Kylian Mbappé Is at a Crossroads Between Extravagance and Ambition

Kylian Mbappé has so far achieved everything in his career at light speed, which is fitting given just how quickly he seems to run. Mbappé is so swift that, when he begins to sprint, you would not be surprised to see vapor trails drift away from his boots and up into the night sky. His ascent to greatness was almost as rapid as that of Pelé, along with whom he is the only teenager to have scored in a World Cup final. Mbappé is still only 22 years old and already has over a dozen medals in his trophy cabinet. He averages almost a goal a game in Ligue 1 for Paris Saint-Germain and more than a goal every three games for France. Yet such is his ambition that even PSG’s signing of Lionel Messi is not the fuel injection that his career needs. Instead, he covets a move to Real Madrid; PSG rejected Madrid’s $188 million bid for Mbappé, who is reportedly determined to join the Spanish club, where he presumably hopes to travel even faster than light.

Maybe his clamor for a transfer is partly due to the vast expectations that he has raised. Because Mbappé has achieved so much, it is easy to be overly critical the moment he shows signs of slowing down. During PSG’s advance to the 2020 UEFA Champions League final, his finishing seemed to be less ruthless than usual, deserting him in the decisive game. Some saw this and worried it might be part of a trend. Then, the following season, he took glorious and thrilling vengeance against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the same tournament. Rarely has Manuel Neuer looked so consistently bewildered when facing an opposing attacker. More recently, with Mbappé’s failure to find the net at the Euro 2020 tournament, including his missed penalty in France’s loss to Switzerland, many of us have doubted him again.

Fortunately for someone with so much pressure on him, it is unclear whether he cares. He could very easily wish to remain in France, but he knows one thing for sure: With Messi, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, now among his colleagues, the outcomes of most domestic fixtures are likely to be even less exciting. What is more, his current teammate Neymar presents a cautionary tale for playing away from Europe’s biggest stages. When PSG bought Neymar from Barcelona, the Brazilian was widely heralded as Messi’s successor as the world’s best. Since then, though, his ascent has stalled. That has been partly due to injuries at unfortunate times but also because victory in France has come too easily to Neymar. Watching him in Ligue 1 in his first couple of seasons, before the division became sharply more competitive, was to be reminded of some of his play when he was supreme at Santos: that is to say, where he was so superior to much of the opposition that he deliberated too long on the ball and overindulged himself.

Mbappé will be aware of this as well as other similar elements creeping into his own play. The other thing that he may have noted is that, with so many stars now in the PSG galaxy, it may become harder for audiences to see just how brightly he shines. And if the highest level of greatness is what Mbappé craves, then he knows he will need to lead his own team. But his club’s summer of frantic transfer activity—Messi’s arrival was preceded by the arrivals of Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Achraf Hakimi—has made that leadership role less likely than ever.

Real Madrid is, therefore, the perfect move for him. It’s a grand club with ailing finances and stuttering sporting fortunes: an empire in recovery mode. In Madrid, he can renew an aging squad and reinvigorate himself. He can eventually take the reins of the attack from Karim Benzema. Most of all, though, he will have a defining adventure at his new club—which, so far, is something he has not experienced. It might seem strange that this is the case for Mbappé, but consider his unique position. At almost no other point in history could someone have moved clubs for a sum of $210 million and been vying for attention with a teammate, but that is what happened to Mbappé when he went to PSG in 2017. There he joined forces with Neymar, and their dominance of that league was so assured that there was nothing epic about it. And for greatness, you need the epic. Epic, at club level, is Neymar winning the Libertadores Cup for Santos, their first such title in almost 50 years. Epic is Sergio Ramos moving to Real Madrid from Sevilla and becoming perhaps the finest leader they have ever known. Epic is Messi moving to Barcelona with little more than his family, that divine first touch, and a dream. Mbappé’s heroics for his country are well known, but he has not yet achieved epic at club level.

He has come close. Winning the Champions League for a team from his hometown could have done it, but it was not to be. Real Madrid is an intriguing proposition—and, what’s more, the Spanish institution needs him as much as he needs them. For a legend to endure, its myth must repeatedly be fed, and Real have not been fed so well in recent years. Their most recent marquee signing, Eden Hazard, has too often been laid low by injury, while one of their latest great acquisitions, Gareth Bale, has latterly lost much of his luster. Real may not admit it, but Mbappé’s wish to join them is a key boost at a time when most of the game’s superstars are enviously eyeing other leagues. Mbappé allows Real to say, “Watch out world, we’ve still got it.”

And, crucially, Mbappé has still got it. He is young enough that everything he has so far done in his career can merely be seen as a trailer for the feature film—even though, by the standards of most mortals, he has already delivered several career-defining performances. But Mbappé isn’t earthbound like the rest of us. He is interstellar, and so, for years to come, the night skies of Madrid are about to witness a treat.

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