This article was first published in February 2018.
BONDY, France — When people try to describe Kylian Mbappe, they usually compare him to Thierry Henry: the child of a poor Parisian satellite town, a winger supreme both on the square inch and in a 20-yard sprint, who went from AS Monaco to greatness.
But try that story on Mbappe’s youth coaches and they’re outraged. In their dingy office in Bondy, a bus ride from rich Paris but a world away, Antonio Riccardi and Jean-François Suner shake their heads and take turns shouting out protests: “Nothing like Henry!” “More Eden Hazard.” “Robinho.” “Neymar.” “A dribbler, a creator.”
To understand Mbappe, who at 19 years old may already be heading into the key months of his career with Paris Saint-Germain and France, you have to start in Bondy. He began playing for AS Bondy at the age of 5, the biggest talent the club had ever seen (“you didn’t have to be very clever to realise that,” Riccardi said) but this is the place that perfected him.
Bondy looks as if someone has plonked a Soviet town on top of an ancient French village. The old church survives, but the place is dominated by fading 1960s apartment blocks (one of them adorned with a giant mural of Mbappe). There are fast-food joints and home repair stores, and AS Bondy’s artificial turf field on which Mbappe scored several hundred goals.
Picture the little boy cutting in from the wing, watched by his dad Wilfried — who only just quit after over 20 years as AS Bondy’s paid youth coach — and by his mum Fayza, who played for Bondy’s women’s handball team in the French first division. Bondy isn’t heaven, but if you had to choose a place to be born an aspiring soccer player, it might be this town and this Cameroonian-Algerian-French family.
The Paris region is probably the world’s greatest conveyor belt of talent, from Paul Pogba to N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Martial. Even AS Bondy has produced a long list of journeymen professionals, including Mbappe’s older adopted brother, Jires Kembo-Ekoko, who is now with Bursaspor in Turkey.
Asked why there’s so much talent, Riccardi explains: “At the bottom of the tower blocks, they play soccer.”
But even better when as a toddler you’re already hanging out in changing rooms with your dad, absorbing tactical talk. Mbappe is that perfect sporting combination: a natural who is also bright and coachable.
“He assimilates advice quickly. You ask him something once, and the second time he does it,” Riccardi said. No wonder Mbappe says that when he retires, he’ll become a coach.
He didn’t dream of playing professionally. He always knew he would. “But he wasn’t an arrogant person,” Riccardi said. “He’s tranquil, polite. What you see is the truth.”
Bondy gave him a tough apprenticeship. “Mentally, he was always in difficulty,” Riccardi said. “At 11, he was playing with 13-year-olds, and at 13 with 15-year-olds. He was playing against the best players in the region, sometimes kids who were 15 centimeters taller than him.”
In his early teens Mbappe spent a couple of years in the French national academy, Clairefontaine, where the country’s biggest talents go to have their technique refined. It didn’t transform him.
“With him, I didn’t see the difference of Clairefontaine or not Clairefontaine,” Riccardi said with a shrug. “He may not have been the player who needed it most.”
The world’s leading clubs were already tracking Mbpappe then. Chelsea brought him over to visit when he was 12, and in 2012, around his 14th birthday, he spent a few days at Real Madrid. A photograph survives of him beaming beside Cristiano Ronaldo, several posters of whom lined Mbappe’s childhood bedroom. This Wednesday, Mbappe and Cristiano meet in Madrid again, but this time in the Champions League round of 16.
Manchester United’s scouts watched the boy for a year, but the club’s then-manager Louis van Gaal refused to sign him, complains Ryan Giggs. Qatari-owned PSG tried to recruit him, but the Mbappe family said no. Instead they chose much smaller AS Monaco. Suner suspects the Mbappes’ went for the club that offered the fastest route to the first team.
The plan worked. Aged 17 years and 62 days, the old posters still hanging in his childhood bedroom, Mbappe became the youngest player ever to score for Monaco. He won the 2016 European championship with France under-19s, scoring twice in the final.
Since then, things have gone ridiculously fast. Last season, the kid who didn’t yet have his driving license helped Monaco to the French title by scoring 15 league goals and making eight assists. He scored another five in the Champions League knockout rounds. Meanwhile, he passed his baccalaureat, the French school-leaving certificate that allows you to enter university. He also became the first Frenchman born after France’s win in the 1998 World Cup final to be picked for the national team.
Built like an Olympic sprinter, Mbappe ran upright, looking around him. He was already almost the complete forward, with a dribble, a sprint, cross and a shot. Only his heading was slightly substandard, but he was ahead of where Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Henry had been at the same age.
“I knew I was capable of doing great things,” Mbappe said. “I wasn’t surprised. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast.”
Last summer, at the age of 18, Mbappe joined PSG — officially a loan, but the Parisians promised to buy him from Monaco next summer for a fee of €180 million. He told France Football magazine that the day he was presented at PSG, “I had the impression of crossing the river and completely changing worlds.”
PSG pay him €1.5 million a month, the third-highest salary in the French league after his teammates Neymar and Edinson Cavani, according to French sports newspaper L’Equipe. (In fact, the league’s eight biggest earners all play in Paris.)
He’s rich, but he’s also a prisoner. Mbappe is highly articulate — it’s often said that he doesn’t speak like a typical soccer player — and he has often talked about how success has deprived him of his childhood. “He can’t walk down the street anymore,” Riccardi said. “When he was at Monaco, he came back to Bondy in the school holidays. Now it’s more complicated.”
Mbappe says that when he’s a parent, he won’t have any silly adolescent adventures to tell his children about. “They’ll ask me why,” he told France Football, “and I’ll tell them that at 18, I was already playing for PSG and that you can’t do anything silly there. At 16, you’re still a kid but the moment you sign a professional contract it’s over, you can’t be a kid anymore.”
At least, he adds, he loves his job. Mbappe marvels when he sees the tension on the faces of other players, because he doesn’t feel it himself. Everything has come easily to him, without great sacrifice, he said.
Mbappe isn’t a very consistent performer yet. He had a mixed autumn, could have been sent off in the French “classico” against Marseille when he grabbed the referee’s arm, and he did get a red card last month after a foul against Rennes.
Swiftly regaining his customary maturity, he apologized. But even in his lesser games, he usually does something that nobody else in soccer can. In December, against Lille, having already played nearly 90 minutes, he broke into a sprint measured at 36 kilometers per hour (Gareth Bale, reckoned to be the fastest man in soccer, has been timed at 36.9.). Going at full tilt, Mbappe was kicked from behind by a defender, righted himself, raced on and scored.
He scored 33 goals last year, more than any other Frenchman. He also finished seventh in the vote for FIFA’s player of the year.
“He is the revelation of soccer,” Diego Maradona said. “I told Florentino Perez [president of Real Madrid], ‘Sign Mbappe!’ He said, ‘I already have Cristiano, and so-and-so.'”
PSG’s playmaker Marco Verratti marvels: “He sometimes goes forward so fast, you can’t follow him. He never makes stupid choices.”
And Neymar says, “I have the impression that he’s already 30, that’s how mature and complete he is.”
In Neymar, Paris has the world’s best player under 30; in Mbappe, the world’s best under 20. The club looks better equipped than ever before to challenge for the Champions League.
Then, this summer, the new Parisian generation will represent France at the World Cup. These are both long shots, but with Mbappe things tend to move faster than even he expects.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.