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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Kylian Mbappé is coming for it all

In a rare interview, the French soccer star discussed chasing the Champions League title, supplanting his teammate Lionel Messi as world player of the year and the possibility of a move to Real Madrid.

By Tariq Panja

Kylian Mbappé will eventually turn up for his interview in an oversized vehicle outfitted with tinted windows, and accompanied by his mother, two public relations reps, two lawyers, a small documentary crew, a stylist and a friend whose role is, initially, unclear. This is how one of the world’s biggest sports stars travels these days. Kylian Mbappé doesn’t just walk through the door. He arrives.

But not just yet.

First comes a large security man who has politely requested — and this request is clearly not optional — that he be allowed to make a sweep of the spaces his client will visit, to walk the halls Mbappé will walk, to ascertain the most direct escape routes “if I have to get my guy out in a hurry.” The security man will have done the same thing a few nights earlier, at a Manhattan restaurant where Mbappé and his entourage planned to have dinner, and he most likely will do the same later for an event in Times Square for Nike.

Only when the security man is satisfied is a cellphone produced, and a call placed. Only then is the driver told to deliver Kylian Mbappé to the Manhattan headquarters of The New York Times.

This was the summer when Mbappé, one of the most famous athletes in the world, became one of the most valuable, too. It was when a supremely talented soccer star cashed in on a plan for greatness set in motion before he entered his teens, emerging from a tug of war between his sport’s new money, Qatar-backed Paris St.-Germain, and its ultimate aristocrat, Real Madrid, with a contract that reportedly will pay him more than $250 million over the next three years.

The deal has granted Mbappé new power at his club, new resources to finance his expanding business empire and new prominence inside and outside the game. At one point this summer, the fight for his signature grew so intense that French President Emmanuel Macron intervened to tilt the balance in favor of PSG, and the nation.

Over the next few months, Mbappé’s profile is likely to rise further. He is the centerpiece of his star-studded team in Paris, first among equals that include Brazilian superstar Neymar and Argentine playmaker Lionel Messi, as it seeks to end its thus far fruitless efforts to win the Champions League. In November, Mbappé will travel to Qatar, where his France squad will try to become the first team since Pele’s Brazil to retain the World Cup.

But first he has agreed to an interview. He has quite a bit to talk about.

The Start

It was one of those evergreen assignments that schoolteachers give, a prompt to get students to pause and ponder their futures, to explore what they want to be. In May 2014, 15-year-old Kylian Mbappé and his classmates at the academy of the French soccer club AS Monaco were asked to design a magazine cover featuring an image of themselves.

An idea quickly formed in Mbappé’s mind. He would not mock up a version of Paris Match or GQ or French Vogue, as some of his friends had, but rather of the newsmagazine Time. As the cover’s visual focus, Mbappé selected an image of himself, seated with his head slightly cocked to one side and his hands clasped beneath his chin. The headline, in a bold white font, declared him “El maestro.” The master. Smaller headlines, tucked into the top corners in block letters, labeled him the best young player in the world, a priority of France’s national team coach, the future of soccer.

As a child’s flight of fancy, the mocked-up magazine cover could not have been more prescient. Four years after he submitted the assignment, Mbappé appeared on the front cover of the actual Time magazine. Those headlines proved prophetic, too. By age 18, Mbappé had already led France to the World Cup title, becoming the first teenager since Pelé to score in the final. He was widely regarded as the best young player in the world. He represented, by nearly anyone’s assessment, the future.

“Crazy,” Mbappé, 23, said when he was shown the image of the magazine cover at the start of an interview in July. It is a word he uses often to describe the arc of his life. “Because, you know, when you are 15, you have ambition,” he said. “Every kid has ambition. But when that comes true, after only a few years, it’s something crazy.”

Yet even in that environment, Mbappé was always a little different from the other prospects in his classes, his teachers said: intelligent and poised, possessed of the type of confidence and maturity that made him stand out. “It seemed to us,” one teacher said after watching Mbappé interviewed on video for a different school project at 16, “like he had been doing this for 10 years.”

The Rise

Long before he was a professional, Mbappé had received admiring glances from well beyond his Paris suburb. When he was 14, he was invited by Real Madrid, his childhood heroes, to join the club for a week of training in Spain. Barred from signing a foreign player so young, Real Madrid still rolled out a red carpet that included glimpses of first-team stars and rides to the training facility in a sports car driven by France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane.

The first momentous decision of his career — signing with Monaco, a team with a rich history of unearthing and fast-tracking gifted young prospects — turned out to be a masterstroke. Mbappé made his debut for the club at 16, played an integral role in its improbable run to the Champions League semifinals two years later, and then joined PSG for the second-highest price ever paid for a soccer player.

