Kylian Mbappe’s glittering career is full of European heartbreak - will Euro 2024 change that?

Mbappe lifted France at the 2022 World Cup, and expectation will be high when he captains this summer

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 17 June 2024 11:09
France’s Kylian Mbappe gestures during a training session in Paderborn
France’s Kylian Mbappe gestures during a training session in Paderborn (AP)

The day Kylian Mbappe was announced as France captain was in March 2023. The night he earned the armband, however, may have come three months earlier, on a different continent, with the World Cup at stake. Mbappe can appear as a languid figure, sleekly strolling around the pitch before gliding through the gears and reaching speeds few can rival. Yet there is video footage of Mbappe the motivator, galvanising France after a no-show performance in the first half in Lusail.

“It’s the match of a lifetime,” he said. “We can’t do worse than we did.” Mbappe certainly succeeded in galvanising himself. The match of his lifetime proved one no one else has ever had in their lifetime, either. He emulated Geoff Hurst by scoring a World Cup final hat-trick. He found the net four times, however, in the respect that he also struck in the resulting penalty shootout. France still lost. Mbappe may have the bittersweet distinction of producing the greatest performance in a World Cup final defeat.

Only Didier Deschamps truly knows how much that swayed his decision. Without Mbappe’s tour de force against Argentina, with Hugo Lloris and Raphael Varane then ending their international careers, would Antoine Griezmann have been the new captain? Atletico Madrid’s record scorer often seems Deschamps’ most trusted lieutenant, the player he reinvented as a midfielder for the World Cup to answer an injury crisis, the footballer he selected for a record 84 consecutive matches. But Griezmann was instead named vice-captain. In international football, still more than the club game, the armband can seem the status symbol given to the famous. Deschamps, a grounded figure who was the antithesis of the celebrity captain in his own playing days, may have nominated Mbappe for a different kind of symbolic reason.

This is Mbappe’s team now; perhaps it was destined to be since his surge to prominence as a teenager. His friend Ousmane Dembele mans the opposite flank. Even the presence of Olivier Giroud, whose possession of France’s goalscoring record will not last long into retirement before the younger man overtakes him, reflects his status as Mbappe’s ideal foil.

Kylian Mbappe is surrounded by close teammates
Kylian Mbappe is surrounded by close teammates (REUTERS)

Without Karim Benzema, there is no longer the question of if he and Mbappe are compatible. Instead, one Frenchman will belatedly inherit another’s No 9 shirt for Real Madrid, a year after the older man accepted the Saudi riches and the younger man turned down a world-record transfer to the Pro League. Compatriots can seem opposites: Benzema is unquestionably a Champions League great. But with 12 goals in World Cups – already as many as Pele managed – and four in finals, more than anyone else even before shootouts are included, and a Golden Boot to his name, Mbappe has an indelible impact on the grandest stage.

But there is a curiosity to a career. There can be a temptation to downplay his tally of 256 goals for Paris Saint-Germain and five Ligue Un player of the year awards, two more records compiled by the 25-year-old. Unlike Benzema, Mbappe is not yet a Champions League great. He is certainly not a European Championships legend; his Euro 2020 contained no goals – Benzema mustered four after his return from international exile - and Mbappe’s missed spot-kick in a shootout brought elimination by Switzerland.

France’s forward Kylian Mbappe speaks with France’s head coach Didier Deschamps
France’s forward Kylian Mbappe speaks with France’s head coach Didier Deschamps (AFP via Getty Images)

The long-mooted move to Real may represent a delayed recognition that Paris Saint-Germain will not win the Champions League; not in the incarnation of PSG Mbappe has known, anyway. His medal collection is both vast and yet contains significant gaps. For club and country, Mbappe has not conquered Europe.

There are different contexts: he has only played one European Championships. He has experienced PSG’s annual disappointments. If the accusation is that they were cushioned by a vast salary and came in the context of what could be perceived as an easier life in the French league, Mbappe has been the odd man out. France is unique in western Europe’s five major leagues in exporting the vast majority of its homegrown talent. Of the 11 to start the 2022 World Cup final, only one plied his trade in France: Mbappe. It means that, for many, he has an exoticism, seen only in World Cups, European Championships and Champions Leagues. His candidature for the vacant title of the world’s best player is now being tested in different environments: of Real’s galaxy of stars, as France’s leader.

And – assuming an injury scare that meant he only played 15 minutes in a friendly against Canada is no impediment – part of the pressure comes from a precedent. Two of the France captains to lift silverware, Deschamps and Lloris, were very different types of players. The first dominated a European Championships like no one before or since.

Kylian Mbappe disembarks as he arrives at the airport in Paderborn Lippstadt
Kylian Mbappe disembarks as he arrives at the airport in Paderborn Lippstadt (AFP via Getty Images)

Michel Platini’s nine-goal summer of 1984 remains unrivalled, and not merely statistically. No European scored more than seven goals in a major international tournament after then until Mbappe’s eight in the 2022 World Cup. There is a Les Bleus tradition of inspirational leadership, with and without the armband. If Mbappe is following in Deschamps’ footsteps, perhaps the manager chose him more with Platini in mind.

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