Joe Cummings illustration of Person in the news Kylian Mbappé
© Joe Cummings

Kylian Mbappé grew up opposite a sports ground in Bondy, a deprived suburb that’s a bus and train ride from Paris. His father Wilfrid was from Cameroon, his mother Fayza of Algerian origin, and their mixed relationship encountered initial hostility from some people around them. But the family grew into pillars of the local community. Wilfrid coached football, while Fayza ran leisure activities for children. They also took in a boy who had immigrated from Congo without his parents, and when Kylian’s class went on a trip to Greece, Fayza made sure that every child could come whatever their home circumstances. Her ambition for her son was to attend HEC, the elite Parisian business school.

Instead, he was born to play football. On Sunday, France’s thrilling forward faces Argentina in the World Cup final in Doha. Victory would give him his second World Cup, just before his 24th birthday. He is already a hero of the republic. But given his origins, that’s a complicated role, both for him and for much of the French public.

Mbappé began playing for AS Bondy at the age of five. A natural athlete, who would grow into possibly football’s fastest man, he also learnt from his father and uncle (another coach) to think like a coach on the field.

He grew up in the sport’s deepest talent pool. Twenty-eight players at this World Cup were born in Greater Paris, more than in any other region on Earth. Eleven are in France’s squad, while many others represented African countries from where their parents immigrated. Especially for underprivileged boys in the region, football is a daily pastime and a dream. Credentialed coaches such as Mbappé’s father hone their talent on state-funded artificial pitches like AS Bondy’s. 

Real Madrid and Chelsea invited the adolescent prodigy for visits. But the family always had a game plan. It identified Monaco as the club that offered the shortest route to the first team. Debuting there aged 16, Mbappé already seemed fully formed as both player and person. In interviews, he spoke like a veteran politician, in complete sentences. Paris Saint-Germain signed him at the age of 18 for €145mn. At 19 he went to the World Cup 2018, where one afternoon in the Russian town of Kazan, he shot to global fame with a seven-second, 70-yard sprint through Lionel Messi’s Argentina that earned France a penalty. He then scored twice. His French teammates enjoyed teasing him about his age: “Amazing what he’s done already, and he’s only 15!” 

In Bondy, crowds painted in French tricolours watched the World Cup final on a big screen erected on his old football field. Inevitably, he scored. The next day, he peered out of the team’s bus window at the packed Champs-Elysées and marvelled at people’s joy. Mbappé had already moved on to the next challenge. “He does it for us, but also for his Cameroonian and Algerian grandparents who started right at the bottom,” says his mother.  

Courted by the biggest clubs, he has so far stayed in France, perhaps partly because President Emmanuel Macron asked him to. Messi — whose poster hung on Mbappé’s childhood walls — joined him at PSG last year. Mbappé handles him in Spanish that’s as fluent as his English.

He aspires to leave his mark beyond football. After French police beat up a black music producer in 2020, Mbappé tweeted his condemnation, quoting a rap by the singer Diam’s: “My France mixes, yeah, it’s a rainbow, it bothers you, I know, because it doesn’t want you as a model.”  

He takes political stances with caution, because his family knows he risks being denigrated as an ungrateful black immigrant. The French football team — a collection of mostly non-white expat multimillionaires — pushes lots of buttons in a country where 41 per cent voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in April’s presidential elections. The romance between the French and les Bleus has had terrible downs, and Mbappé is forever on probation. There was national outrage in September when, in a rare slip in his communications, he guffawed at the suggestion that PSG take eco-friendly TGV trains to matches rather than fly.

The family remains ambitious. His mother plans to start a “Kylian Mbappé private school” in their home region. He has boycotted advertising campaigns for sponsors of the French football federation that he disapproves of: Coca-Cola, fast-food chain KFC and gambling company BetClic. On the other hand, critics note, he in effect works for Qatar, whose state sports investment fund owns PSG.

At the World Cup, “Kyks”, as his teammates call him, has been both France’s greatest strength and weakness. When he has the ball, opponents, terrified of his speed, retreat, giving him space to exploit. He was involved in France’s past nine goals here. But he defends less than anyone else in the tournament. He debated the issue with France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, even while Morocco were running riot down Mbappé’s flank in Wednesday’s semi-final.

Argentina will concoct the sort of “anti-Kylian plan” that he considers almost his due. Nobody is as gifted as Messi, but Mbappé is the better athlete, and in his prime. He has already notched nine goals in two World Cups. Victory tomorrow would put him within sight of Brazil’s Pelé, who won three World Cups. The French would love him, at least for the weekend.

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