Everything he wanted, it seemed, was there for the taking. “To be honest, since I’m a young guy, I never had limits in my ambition,” Mbappé said, “because I always say you don’t have to put a limit on yourself.”

That ambition, backed by the credibility of a World Cup championship and the options inherent in the $250 million contract he received from PSG to stay this summer, now extends to building out his significant business and philanthropic endeavors.

Mbappé already has his own foundation, for example, dedicated to inspiring children from the Paris region, and he keeps a close eye on the business interests and charitable efforts of other soccer stars. (He contacted Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford during the pandemic to congratulate Rashford on a campaign that pressured the British government into providing free school meals to children, and he counts NBA star LeBron James as a role model and confidant on business and charitable matters.)

Mbappé has also been increasingly vocal about efforts — or the lack of them — to fight racism in soccer, so much so that he has publicly chastised the president of the French soccer federation on matters of race and at one point in his interview brushed aside the concerns of his handlers to engage on the topic. Criticism of his play, Mbappé said, is fine. What often accompanies it is not. “You have to talk about it, we have to finish that,” he said of soccer’s persistent inability to root out racism. “Me, I’m ready. I’m ready to help.”

A more concrete project, a production company called Zebra Valley, bears some resemblance in its goals and ambitions to the SpringHill Co., the entertainment business set up by James in 2020. The connection is not an accident: Mbappé credits James with serving as an inspiration and a wise counsel since the stars met at an event hosted by Nike about four years ago.

To Mbappé, the company is the start of an attempt to create a legacy beyond his sport, a way to be more than “just the guy who shoots the ball and finishes his career and goes to the yacht and takes his money.”

“No, I want to be more than that,” he said. “And sometimes people can think, Yeah, it’s too much, I have to just play football. But I think not. I think the world has changed.”

The Choice

Since he works without an agent, Mbappé said every major — and often minor — decision he takes follows deep conversations with the only two advisers whose opinions truly matter: his parents. His mother, who sat in an adjacent room while Mbappé was interviewed in the presence of a publicist and a lawyer, was a central figure in negotiations with both Real Madrid and PSG over the past year. She declined to answer questions for this article, but her influence is clear.

“We go around the table, and we talk about everything,” said Mbappé, who also credits his lawyer, Delphine Verheyden, as another vital part of his decision-making machinery. But in the end it is Mbappé who takes charge.

Some of the headlines that followed his decision to stay at PSG said Qatar’s money had proved too much to resist — his signing-on bonus of roughly $125 million was the richest single payment to an out-of-contract player in soccer history — but he insisted the vast sums on offer were not what guided his choice. “Because everywhere I go,” he said, “I’m gonna get money. I’m this type of player everywhere I go.”

Still, Mbappé’s status at PSG, and its investment in him, now confers a leadership role that grants him a primacy even among fellow stars like Neymar and Messi. Already, fans and the news media are watching for any hint of ego: frustration after not receiving a pass, a dispute with Neymar over who would take a penalty kick, his coach’s curious public announcement recently that Mbappé would take the team’s penalties in the future.

Mbappé said it was “annoying” to read accusations that he had demanded a say in who would coach him and even who his teammates would be as a condition of re-signing.

“That’s not my job,” he said. “And I don’t want to do this because I’m not good at it. I’m good on the pitch. And outside the pitch, that is not my role. There are so many people that are better than me.”

Yet even though he has decided to stay in France for at least the next three seasons — he hopes to play in the Olympics when Paris hosts the Games in 2024 — the lure of Real Madrid will remain. Mbappé will only be 26 when his latest contract ends, and there remains a sense that the next time Madrid comes calling, not even Qatar’s billions will be able to change his mind.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Mbappé said, acknowledging that even though he has not played for Real Madrid, the team has orbited his professional career in the most profound way. “You’ve never been there, but it seems like it’s like your house, or something like this.”

For now, he said, he is focused on cementing his status as a national icon in France. He wants to win another World Cup. He wants to finally lift the Champions League trophy with PSG. He wants to supplant Messi and Messi’s longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo as world player of the year, and can summon — unprompted — the number of Ballon d’Or trophies each has won, perhaps the best example of how much such accolades mean to him, even as he insists collective honors come first.

“I think I’m about to win it,” Mbappé said of the world player of the year trophy that Messi and Ronaldo have monopolized for more than a decade. He delivers his statement in a tone that is matter of fact, presenting it as a logical extension of his career’s trajectory.

“I always say I dream about everything,” he said. “I have no limits. So of course, like you say, it’s a new generation. And Ronaldo, Messi — you’re gonna stop. We have to find someone else, someone new.”

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