Kylian Mbappé: The world is yours

The away section at the Etihad erupted into cheers. The individual responsible for their joy had latched onto a long ball and slammed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. His first goal in the Champions League. At 18 years and two months, he became the second youngest French goalscorer behind Karim Benzema in the competition. Take a bow Kylian Mbappé.

On his first start in the Champions League, the young dynamo dovetailed brilliantly with strike partner Radamel Falcao and tormented the Manchester City defense with a combination of pace and fearless dribbling. It was a remarkable performance considering his tender age and has effectively put him on the world stage. The fact that Monaco lost the game 5-3 mattered not, the top goalscorers in Europe had offered their interpretation of attacking football: progressive, incisive passes and clinical finishing.

The English press were full of praise for the Ligue 1 side and most of it was aimed at Mbappé. However, those across the English channel and followers of Ligue 1 have had the player in their consciousness for a while.

Kylian Mbappé Lottin grew up in Bondy, part of the northeastern suburbs of Paris. Mbappé’s education started at AS Bondy where his father Wilfried  coached. He impressed enough to earn a place at the prestigious football academy Clairefontaine, an institution where William Gallas, Louis Saha, Blaise Matuidi, Thierry Henry etc all cut their teeth.

During his apprenticeship, the Bondy native had most of the French clubs on his case. Finally it was AS Monaco who won the race for his signature. The principality club are shrewd operators in youth football. Locally they never had a huge talent pool to pick from, instead they scout the six corners of the hexagon and recruit players from the age of 14 who have already received the fundamental education.

The fact that Monaco gives these youth a chance to challenge for a first team place is also a strong selling point. The likes of Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry and Anthony Martial have all benefited from this approach.

Mbappé debuted for the seniors against Caen on 2 December, 1998. At 16 years and 347 days he broke Thierry Henry’s record (17 and 14 days) as the youngest “monégasque” to feature in the league. Two months later the record of youngest goalscorer was also taken from Henry (17 years and eight months) by the same culprit ( 17 years two months) against Troyes.

The sale of Anthony Martial to Manchester United had opened a door for Mbappé which he has gone through running, especially this season. 12 goals in all competitions so far is a decent return, but it’s  the options that he offers to his coach Leonardo Jardim. He can play on the wings, centrally or partner with another striker. His versatility and style has earned him the tag of “new Thierry Henry” though that may be premature considering his predecessors illustrious career.

The young man needs to develop further before talks of going abroad to play at a Real Madrid are evoked. He hasn’t really experienced a major setback in his career yet e.g dip in form, long-term injury or abrupt change of coach and tactics. These are all issues Thierry Henry has encountered and surpassed. Then there is the small matter of Henry playing for the national team and winning the World Cup and Euros.

Though, selection for the senior national team feels like a when rather than an if, looking at the starring role he played at last years U19 Euro triumph with five goals. His father Wilfried who also works as his agent has proven that he can also make sensible decisions for his son by choosing Monaco instead of Real Madrid, even though the Spanish giants and in particular, club ambassador at the time Zinedine Zidane, pulled all the tricks to recruit him.

Whatever direction the Mbappé story takes, like Tony Montana, he is at a point where the world is his, even Nike have endorsed him. It’s now up to the lad to keep that success permanent.

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A golden cockerel, World Cup and Thierry Henry Part 1

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Prior to the age of 15, football meant very little to me. Once, Tonton Christian got me the full 1998 France kit, the red socks, white shorts and blue shirt emblazoned with the golden cockerel didn’t churn any feelings of pride or patriotism in my young mind. There was one player though, who’d play a key role in my growing interest of the game, Thierry Henry.

My mother couldn’t stop talking about him as he shared our Guadeloupean roots. Though it was important to note that he was born in Paris (like my mother coincidentally). In 2006 something changed. Was it the charm of the World Cup in Germany? The full game coverage offered by DStv or the sight of a familiar face in the French team? Whatever it was, I was up for the cup!

