MOSCOW — At this point we 7 billion residents of Earth really ought to hone a skill at which we are hopelessly, unrelentingly lousy. We should practice — don’t laugh — restraint as we envision the staggering future of Kylian Mbappe, who is still somehow five months shy of age 20.
We must refrain from comparing the French lad to Pele or the Brazilian Ronaldo. We must let him breathe his own life and try to avoid statements such as that the thunder above Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday evening seemed to emanate from his running.
Yeah, there’s no hope.
What we can say with sufficient caution is that Mbappe is going to make temporary alterations to respiratory patterns in stadiums all over the world. Maybe he will do this for his current employer Paris Saint-Germain, maybe for others later on, and surely for the French national team, but the sounds that crowds repeatedly made at the soaring 21st World Cup figure to ripple across the Earth for an Mbappe decade to come.
Is that fair? The ball will go toward Mbappe, or Mbappe toward the ball, and the sound will change. His futuristic speed and cartoonish command will wreak mass inhalation or mass gasping or mass murmuring. Human beings cannot help it.
It kept happening Sunday evening when supreme France bested admirable Croatia, 4-2, to win the World Cup title. Even on a pitch strewn with formidable talent, with a constellation of it on the French side, the idea of Mbappe brought an unmistakable extra layer of reaction from among the 78,011, as it had in the round of 16 in Kazan when he appeared 10 feet tall with three Argentine defenders trailing him hopelessly, or in the semifinals in St. Petersburg when he served as a presence, if not as a man of the match, against Belgium.
The sight of him stirs the souls who watch this art — and eventually probably even some who don’t. Even when it leads to nothing, it always feels like something.
It made sense that Mbappe would matter in the championship match of a World Cup in which he had introduced himself anew, even though soccer intellectuals have known of him since he made his professional debut for Monaco in 2015 at age 16 years, 347 days. Sunday’s match stood at 2-1 to France at halftime and both as unusually theatrical but also seeking some credibility. It had hinged on a Croatian foul and on a Croatian handball called upon video replay that might have been discussed into the 22nd century depending on life expectancy. It needed something to cement France’s achievement as the reliable force of this woolly World Cup.
Then it got plenty of Mbappe, which meant it got thrilling, although we must be cautious with such blanket assessments.
First, in the 59th minute, midfielder Paul Pogba sent one of those balls you can’t believe anybody could send from just behind midfield all the way up the right. It found its way to the wunderkind. The crowd stirred. Mbappe worked the top right area of the box. The defense had to account for this, as defenses all over the planet will spend these coming years doing, although we must be cautious with such blanket assessments.
Mbappe crossed to the masterful Antoine Griezmann, who shoveled the ball back to an arriving Pogba atop the box, so that Pogba could try a right-footed blast, have that blocked and try a left-footed scoop that whirred into the left edge of the goal.
France led 3-1, but for a further statement of quality six minutes later, the defender Lucas Hernandez muscled through some defenders on the left side, then crossed to Mbappe waiting in the middle atop the box. When Mbappe shipped a ball just slightly and counterintuitively leftward and into the goal, then ran over to the left side, hopped and landed with his arms crossed, it seemed he really did own a considerable chunk of the world at 19.
That’s even though we really must be cautious with such blanket assessments.
Soon, he would field two kisses on his head from French President Emmanuel Macron, one for winning the award given to the tournament’s best young player, and another in the medal procession. Soon, he would tweet a photo of himself, photogenic as ever, kissing the trophy at 19 with the capitalized words, “MY LOVE,” in English which is, after all, the international language of business.
Soon, even the cautious among us could refer safely to Pele, because since 1958 Pele had been the only teenager to score in a World Cup final, and because Pele had tweeted at age 77, “Welcome to the club, @KMbappe — it’s great to have some company,” and, “If Kylian keeps equaling my records I may have to dust my boots off again.”
Soon, French Manager Didier Deschamps would caution: “Kylian Mbappe, for example, he’s only 19 years old, and I do hope he’s going to win the World Cup again. He has done so much already. But one never knows.”
Maybe France could have won this World Cup more grindingly without Mbappe. Certainly Griezmann, Pogba and Olivier Giroud all shine, and the defenders such as Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane helped make a splashy team also solid.
Clearly it had the necessary camaraderie, which seemed even clearer when Griezmann said: “We live well together since the start. The substitutes were not in a mood. They were never annoyed. They were working for the collective.” It seemed still clearer when a group of French players busted into Deschamps’s news conference, dancing and chanting a song extolling their manager and spraying water and champagne, a reminder that if one must get champagne in the eyes, best to have the French do it.
Yet Mbappe provided something else, something from some other realm of talent, something maybe the world hadn’t quite seen because he is his own player, even if Deschamps already has had to caution people who ask questions comparing him to, say, Ronaldo.
The man not yet 20 has arrived about as emphatically as anybody ever did, and it seems clear that people all over the world will know of his childhood in the oft-forgotten Paris suburb of Bondy, his athletic parents who played soccer (father) and handball (mother), his Cameroonian and Algerian lineage, his part in the team’s idealistic diversity, of which Griezmann said: “That’s the France we love. That’s it. There are different origins but we are all united. It’s the same in our team.”
“He adores football,” Deschamps said of Mbappe during this World Cup. He called the 19-year-old “a clever man” with a good fortress of a mind. All of that should help once the rest of us can’t help ourselves.