There was a moment at the Stade de France on Wednesday when the world just seemed to stop and watch – and gawp and purr and jab its elbow into the ribs of the gawping, purring person next to it. The score was 0-0 in the Coupe de France final. Monaco forced a corner on the right. The ball fell to Kylian Mbappé inside his own penalty area. At which point the gravity of the day started to shift.
Mbappé caught the ball on his toe and started to run – not into some neutral open zone, but swerving across the centre through a previously invisible faultline in the Monaco midfield. He glided right then left, burning three red shirts out of his arc. Crossing the centre circle Mbappé slowed, pulling a fourth player into his path, then switched feet and surged away, a shimmy so theatrical it almost felt like a piece of satire.
This is a robust Monaco team. The defender Mbappé had just transformed into a piece of street furniture was Djibril Sidibé, a World Cup winner with 18 caps for France. By now seven defensive players were chasing him, then whirling around like deck hands in a storm as Mbappé pivoted and switched the ball to the right wing.
A little later Mbappé made the opening goal for Mauro Icardi from that same channel. In the second half he took the ball 45 yards out, saw Radoslaw Majecki off his line and floated a right-footed chip-shot on to the crossbar in a lovely, soft arc, a goal of the season manqué.
Either side there were more of those moments where Mbappé seems to be moving through thinner air and softer colours. “Extraordinaire!” the French TV commentator gurgled as he scored PSG’s second, a ruthless dink-finish with his left foot this time. He’s right too. It is extraordinary. And right now Mbappé is the best player in the world.
Obviously this comes with the caveat that Lionel Messi is still out there, and still peerlessly effective even as a half-speed, one-club 33-year-old. But Mbappé is something else, a player in his own clean, clear, frictionless prime, operating at a level where he could drop into any team, anywhere and improve it without breaking stride.
That goal was his 40th of the season. He seems in wonderful physical and mental shape, an impression reinforced by emerging shirtless for the second half. Whatever the demands of his schedule, Mbappé, it seems clear, has not been skipping ridiculously shredded torso day.
There were deeper gears at the Stade de France. He played left, then right, then dropped deep and began threading surgical through-passes. He was regularly chopped down on the ball. At one point someone stood on his head. Gabriel of Arsenal suggested recently French football is “more physical” than the Premier League, and you can see what he means. This is a league full of energetic, ambitious footballers.
And while PSG may be an absurdly dominant state-funded project, they kicked off on Wednesday two games away from a failed season. Deprived of key players, Mauricio Pochettino fielded a team with, in the words of L’Équipe, “a flagrant lack of creativity”. It was a moment for Mbappé to lead. He ate it up.
None of this is new. Mbappé has been on this trajectory for five years. But it does also point somewhere. The other thing about the boy from Bondy is that he is so clearly a likeable person. Before the final a journalist had tried to get a rise out of Lille forward Jonathan Bamba over the notion Mbappé had shown disrespect by suggesting PSG are losing the title rather than Lille winning it. Bamba just shrugged and said, no, he wouldn’t have meant that, it’s not what Kylian is like.
It is a recurrent theme with Mbappé, who does seem to be the least arrogant, least plasticised, least self-absorbed of A-list athletes. Even his talent is a generous kind of thing, with a sense of someone simply glorying in the show, in the spectacle of his own hard-honed gifts.
This is the most intriguing part of Mbappé, the fact he embodies a key paradox of modern football. For the “legacy fan” it is a reflex act to roll your eyes at the idea of supporting a player as much as a club, to dismiss Mbappé’s 50 million Instagram followers (more than his club) as celebrity worship and All That Is Wrong With Football.
But there are plenty of mainly younger people whose interest will leave with Mbappé when he departs PSG, who feel loyalty to the person, not the vehicle that borrows his lustre.
And really, why not? This is in many ways a logical response. The Super League fiasco threw into relief the oddity of embracing a distant corporate entity like it’s still some kind of community youth club. Paris Saint-Germain is a big city club. But it is also a state-sponsored soft power project. This is not exactly a loveable, human-scale thing.
At the top level it is the players who humanise football now, who give it a face, who provide the emotional hook in this global industry. Mbappé is a brilliant, fun, inspiring athlete. He is the point of this.
Just as uplifting, Lille need only match PSG’s result on Sunday to win Ligue 1, a wonderful feat from a finely bonded team. Mbappé will have the summer to seal another kind of greatness: on paper France have an astonishing attack for Euro 2020, a three-man forward line with 90-odd goals between them this season.
The recall of Karim Benzema, a brilliant team player, is surely designed in part to get the most out of France’s outstanding talent. Either way Mbappé promises more of his own familiar grace; and a glimpse, as ever, of something alluringly human in the middle of all that managed sound and light.