People

People: Teenage French star has the eyes of the world upon him

Monaco's Kylian Mbappe, 18, celebrates after his side's 3-1 Champions League victory against Borussia Dortmund on April 19. The teenager is a star performer in Europe's most potent attacking side.
Monaco's Kylian Mbappe, 18, celebrates after his side's 3-1 Champions League victory against Borussia Dortmund on April 19. The teenager is a star performer in Europe's most potent attacking side.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • "I knew he would score," said Ethan Mbappe, the day after his older brother's full Champions League debut for Monaco against Manchester City last month. "He told me he would get a hat-trick but one is still pretty good for an 18-year-old."

It took only eight minutes of the last-16 second leg at the Stade Louis II for Kylian Mbappe to show why Ethan, seven years his junior, has so much faith in his sibling.

The striker, who also scored at the Etihad Stadium, helped send Pep Guardiola's expensive squad crashing out of Europe's premier club competition.

He grabbed two more goals the following weekend against Caen in Ligue 1 to make it 12 in 10 games, becoming the youngest player to score 13 goals in Ligue 1 for 30 years, overtaking Thierry Henry.

The Frenchman was not finished there. He put on an irresistible display of pace, power and finishing to become the youngest player to score twice in a Champions League knockout tie, helping Monaco establish a 3-2 lead over Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of their quarter-final. In the return leg last Wednesday, he netted the opener as Leonardo Jardim's men won 3-1 to advance 6-3 on aggregate.

FULFILLING ALL EXPECTATIONS

Everybody said he would be a phenomenon since he was very young and you could see why. When he has the ball, anything can happen.

JULIEN MAYNARD, French television journalist, explaining why the 18-year-old has attracted so much international attention.

Born in Bondy, a town in the northern suburbs of Paris, his career has been meticulously managed by his family. His mother is of Algerian heritage and was once a professional handball player. His Cameroon-born father, Wilfried, was a coach at AS Bondy, a club he joined at the age of six. The player now coveted by all of Europe's top sides moved to the French Football Federation's finishing school at Clairefontaine when he was 13.

"When he started, it was clear he had something," Wilfried told France Football last year. "We started to say, 'Oh, la la!' but without imagining he could make a career."

Inspiration, however, was close at hand. A few years before Mbappe was born, Jires Kembo-Ekoko, whose father had represented Zaire at the 1974 World Cup, was sent to live with his uncle in France and was subsequently taken under Wilfried's wing at AS Bondy. A talented striker, he was selected to attend Clairefontaine and went on to earn his first professional contract at Rennes, as well as appearing for France's Under-21 side.

"Kylian's first idol was me," Kembo-Ekoko, who plays in Dubai for Al-Nasr, told France Football.

Mbappe's exploits as a teenager soon caught the attention of the French media. Asked in an interview with Liberation in 2014 what his ambition was, the 14-year-old replied: "To play for Real Madrid."

But despite having the opportunity to join Real as well as Chelsea, City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich among others, he chose Monaco.

The fleet-footed forward's performances for their Under-19s the next season - he scored at least twice in six straight games - saw him promoted to the reserve team.

"During an international break, the coach sent him with the pros," said Wilfried last year. "Since then, he has not been released. It has been a rapid evolution, but has not come out of a hat."

Having broken another of Henry's records when he made his debut aged 16 years and 347 days in December 2015, Mbappe scored his first senior goal two months later before helping Monaco to victory over Lens in the final of the Coupe Gambardella, France's national Under-19 competition.

"Everybody said he would be a phenomenon since he was very young and you could see why," said Julien Maynard, a journalist for the French TV channel TF1. "When he has the ball, anything can happen."

Used sparingly by Jardim at the start of the season, Mbappe has become an integral part of Europe's most potent attacking team.

It was the hat-trick against Kembo-Ekoko's former club Rennes in a League Cup tie just before Christmas that was the catalyst for his sparkling form this year.

"He is very mature and intelligent. That's why he has been so successful so far," says Maynard, who conducted the rising star's first interview for national television a few days after the Rennes match.

Because he boasts the best record in Europe in terms of minutes per goal or minutes per assist this season, the only surprise about Mbappe's first appearances for the France national team in March - against Luxembourg and Spain - was his failure to score. But the video of his initiation ceremony, where he chose to sing a French hip-hop song, showed a teenager comfortable in his new surroundings.

And if, as expected, Mbappe ends up leaving Monaco this summer for a fee that could end up being more than £80 million (S$143.2 million), he will just have to get used to the spotlight.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Teenage French star has the eyes of the world upon him'. Print Edition | Subscribe