NAME a footballer from the 1986 World Cup. Who do you see among the Mexican waves, sombreros and concrete terraces? It’s Diego Maradona, obviously, unless you’re an Englishman dribbling on about the "Hand of God". (Let it go, lads. Peter Shilton had at least six inches and an afro over the Argentine and still mistimed his jump.)
Maradona is Mexico ’86. No other candidates will be accepted at this point.
Let’s try another. Sweden ’58? Pele. Mexico ’70? Pele again, as the figurehead of the finest exhibition of dancing, swaggering, peacocking among grown men in World Cup history.
How about USA ’94? Shall we go with Romario? Wait. Hang on. Didn’t the Divine Ponytail dominate proceedings until his Shakespearian tragedy from 12 yards? Didn’t Roberto Baggio leave a greater imprint in defeat than Romario in victory?
It gets trickier, doesn’t it?
Zinedine Zidane won on home soil at France ’98, but was arguably overshadowed by Ronaldo and The Great Food Poisoning Conspiracy that is still a 10-part Netflix drama waiting for the green light, once the streaming giants are done with soiling what’s left of Fifa’s reputation.
Ronaldo prevailed in 2002, but his heroics had the feel of a valedictory tour, rather than an autocratic artist taking control of a tournament.
In summary, then, there are only two, maybe three, footballers’ names that are synonymous with the tournament they once dominated.
Kylian Mbappe could be another.
His name could forever be associated with Qatar 2022, a mixed blessing perhaps, considering Qatar 2022 is also going to be inextricably linked with Fifa corruption, human rights violations and the deaths of thousands of migrant workers (despite folks who really do know better pretending otherwise.)
But the Frenchman is uniquely poised to own a tournament, both aesthetically and statistically, a feat never previously accomplished. Paolo Rossi was the last player to take home the triple crown of trophies - the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and the World Cup – back in 1982, a staggering achievement, but his impression has perhaps faded a little.
Maradona and Pele’s legacies endure because their contributions transcended goal tallies and data dumps (which is why Salvatore Schillaci and Davor Suker’s Golden Boots are seldom remembered outside of Italy and Croatia.)
Mbappe finds himself in the remarkable position of being in contention for the World Cup, the Golden Boot and Golden Ball at the same time, whilst being the creative Pied Piper for France, the conduit for most things creative and colourful.
Overlooked amid serene progress
To pick random examples, Gary Lineker and Harry Kane both won the Golden Boot for England. Luka Modric picked up the Golden Ball for Croatia. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have shouldered the burden of leading their nations whilst being bracketed as the greatest footballers of their generation, but none of them went home with winners’ medals.
Only Mbappe is in a position to do the lot, an extraordinary situation made all the more remarkable by him operating mostly below the radar until the knockout stages. The 23-year-old has five goals and two assists, but his nation’s competent progress has largely been overlooked in favour of Spain’s flameout, Germany’s decline, Brazil’s brilliance and the eternal renditions of “Football Coming’s Home” in English-speaking circles.
France’s pain-free path to the quarter-finals has been Mbappe’s gain, allowing him to largely escape the media hysteria that accompanies every contract signature at Paris Saint-Germain and focus on quietly becoming the inevitable successor to Messi and Neymar.
This isn’t the case at home. Ridiculously, Mbappe finds himself trapped in a PSG version of the old Ringo Starr gag about not even being the best drummer in The Beatles. Mbappe isn’t even the most revered footballer in his own league. Neymar and Messi occupy the prime real estate in Mbappe’s country.
It’s absurd, but an uncomfortable reality that led to lengthy contract disputes and reports of a falling out with Neymar. The best on show at Qatar 2022 remains a support act in Ligue 1.
But Mbappe is France. Their World Cup progress depends, in large part, on their unstoppable force wriggling past the immovable object of Kyle Walker in the quarter-final. England’s right-back spent more time talking about the French winger than his own team-mates in an interview, despite his best efforts to steer the conversation away from Mbappe.
But that’s impossible now. Mbappe versus Walker will be the contest to watch because Mbappe versus England will be the contest to watch. Like Maradona in 1986, if Mbappe delivers, his country delivers. The two are looking increasingly interchangeable, indistinguishable.
The winger’s two goals against Poland were elegantly dispatched, but his assist for Olivier Giroud said even more. One touch spun him away from his marker. A second threaded a lovely pass through to Giroud. The veteran’s record-breaking goal was a fitting reward for their selfless relationship.
Poland were still reeling from Mbappe’s grace and movement when he was leaping into Giroud’s arms, punching the air. The goal celebration was almost too uncanny, too obvious. He looked like Pele in the 1970 World Cup Final, being held aloft by Jairzinho, transcendent.
Pele was no longer the kid relying on raw speed and instinctive finishing from 1958, but a total footballer, committed to the team ethic. Mbappe’s international career has followed a similar path. Pace and power allowed him to tear through opposition like a muscular brute from a Tolkienesque fantasy at the last World Cup, but he lacked the finesse that steered the ball through to Giroud. The package looks complete now.
A conventional, experienced striker like Giroud enables Mbappe to maximise his gifts. He can beat people. Repeatedly. He can distil the game to its purest form – the escapist version of the school playground, void deck or street. He takes the ball away from opponents and finds goals for his mates, for a laugh, before the grown-up Didier Deschamps calls them in for their dinner.
He can score the best goals and the most goals. He can retain the trophy – for the first time since Pele’s Brazil in 1962 – and make this World Cup his own. Qatar 2022 can belong to the young Frenchman.
It’s a legacy that the tournament itself may not deserve, but no one would deny Mbappe’s moment in the desert sun.
Qatar 2022 can belong to the young Frenchman. It’s a legacy that the tournament itself may not deserve, but no one would deny Mbappe’s moment in the desert sun.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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