd chop, the speed that makes defenders bowels shrivel on the eve of the game, immaculate control at full pelt in the dribble, the ability to go both ways and indomitable self-assurance that he will prevail. Misses to players of his extreme quality, like misses to the EA avatars of the Fifa games whose covers he has adorned for the past three editions, never contaminate his confidence with doubt. The absence of ornamental tricks does not rob Mbappé’s game of elegance because of the way he glides, less the “floating over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing silver paper in the wind” of Sir Alex Ferguson’s lyrical description of a 17-year-old Ryan Giggs than Mick the Miller spellbinding the crowds at White City.
It was a shame that Mbappé was silent for so long at the tournament because he used to be as direct in word as deed. Last December he was asked to “close your eyes and [tell us] your dream for 2022.” He looked baffled and held the interviewer’s gaze. “I don’t need to close my eyes,” he said. “I want to win the World Cup and the Champions League.” There’s no bashfulness, no sense of wonder, no self-effacing qualifications of the “it would be amazing” kind, just forthright ambition.
The second of those targets was missed once more, PSG’s habitual flakiness in the knockout rounds ruining his hopes for a fifth successive season, which leaves only one. The galáctico project skewed – as intended – players’ priorities towards clubcentric glory. Mbappé, in his pursuit of a second World Cup above all other goals in the month he turns 24, is a throwback to a historic standard of success.