From the dozens of fans on the Eurostar to the guard shouting ‘Allez les Bleus’ as it pulled into Gare du Nord, to the posters and promotions dotted throughout the city, Paris has caught rugby fever.
Yet even if France prevail in the World Cup Final at the Stade De France on October 29, none of their stars will eclipse the profile of the man who led out his country at Parc des Princes on Thursday night.
To many, especially France’s younger generation, Kylian Mbappe is a hero, one of the greatest athletes in French history. To others, he is a wealthy prima donna who has led Paris St Germain a merry dance in the last two summers.
‘Without him we wouldn’t have come close to winning the World Cup,’ says Frederic, in town to watch France’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Ireland and recalling Mbappe’s hat-trick in last December’s Final against Argentina, though he could not prevent defeat on penalties.
‘Sure, he’s a wonderful footballer,’ counters Marie. ‘But perhaps there’s a bit too much noise around him now. He’s become as much of a global brand as a sportsman.’
Watching Mbappe on Thursday was to imagine what it might have felt like to experience the Elvis Presley phenomenon, or Beatlemania at its height. When he curled one in off the bar during the warm-up, excited screams filled the air.
When he waved to one group of fans midway through a passing drill with Ousmane Dembele, they again reacted like giddy teenagers. Yet for the first half, the best in the world was the worst on the pitch.
Mbappe was all ego – wandering where he wanted, demanding the ball in strange areas, slowing play down and attempting showy tricks where simplicity was required. The 24-year-old is so talented that he still made an impact on the second half but the captain’s focus seemed to be more on himself than on his team.
This plays into Mbappe’s approach off the pitch, too. To speak to those who follow Mbappe closely is to understand his desire to have complete control over every aspect of his career – the owner and chief executive of ‘Brand Mbappe’. It is not enough simply to be the best footballer on the planet.
In that way, the 24-year-old is more like a top actor or musician, or superstar American athlete like Tom Brady or LeBron James.
He wants the final say over his own transfers and also to influence Paris St Germain’s recruitment strategy. If Mbappe genuinely does believe PSG should be less superstar-led and grounded more in French talent, then the club have certainly listened. Lionel Messi and Neymar have departed and Dembele, Lucas Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani have arrived, while PSG also looked at Marcus Thuram before he moved to Inter Milan. All are Mbappe’s colleagues from the national side.
Nor will Mbappe simply allow marketing experts or agents to take charge his commercial endorsements and how his image is managed.
A year ago, Mbappe did not take part in a photoshoot with the rest of the national side in a reported row over image rights, with suggestions that Mbappe was uncomfortable with the French FA’s partnerships with betting and fast-food companies.
He has used his social media account to criticise an online betting company and when he collected man-of-the-match awards in Qatar, Mbappe rotated the trophy in official photos, hiding the logo of a beer manufacturer in doing so.
Mbappe is a sharp, well-educated man, who speaks excellent English and forged a friendship with Madrid-born PSG team-mate Achraf Hakimi largely because he has an impressive grasp of Spanish, too. When Mbappe broke through as an 18-year-old at Monaco, club officials remarked that he appeared smarter and more mature than players 10 years older.
He is politically astute, too: when Antoine Griezmann was overlooked in favour of Mbappe for the France captaincy, Mbappe spoke warmly of Griezmann’s leadership skills at every turn. It felt significant that Griezmann, rather than Mbappe, attended the pre-match press conference for the Ireland game that is usually held by coach and captain.
Cleverer than Real Madrid, where he will arrive on his own terms and effectively write his own contract.
Cleverer than Al-Hilal, whose mind-blowing £170m annual salary offer he ignored despite PSG accepting the Saudi Pro League club’s £260m bid.
Provided there are no more late twists, it will be fascinating to see what happens when the world’s biggest sporting brand links up with one of its greatest sporting institutions in La Liga next season. If Madrid thought Cristiano Ronaldo was big business, they have seen nothing yet.
For the rest of his career, Mbappe will surely have what he wants, when he wants it, but at what cost? Every wealthy hero craves the thing no money can buy – love. The dozens of ‘Mbappe 10’ shirts at the Parc des Princes on Thursday prove he is still widely adored. He would be wise, however, not to take this for granted and he strives for perfection on and off the field.Please wait while you are redirected...or Click Here if you do not want to wait.