I exclusively watched Les Bleus’ matches and was happy to see Titi (as Henry is affectionately known) in action. A scoreless draw with Switzerland was disappointing, but the 1-1 stalemate with South Korea was worrying. The only positive was Titi scoring his first goal of the tournament. The game against  Togo was a must win if we wanted to advance to the knockout rounds. A lot of African teams who have colonial ties with France always prove to be tricky opposition. But Henry and co were in no mood to pack their bags as they won 2-0, Titi on the score-sheet.

The Spaniards were overpowered 3-1 in the round of 16. Henry probably enjoyed it the most as  La Roja’s coach Luis Aragones once called  him a “black shit.” Our reward was a quarterfinal clash with the reigning champions Brazil. In Zimbabwe, Brazil is everyone’s second national team, if not first. So it wasn’t a surprise to find that I would be the only Les Bleus supporter at my gogo and sekuru’s place. What raised my eyebrow was Simba supporting the South Americans. Clearly treason took a backseat to jogo bonito.

My sibling’s folly proved to be just that, as Henry steered a side footed volley into the net for the only goal. Simba came back to his senses and pledged allegiance to a France team that went all the way to the final. Many people regarded Zinedine Zidane as the talisman of the team, not I. Yeah the guy came out of retirement and was playing out of his skin – but as the gold boots hinted, all the hype was getting to his head. Ask Marco Materazzi.

Henry on the other hand was a bit under appreciated. The combination of flawless technique and refined power didn’t seem to wow the Gaulic public as much as the English when he wore the colours of Arsenal. Perhaps it was his perceived aloofness? In the World Cup final I did come across one of the possible reasons: The big game player doesn’t show up for finals. the Confederations Cup aside he rarely scored or produced a virtuoso moment to affect the result.

Against Italy, he was well policed by Fabio Cannavaro and was revived by the medical team’s smelling salts when  the Azurri skipper caught him with an “accidental” elbow. Many people blamed Zidane for the loss to the Italians. Gold boots saw red after responding to Materazzi’s insults with a forehead to the chest. But if Henry had contributed anything close to the South Korea, Togo and Brazil games, we instead of Italy would have been world champs.

After Germany, the general consensus was that most of the elder statesmen in the team were closer to the end than the beginning. With Euro 2008 in two years, a mixture of old and new were used in the qualifiers. The likes of Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema complemented Titi’s experience. Les Bleus qualified without much fuss from their group. Henry’s highlights were scoring in a 3-1 revenge win over Italy and becoming the countries all time goalscorer, by surpassing Michel Platini’s haul of 41 with a brace against Lithuania.

My memories of Euro 2008 are not happy.  One of our dogs T-Rex died of poisoning and on the field, Titi’s men might well have been poisoned as they finished bottom of their group. The first game against Romania has to be the dullest match I ever watched. The 0-0 a fair result. If the first match was uninspiring , the second match would be the opposite … but for our opponents the Netherlands.

The Dutch were leading 2-0 and thoroughly outplaying us when, Henry gave us Les Bleus a lifeline, flicking Willy Sagnol’s cross past Edwin van der Sar. Arjen Robben’s goal seconds later, cut the line and Wesley Sneijder’s late strike was an unnecessary nail in a coffin that was well shut. Funny enough, France could still advance to the next round if we beat Italy and the Dutch did the same against the Romanians.

Ah Italy. Our rivals also needed a win after an equally dire showing that yielded a solitary point. Unfortunately, the Azurri would play the role of undertaker to our Euro hopes. Andrea Pirlo converted a penalty when Eric Abidal fouled Luca Toni in the position of last man and was sent off. Titi had given us hope with a flick of the boot against the Netherlands, how ironic that it was his boot that flicked Pirlo’s free kick past Gregory Coupet to put the result beyond doubt.

Following Les Bleus from an Anglophone country is a noise free experience. The reason I say this is because of the French press. Ever Since Raymond Domenech took charge of the team. The national papers and magazines have analyzed, colonoscopied, patted down, dissected, spaded and castrated Les Bleus. It must be said that Domenech is easy to dislike. His my way or the highway approach to management and inability to play in an imaginative/daring way (the hallmark of the 1998 squad) were to be his undoing.

There were people along the way who gave him a hand in his journey to the abyss. Titi’s hand was one of the most extended. His was to become one of the most hated in Ireland, second in notoriety to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.” Enter the “Hand of Gaul.”

To be continued …