Kylian Mbappe leaves Lionel Messi in his wake as a World Cup changing of the guard unfolds before our eyes

As the full-time whistle blew to bring down the curtain on a magnificent game, it was strangely poignant sight to see them both: Messi with his head bowed, Mbappe with his fist pumped

Jonathan Liew
Kazan Arena
Sunday 01 July 2018 10:12 BST
France Argentina players walk out at Kazan Arena

It was Friday afternoon at the Kazan Arena, and France coach Didier Deschamps and captain Hugo Lloris were fielding questions about the following day’s World Cup last-16 game against Argentina.

Well, that’s not strictly true. More specifically, they were fielding questions about Lionel Messi. How were you going to stop him? Any special plans? Will it help having his Barcelona team-mate Samuel Umtiti in defence?

At one point, you could sense Deschamps and Lloris just bristling just a little, even if both of them were far too polite to voice their irritation. Eventually, Lloris wanted to make a point. “They have Messi, who is unique,” he admitted. “But we have Kylian.”


He was talking about Kylian Mbappe, of course. But of course, after this game, we won’t have to explain that any more. For during these 90 minutes in hot and humid Kazan, a gifted and brilliant teenage forward from the Bondy suburb of Paris, with fewer than 20 international caps to his name, ceased - in a strange sort of way - to be any of these these things.

Introductions will no longer be necessary. From this point on, he will simply be Kylian: a word synonymous with unimaginable speed and thrilling skill, with sprints that raise the pulse and goals that make the world sit up and take notice. It was the day a promising talent became indisputably one of the greatest footballers currently walking the earth.

That may sound like hyperbole, but if we’re not going to measure footballing greatness in this way, then frankly: how on earth are we going to measure it? Two goals in his first ever World Cup knockout game, in perhaps the most heavyweight clash to take place at this stage of the competition for a generation, in sweltering heat, under the highest pressure. If he achieves nothing else in his career - if he retires at the age of 20 and goes into falconry - he’ll always have Kazan. We’ll always have Kazan.

But of course, he’ll achieve plenty more than this, because he’s simply too good not to. The higher the level of the game, the higher he seems to perform. Here, the space that Lloris had predicted would open up for France in the knockout stages, as they came up against a better quality of opposition, came thrillingly to pass.

He had already served notice of his intent within the first five minutes, winning a free-kick that Antoine Griezmann put against the bar. Now, with the clock striking 13, he gathered the ball in his own half after a misplaced Argentina pass and simply floated away, teleported, disappeared. There was nothing explosive or violent about it. No sense of burning or churning or power or even very much effort. Just a long and graceful displacement of air, as if gliding on magnetic tracks. Marcos Rojo grasped his arm as if trying to chaperone him to a dance. Griezmann scored the penalty, and one of the greatest individual performances the modern World Cup has ever seen was off and running.

Kylian Mbappe lit up the Kazan Arena (Getty)


Sixty yards away, already standing on the centre spot waiting to kick off, you wondered what was going through Messi’s mind. Mbappe had just run into the sort of space that Messi doesn’t get any more. Not ever. He used to, of course, back when he was simply a brilliant youngster rather than the sort of player you build entire gameplans around thwarting. And for that reason, as well as others, Messi doesn’t really make those sort of runs any more. You mark him. You double-mark him. You know from bitter experience that the moment he gets going, you bring him down and take your chances with the free-kick. You train yourself to extinguish the flicker of light the moment it appears.

No, these days Messi is one of those players who makes space, rather than uses it. Other players get the space now: Angel di Maria, scoring a 25-yard pearler while enjoying the sort of freedom you only get from a defence preoccupied to the point of distraction by where Messi is, and what he might be about to do next.

One day - perhaps very soon - this will be the sort of treatment Mbappe can look forward to. Few teams will allow him to function as efficiently as this, the Argentina half effectively his playground, his canvas, his dancefloor, the platform upon which he could lay his overt and mesmerising menace. And yet there’s an incredible efficiency to him too, those long prowling strides, the smoothness and the fluidity.

Young players like Mbappe - but also Ronaldo and Michael Owen two decades ago - have a lightness and a freedom to them. The moment they get the ball, wherever they are on the pitch, you immediately sense them envisioning the shortest possible route to goal. The longer you stay in the game, the more you become conscious of the patterns being drawn by the other 21 players on the field and how you fit into them, the more those fast-twitch muscles begin to wear, the more injuries begin to bite, the more that simple instinct eventually gives way to something more rounded, more complex, more collegiate, and yet less basically thrilling.

Mbappe may eventually become a better player. But it’s hard to imagine him being any more spectacular, any more genuinely shocking, than he was here.

How will it get any better than this for Mbappe? (Getty)

Take his first goal, for instance. He gathers the ball in the penalty area after a mistake by Enzo Perez, and within the space of a second, he isn’t just past Perez: Perez is a shadow, an irrelevance, a guy five yards back in Mbappe’s rear-view mirrors, if only he had any. With this finish, and his second goal a few minutes later, there was that same essential certainty: that he was Kylian Mbappe, and he couldn’t care less who anybody else was.


What comes next? In the longer term, there will surely come a time when Mbappe will need a team to be built around him. His job at Paris Saint Germain is essentially to create space for Neymar, a role in which he has only modestly prospered. Although he played more minutes last season than in his breakthrough 2016-17 season at Monaco, started more games, made more key passes, taken more shots, taken them from better locations, he still scored fewer goals. And as long as he continues to play the bass guitar alongside Edinson Cavani’s lead guitar and Neymar’s reedy, androgynous vocals, it’s hard not to feel he’s being somehow diminished.

Meanwhile, Messi was raging silently and feebly against the dying of the light. A little shimmy of the feet: crunch, Blaise Matuidi simply brought him down. Six minutes left: through on goal, staggering after having ridden the sort of challenges that would have felled most footballers. But the shot was weak, the save perfunctory, the sense of anticlimax almost tragic. These were the last minutes, and we all knew it.

Lionel Messi's World Cup career is likely now over (Getty)

He may never be back at a World Cup, and if there is a lesson in all this, it is that not even the greatest can write their own happy endings. Not even the most naturally gifted footballer in history is immune to failure. Not all the money and fame and talent and love in the world will stop a heart from breaking when it is determined to be broken. Mbappe, just 19 years of age, will learn that himself soon enough.

Messi’s wife and kids flew out to Russia on Tuesday. Mbappe doesn’t have a wife and kids. And as the full-time whistle blew to bring down the curtain on a magnificent game, it was strangely poignant sight to see them both: Messi with his head bowed, Mbappe with his fist pumped, these two wonderful players at the opposite ends of their international careers, one in tear-stained autumn, the other in full, fabulous blossom.

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