Kylian Mbappé and the Price of Perfection

Published: Oct 27, 2022  |  

Football journalist

Progress is never linear in a young footballer’s career, unless you go by the name of Kylian Mbappé—the protagonist of Monaco’s shock Ligue 1 title triumph at 17 and France’s first World Cup win since 1998 in two decades at 19. By the age of just 23, the unofficial prince of Paris has made a chunk of Europe’s most daunting stadiums his playground under the bright lights during Champions League nights.

For all practical purposes, all the phenom needs is a Champions League medal around his neck and he could call it quits after ticking every footballer’s bucket list before even turning 30. Clearly, Kylian Mbappé is one of one and barring the rare trough he experienced after missing the decisive penalty that sent France packing from Euro 2020, all one can associate him with is peaks.

A byproduct of witnessing a virtually flawless footballer unexplainably discover new levels on a near-habitual basis has subconsciously desensitised the average fan to perfection. Shots fired do not necessarily have to be laced with Mbappé’s name to disclose the unnecessarily unreasonable yardsticks at play to tear down other young players.

Take the baseless scepticism around Phil Foden’s ability doled out by the English masses during the Three Lions’ recent 3-3 draw against Germany in the Nations League as an example. After an admittedly quiet showing from the Manchester City wonderkid, a veiled sense of schadenfreude was visible amidst the jibes at him. Many did not hesitate to unjustly categorise the 22-year old as the classic case of yet another overrated English footballer, based on an isolated spell of 66 minutes of football.

The predisposition to add context has been discarded ever since a 19-year old Kylian Mbappé normalised scoring four goals in his first World Cup campaign, despite Didier Deschamps’ tactical setup being a thief of joy. Much like how those that thumb up and down across social media have been accustomed to physical faultlessness, the average football fan has in the same vein been by Mbappé’s stock, which has only gone to the moon.

Barring perhaps only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, since the 2000s, this French sensation has enjoyed a uniquely uninterrupted rise to the top, which has fended off any need to buy the dip in the global superstar’s case. The anomalous ascent of the prodigy has misled many into believing that a young player’s career is not allowed to ebb and flow. There isn’t a better example of this phenomenon than Mason Mount.

Since last season, Chelsea’s poster boy has not set the word alight as expected. Discourse disguised as “I told you so” has been rampant. These Twitter attacks essentially amounted to a total disregard for how Mount largely shouldered the burden of a Blues side with a transfer ban under Frank Lampard, as well as an ensemble under Thomas Tuchel, who was appointed in signature by Roman Abramovich.

Add the Portsmouth-born midfielder’s glorious individual Champions League campaign in the 2020/2021 season to the conversation, where his unforgettable assist to Kai Havertz in the final won his boyhood club Europe’s elite competition out of nowhere and it’s not all too shabby, is it? With things going awry for the now-departed Tuchel and the 23-year-old playing in a multitude of positions on a weekly basis, it is no surprise to see his performances experience an understandable dip.

But when a certain trailblazer puts up numbers on the board that seem borderline fictional on one end of the spectrum, the concept of struggle on the opposite seemingly dumbfounds observers.

Vinicius Junior’s come up at Real Madrid is a similar tale. Joining Los Blancos at just 18 years of age in 2018, the Brazilian was at the receiving end of pelters from a bulk of Madridistas, especially considering the club paid a handsome €46 million for his signature. In his first three seasons in the Spanish capital, the ex-Flamengo starlet’s lack of end product, unreliable finishing, and erratic style of play were constantly doubled down upon as flaws that made him destined to be a bust.

It was popular opinion that there was more to dislike than to appreciate about the youngster’s all-round game. So much so that Karim Benzema went viral for slandering him to Ferland Mendy in private, inside the tunnel during Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw against Borussia Monchengladbach, he was overheard saying, “He is playing rubbish. Don’t pass him the ball bro, on my mum’s life. He is playing against us!”

But last season things finally clicked for the 21-year-old. The same young player who seemed in holy matrimony with scrutiny stands as the scorer of the winner in the Champions League final, a potential Ballon d’Or winner and one half of the most devastating duo in world football alongside none other than Karim Benzema.

Whilst there was light at the end of the tunnel for Vinicius Junior, it remains as likely that other young players retreat into their shells and fail to come on the other side of things amidst the borderline entitlement from fans to see them justify their potential. The bane of social media remains: a number of football fans now have a platform that allows them to feed their confirmation biases, with dopamine hits that now serve as their ultimate degree of enjoyment from the sport. On Twitter, spectatorship is now a matter of proving oneself right, based on minimal evidence, rather than just witnessing a young player—or any player, for that matter—evolve beyond their limitations.

Kylian Mbappé is an era-defining talent, to the extent where comparisons to the great Thierry Henry have not just been made by former Arsenal superstar, Cesc Fabregas, but the man himself as well. But not every young player is, can, or should be Mbappé—nor should supporters subconsciously use the same measuring stick. A flower needs time and nurturing to bloom, and cutting that journey short to project pessimistic predispositions helps no one involved.

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