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The beautiful but futile rebellion of Kylian Mbappé

The PSG forward scored a hat-trick and twice leveled a game that France seemed to have lost, but the prize of a second World Cup eluded him against Argentina

World Cup final Mbappe
Mbappé scores his second goal for France, which took the World Cup final to extra time.CARL RECINE (REUTERS)
David Álvarez

When it was all over, when he had come to terms with the fact that scoring a hat-trick in the World Cup final wasn’t enough to win it, Kylian Mbappé sat rooted to the turf of the Lusail Stadium, his head bowed, his hands on his knees. His teammates – Raphaël Varane, Antoine Griezmann, Adrien Rabiot – approached to commiserate, as though Mbappé was an early widower, freshly arrived at the funeral parlor. He was perhaps the player who had lost the most in Lusail, because he was the player who had elevated the game to its highest ebb.

Before the end, before the penalty shootout, the France forward had lit up the game with records few could have imagined, even without taking into account that he is still only 23: the fastest double in a World Cup final; the first hat-trick in a final since Geoff Hurst against West Germany in 1966; the youngest player in history to score in two World Cup finals; the highest goal scorer in World Cup finals (4), and the youngest player to reach 10 World Cup goals overall, with 12 to his name. Mbappé feasted on opposition goalkeepers in Qatar, finding the net eight times to end the tournament as top scorer. All for nothing, when the dust had settled.

Except for the record books, and to verify that Mbappé is one of the finest players the game has ever witnessed, with no discernible flaws, always ready for the most critical moments on the biggest stage of them all. He shows no scars of pervious disappointments, like the missed penalty against Switzerland in Bucharest during the last 16 of the 2020 European Championship. The Swiss keeper, Yann Sommer, guessed correctly, France were out and Mbappé was a picture of desolation. But there was not a hint of that in Lusail: Mbappé, a magician from 12 yards, put three penalties past Argentina keeper Emiliano Martínez, one of soccer’s best shot-stoppers. Again, all for nothing.

After the final whistle, before extra time began, Mbappé, lying flat on the grass, was surrounded by three physios. Two went to work energetically, massaging the player’s aching thighs, while a couple of meters away France coach Didier Deschamps harangued his side from the middle of a tight huddle. During another recess in the final in Russia in 2018, at half-time, Deschamps reminded his players that the PSG forward was among their ranks. “As soon as you can, give the ball to Kylian,” he told them.

Four and a half years later, during the Qatari autumn, Deschamps was delivering another team talk while Mbappé received treatment, having just pulled France back into the contest with the most dazzling burst in World Cup final history: two goals in two minutes to rescue a game that was slipping through France’s hands. The fastest double before Mbappé's intervention belongs to Brazil’s Ronaldo, who scored twice in 13 minutes against Germany in 2002, although those second half goals came from a starting point of 0-0.

Mbappé's two minutes were prodigious. Not only for sending the game into extra time when France had barely shown signs of turning up for the final, but also as two blinks of an eye in the history of a tournament where the young Frenchman is vying to be remembered in the same breath as the historic greats of the game. Before Mbappé, only four players had ever scored in two World Cup finals: Vavá (1958 and 1962), Pelé (1958 and 1970), Paul Breitner (1974 and 1982) and Zinedine Zidane (1998 and 2006). None were as young as Mbappé. None had the majority of their careers still ahead of them.

But the mark of a prodigy lies above all in the circumstances in which Mbappé struck. “For an hour we weren’t in the game,” said Varane. “We couldn’t implement the plan we had. Things weren’t working out. I don’t know if it was physical, or psychological.”

Even Mbappé was unrecognizable. In the first quarter of an hour, he had more contact with Argentina midfielder Rodrigo de Paul than with the ball. De Paul set the tone, bossing the center of the pitch, deciding when to take the ball out wide and taking it upon himself to rack Mbappé in his zone, even though that wasn’t his job personally. Wherever Mbappé went, De Paul followed.

Argentina's Ángel Di María is fouled by France's Ousmane Dembélé.
Argentina's Ángel Di María is fouled by France's Ousmane Dembélé.PAUL CHILDS (REUTERS)

Dembélé gives France a mountain to climb

However, it was Mbappé's partner on the other flank who gave France a mountain to climb. Ángel di María ran rings around Ousmane Dembélé, who looked on disoriented, as though unsure of what was happening and or where he was. The Barcelona winger was sluggish, following Di María at a trot when the Argentinean reached the byline for a pullback. Then, a clumsy challenge in the area provided Argentina with their breakthrough. Di María had already escaped Dembélé, but the Frenchman stuck out an arm and tripped his opposite number.

Deschamps substituted him before half-time, after seven turnovers, five duels lost, two dribbles and one penalty conceded, so he could do no more damage. In his place came Randal Kolo Muani, like Mbappé another Bondy boy, and the rebellion they led from the 80th minute started to take shape. Muani broke through Argentina’s defensive line and Nicolás Otamendi brought him down in the area. Martínez guessed where Mbappé would send his spot-kick and even got a hand to it, but could not keep it out. France were back in the game, and Mbappé had kept them there from the place where he had failed to do so at the European Championship. The flame had been lit. A minute later, Mbappé caught a volley with a perfect connection to make it 2-2. “We had it under control and with two crappy shots they were level,” Martínez, who also got a glove to the second, summed up.

There was more to come. Mbappé had the bit between his teeth. He had finally found the ball, which has previously eluded him, in the company of substitutes Muani and Marcus Thuram. From then until the end of extra time he racked up all of France’s shots, including one that found the elbow of Gonzalo Montiel and from which he hit his second penalty of the game past Martínez to level the scores for a second time, and again when France appeared to be down and out. It still wasn’t enough. One of the greatest performances in World Cup history was undone in the penalty shoot-out, even as Mbappé wrote his name in the record books.

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