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.’
France captain Kylian Mbappe is a hero to many in France, particularly the younger generation
To others, however, he has led PSG in a merry dance over his contract over the last two years
Your browser does not support iframes.
‘Mbappe?’ wonders a Parisian cab driver. ‘He’s a guy with a lot of money, and it’s come to him very young. That can’t be easy.’
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.
The forward has a desire to have complete control over every aspect of his career, including his club’s transfers
A year ago Mbappe did not take part in a photoshoot in a reported row over his image rights
During the World Cup in Qatar he would turn the ‘Player of the Match’ Trophy around so the sponsor’s (Budweiser) logo could not be seen in official photos
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.
When he was chosen over Antoine Griezmann (left) as the next France captain, Mbappe spoke highly of his colleague’s leadership skills
Yet if Mbappe has grown too big for his boots, then he has arguably been allowed to. Those permitted to interview him have been stunned by the size of the entourage – about 20 in the room with him including friends, family members and support staff. Mother Fayza Lamari and lawyer Delphine Verheyden are highly influential within the operation.
Then there is PSG, who have played their hand extremely poorly. When he signed a new contract last year, why did they have their star man hold up a shirt with ‘Mbappe 2025’ on the back?
Mbappe signed a two-year deal, with the option for an extra year in his favour – rather than the club’s – so ‘2025’ was always a fallacy. No wonder Mbappe was thought to have been uncomfortable about it during the presentation.
When signing a new deal with PSG, he held a shirt with ‘Mbappe 2025’ on the back – the deal was not until 2025
The forward was thought to have been uncomfortable with the shirt during the presentation
Why was a loyalty bonus worth £68million after tax written into such a short contract? When leaving him out of the pre-season tour to Japan, why was PSG’s stance that Mbappe would either sign or be sold?
There was always a third – and most likely – possibility: Mbappe leaving for Real Madrid on a free transfer at the end of the season. Deep down, even PSG seem to realise that now, and their stance has certainly thawed since Mbappe was brought back into the first-team picture.
Mbappe seems to have outmanoeuvred them all. He has proved cleverer than PSG, who gave him a huge new contract but will still likely lose him on a free transfer.
PSG wanted the 24-year-old to either sign a new contract or leave – neither has happened
He will likely leave the French club for Real Madrid on a free transfer at the end of the season
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.
IT’S ALL KICKING OFF!
It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football.
It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.
Your browser does not support iframes.