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Opinion

LE SPIRO: Mbappé’s quest for greatness

Publish on 13/02/2020 at 12h00 - M. Spiro

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Kylian Mbappé has been accused of getting big-headed before PSG's Champions League showdown with Borussia Dortmund, but according to Ligue1.com's Matthew Spiro, the striker's single-minded attitude is simply part of what makes him special.

Since Mbappé 'clashed' with Thomas Tuchel on the Parc des Princes touchline on February 1 it has been suggested that France's boy wonder has got a little too big for his boots. Unhappy at being replaced in the 68th minute against Montpellier – by which point PSG were 5-0 ahead and Mbappé had netted his customary goal – the 21-year-old gave his German trainer an earful before storming to his seat in a huff.

Within minutes of the final whistle, reports emerged that Tuchel and sporting director Leonardo had taken Mbappé to one side to pull him into line. The next day, discussions raged on French television and radio about the attacker's apparently appalling behaviour.

Mbappé Tuchel

"When I saw Mbappé do that, I thought, 'This isn't possible'," said a stunned Christophe Dugarry on RMC. "I thought he'd learnt his lesson… Then he goes and behaves like a spoilt brat." So Foot, the monthly magazine, cheekily claimed PSG were reviewing their plans to renovate the Parc des Princes to ensure the new entrances will be big enough for Kylian's head to fit through.

Ultimately, though, there has only been one real upshot of the Frenchman's strop: Tuchel hasn't taken him off since.

Single minded

That substitution against Montpellier was the seventh time Mbappé had been replaced this season, and the third time he had kicked up a stink. But my interpretation is somewhat different from Dugarry's. This isn't petulance, arrogance or big-headedness. It is merely another example of who Kylian Mbappé is: we are talking about a fiercely determined, head-strong individual who has decided he wants to write his name into football's history books and will not allow anything or anyone to get in his way.

In Mbappé's mind, he is not going to break goal-scoring records by sitting on the bench during the last twenty minutes of matches when the opposition defenders are tired. This was a habit that simply had to stop and he told Tuchel as much. Judging by the recent evidence, Kylian has got his way. Again.

PSG's Mbappé leaves the scene of a collision with OL young gun Rayan Cherki

Tuchel was right to point out that football is a team sport and Mbappé must look at the bigger picture. "We're not playing tennis," complained the manager after the Montpellier game. Ensuring collective harmony is one of his biggest tasks. Yet Tuchel will also be totally aware that certain talents demand certain treatment.

Special

Mbappé is special; he knows that and so does his manager. Indeed, Kylian has known this from a very young age. Even as a six-year-old, when he started kicking a ball about the AS Bondy pitch opposite his family home, he was better than everyone else. Kylian's father Wilfried coached the local club in Paris' north-eastern suburbs and immediately got his boy playing in higher age-groups. As a result, life was tough for him. He was a happy, ultra-confident boy, yet crucially he learned to stand up for himself very early.

Lining up for AS Bondy – and playing against big, tough kids two or three years older than him, often in the intimidating surroundings of neighbouring banlieues – Kylian had no other choice: it was sink or swim, and he emphatically chose the latter.

"If Kylian didn't have this character, if he wasn't mentally tough, he wouldn't have survived some of those away trips," a local journalist told me. "He's had to fight for everything – nobody's handed him anything on a plate. The way he behaves today is exactly the same way he's always behaved; he has huge ambition and does what's necessary to get his way."

At 12, when he joined Clairefontaine, the famous Fédération Française de Football academy, Kylian was nicknamed Mbébé (M-baby) by his peers because he was smaller and used to get in a strop every time he lost the ball. Again, he didn't cry into his pillow. He kept on working and when he had a growth spurt the following year, the payback commenced. Several eyewitnesses remember the cheeky 13-year-old speeding past opponents, waiting for them to recover, then going past them again with a grin.

Mbappé

Headstrong

The story continues like this. At AS Monaco's academy, Mbappé was left out of the Under-17s by Bruno Irles because the youth coach felt he did not work hard enough for the team. But rather than heed Irles' advice and change the way he played, Mbappé protested. His feeling was that the coach needed to change his ways, not him. His father held talks with the club and in the end Irles was moved on. He was 15 and yet already this extraordinary talent wielded more power than his coach.

At 16, Mbappé's frustration boiled to the surface again when Leonardo Jardim did not ask him to train with the first-team squad in the early months of the 2015-16 season. That soon changed when Monaco got wind of rumours that Kylian was considering signing his first professional contract elsewhere. In the end, Monaco convinced him to sign for them – rather than PSG, Real Madrid, Arsenal or Liverpool – by vowing that he would instantly get first-team opportunities.

So when Jardim left Kylian out for a few weeks early in 2016-17, Wilfried told L'Équipe that his boy would be considering his future in January. That interview had the desired effect: within days, the 17-year-old was back in the Monaco first team, lining up alongside Radamel Falcao, and making history by firing the club to the league title.

AS Monaco goal celebration, Mbappe, Falcao, Bernardo Silva

When you watch Mbappé strutting his stuff on football's biggest stage these days, exchanging flashy flicks with Neymar or driving bedraggled opponents to distraction with a flurry of stepovers, it is easy to see a millionaire kid whose fame has gone to his head. When he throws his toys out of the pram because Tuchel has subbed him, he looks like a brat who has been ruined by modern football's obsession for stats and individual glory. That, I assume, is why so many journalists and experts in France offer such harsh, negative assessments of this majestic footballer.

Bigger picture

Yet the fact of the matter is Kylian has not changed. Speak to anybody who knew him as a boy in Bondy, they will tell you this is who he has always been. So instead of looking to pick holes in his game, instead of casting accusations and trying to shoot him down, let's just embrace this special player. Let's enjoy the fact Ligue 1 boasts a veritable footballing phenomenon: every club and every league in the world wants Kylian Mbappé.

But PSG and Ligue 1 have him right now, and Dortmund's defenders will be terrified at the prospect of facing him next week. The guy is 21, he has won the World Cup and three league titles, and has already registered way more than a hundred goals. Sometimes gets upset when he is substituted. But you know what? I can live with that.