Kylian Mbappe at 20: A Player as Eloquent as He Is Talented
Everything in Kylian Mbappe’s career has happened at speed, and if his legs move in a blur when he is on the pitch, his brain whirs every bit as quickly when he is in front of the media.
Watching Mbappe speak to the press is almost as impressive as witnessing him torment opposition defences. And it brings to mind exactly the same question: How can this guy be so young?
Mbappe, who turned 20 on Thursday, speaks in elegantly constructed sentences. He listens intently to the questions put to him and answers them with deep concentration, a smile often spreading across his face as his ideas take form. He speaks confidently and articulately and rarely seems anything less than completely engaged with the subject at hand. Benjamin Mendy, his France team-mate and former Monaco colleague, calls him “my little Obama.”
Philippe Tournon stood down earlier this year after spending the best part of 35 years working as the press officer for the France national team. He had never seen anything like Mbappe.
“There are still lots of players who regard a microphone or a TV camera as an instrument of torture,” Tournon told Bleacher Report.
“Then you see Kylian Mbappe with his big smile and his natural capacity of expression, who answers each question without dodging anything. There are players who are 22, 25 or 30 who still have problems in press conferences, and all of a sudden there’s this teenage kid who turns up and not only does he have no problems, but he’s sincere, he’s authentic, he’s interesting and he clearly says what he thinks. I’ve never seen that in someone so young.”
It was during the second half of the 2016-17 season, as Monaco charged towards the Ligue 1 title, that France fell under Mbappe’s spell, and it quickly became apparent that the boy with the quicksilver feet had a silver tongue to match.
He made a particularly strong impression on the journalists who assembled in the Stade de France mixed zone after his full international debut against Spain in March 2017, breezily dissecting France’s 2-0 defeat with the confidence of a player twice his age. L’Equipe called it “a lesson in freshness and communication.”
Just where did that ease in front of the press come from, Mbappe was asked. “It comes from my education,” he explained to his spellbound interlocutors, adding with a smile: “But I can see that it seems to please you.”
His unveiling as a Paris Saint-Germain player, a little under six months later, was another rhetorical tour de force. He talked about “coming home” to Paris and said that having only broken into the Monaco first team earlier that year, it had been important for him not to leave France. He was respectful towards Monaco and spoke with humility about his place at PSG alongside superstars such as Neymar, pointing out that despite having just become football’s second-most-expensive player, he had the “skinniest list of honours” in the changing room. He had, he said, “a lot to learn and to prove.” The auditorium at Parc des Princes was charmed.
Shortly after France won the World Cup in July, footage emerged of an interview Mbappe had given in November 2017 for a documentary that was broadcast on French television channel France 2 ahead of the tournament. It captured him at his most expansive and engaging, his eyes widening expressively as he attempted to articulate what it would mean to win the World Cup for his country.
“It must be something extraordinary to be able to say to yourself that the happiness of every French person is in your hands,” he said in awed tones.
Speaking passionately and vividly, the teenager imagined the potential social implications of a French victory, painting an idyllic picture of a France in which “the baker,” “the check-out girl,” “the mayor” and “the president” would all go into work with “a smile like a banana.”
Dr Jonathan Ervine, senior lecturer in French at Bangor University, says Mbappe’s mastery of language is striking for someone so young.
“There’s a certain elegance to some of the turns of phrase he uses and his choice of verbs,” he says. “His choice of less frequently used words suggests a slightly higher register and a wider than average vocabulary.”
Mbappe was one of the stars of France’s World Cup triumph—the brace against Argentina, the goal against Croatia in the final—and he also helped set the right tone off the pitch.
“Just before the World Cup started he came to do a press conference in Istra [France’s World Cup base], and for 20 minutes he was brilliant—picking apart the questions, giving full, rich answers,” says Vincent Duluc, the lead football writer at L’Equipe.
“The next two press conferences were with [Antoine] Griezmann and [Paul] Pogba, who usually didn’t come and wouldn’t say much. I had the impression they’d said to themselves, ‘Hang on, this kid’s stealing the show. We need to raise our game.'”
Mbappe’s eloquence is testament to the wide education that his parents made sure he received while growing up in Bondy in Paris’ northeastern suburbs. Between the ages of six and 11 he attended a centre for the performing arts, where he learnt to sing, read music and play the flute, and he was later sent to a private Catholic college.
His parents were sticklers for discipline. One of his former teachers, Nicole Lefevre, told a L’Equipe documentary crew that Mbappe’s mother, Fayza, made him carry around a report card that every teacher had to sign to attest to his good behaviour. After learning that he had mocked another student’s appearance, Fayza made him go to school wearing flared trousers and Velcro trainers for a week.
The young Mbappe’s attention would occasionally wander—something his father, Wilfried, attributes to the fact he is “gifted”—but his intelligence was clear.
“He wasn’t like the others,” Lefevre told Le Parisien. “He had extraordinary mental speed. … Even when he was very young, his tenacity amazed me.”
As a child, the young Mbappe would entertain his family by pretending that he was being interviewed on TV about his latest goalscoring feats. He was preparing himself for the limelight all along.
“He always thought he was going to become a big, famous player one day, so he finds the attention normal, even predictable,” says Duluc. “It doesn’t unsettle him.”
His coaches and team-mates find his intellectual precocity equally striking, as Raphael Varane told L’Equipe in a post-World Cup interview. “When I talk tactics with him before matches, I don’t have time to finish my sentences—he’s already understood,” said the Real Madrid centre-back.
Mbappe’s straight-talking style hasn’t always been to everyone’s liking. He had to backtrack last season after being criticised for describing a game with PSG’s fierce rivals Marseille as “a match like any other.” Eyebrows were also raised last September when, after being sent off during a 4-2 win at Nimes for shoving over an opponent who had fouled him, Mbappe expressed no remorse and said: “If I had to do it again, I’d do it.”
But the wider picture is that with the aid of team-mates such as Pogba, Griezmann and Varane, Mbappe has helped to change the image that footballers have in France.
When a France player’s words made the front pages in 2010, it was Nicolas Anelka’s foul-mouthed outburst at Raymond Domenech during the World Cup in South Africa. Two years later, it was Samir Nasri’s expletive-strewn rant at a journalist following France’s quarter-final exit at Euro 2012. Court cases involving Karim Benzema—the under-age sex trial with Franck Ribery (which saw both players acquitted) and the “sex tape” blackmail allegations involving Mathieu Valbuena (which remain unresolved)—hardly helped matters.
Didier Deschamps’s France have reconquered hearts by being successful, above all, but with Mbappe at the forefront, they are putting damaging stereotypes to bed.
“It gives another image of young players,” says Duluc. “He’s not a racaille [‘thug’] from the banlieue [‘estates’] who doesn’t know how to speak, which is the cliche for people who don’t like football in France. It goes against the negative image that people had of the France team.”
As something of a traditionalist, Tournon would prefer it if Mbappe didn’t wear a baseball cap when he speaks to the media, but having sat through a lifetime of press conferences, he knows there is little else that France’s golden boy needs to be taught.
“You see kids who, out of shyness, keep their head down, put their headphones on, look at their phones, and don’t pay attention to the people around them. It’s not that they’re not happy to be there, but they don’t show it,” said the 75-year-old.
“With Kylian, everyone can see that he’s happy to be there. He makes you happy on the pitch, off the pitch and in his press conferences.”
He must make life easy, then, for press officers?
“If every player was like Kylian Mbappe, you wouldn’t even need press officers.”