After Mike Maignan, Presnel Kimpembe, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Christopher Nkunku, the latest injury-related absence to afflict France is Karim Benzema. For the first time in 44 years, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and the runner-up will miss out on the World Cup with Benzema and Sadio Mané following in the footsteps of Allan Simonsen and Kevin Keegan in 1978.
This injury crisis will likely see Didier Deschamps opt for a carbon copy of his winning formula in 2018 with Olivier Giroud spearheading the attack alongside Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé, the sole change being Ousmane Dembélé for Blaise Matuidi. With France’s starting double pivot from 2018 missing out due to injuries, Deschamps could go with Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot operating in midfield.
Apart from Ousmane, Giroud, Mbappé, Griezmann, and Rabiot, the holdovers from France’s victorious 2018 team are goalkeepers Hugo Lloris, Alphonse Areola and Steve Mandanda, defenders Benjamin Pavard, Raphaël Varane and Lucas Hernandez, and Kingsley Coman. Plenty has changed, plenty has stayed the same, but one thing’s clear: France will be even more reliant on Mbappé to provide goals and creativity.
When Mbappé entered the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he was a 19-year-old playing his first major tournament for France and who was coming off two impressive seasons for Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Playing on the right side of attack, he would take Russia by storm with four goals throughout the tournament, becoming the youngest player to score for France in a World Cup and the youngest player to score two goals in a World Cup match since Pelé in 1958.
His 25-yard strike against Croatia in the World Cup Final would see him become the youngest player to score in a World Cup Final since Pelé, with Les Bleus winning their first World Cup in 20 years and Mbappé following in the footsteps of Lukas Podolski, Landon Donovan, Paul Pogba and many more in winning the Best Young Player award in the World Cup.
The Best Young Player of the World Cup:
1990: Robert Prosinečki
1994: Marc Overmars
1998: Michael Owen
2002: Landon Donovan
2006: Lukas Podolski
2010: Thomas Müller
2014: Paul Pogba
2018: Kylian Mbappé
Who’s going to win it in 2022? We discuss: https://t.co/IgayiUygfp
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) November 18, 2022
Since then, Mbappé has continue to rack up individual accolades and stake his claim as one of the best players in world football. After registering 39 goals and 17 assists in 43 appearances to lead PSG to a second-straight Ligue 1 title, Mbappé would score 30 goals and 18 assists in 37 appearances as PSG won a domestic quadruple and reached the Champions League Final, where they would lose to Bayern Munich.
Mbappé bounced back from the disappointment with an astonishing 42 goals and 11 assists in 47 appearances the following year as PSG claimed the Coupe de France and Trophée des Champions, suffered elimination to Manchester City in the Champions League semifinals, and lost to Lille on the final day of the 2020/21 season to miss out on the Ligue 1 title, setting the expectations high for the summer.
He struggled to deliver and found himself outshined by the likes of Benzema and Pogba, failing to find the back of the net in any of France’s four Euro 2020 matches and failing to score the decisive fifth penalty as France lost to Switzerland in the Round of 16. The following year would see him pick up 39 goals and 26 assists in 46 appearances, but it wasn’t enough for PSG to put their European demons behind them as they lost to Real Madrid in the Round of 16 and reclaimed their top spot on the Ligue 1 hierarchy.
Mbappé would pay the price for his team’s disappointing performance in 2021/22, finishing sixth in the Ballon d’Or rankings behind Benzema, Sadio Mané, Kevin De Bruyne, Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah. Despite the early elimination, Mbappé was one of the few PSG players who could hold his head up high for his individual performance against Real Madrid.
The score was goalless when Mbappé picked the ball up in the left wing and took on Lucas Vázquez and Éder Militão before firing the ball in between the legs of Thibaut Courtois to snatch a winner in the 94th minute, with Les Parisiens prevailing with a 1-0 victory in the Parc de Princes thanks to a brilliant solo goal from Mbappé and another example of his ice-cold mentality.
The second leg in the Santiago Bernabéu would see Mbappé put the ball past Courtois on three occasions, only for two of them to be ruled out due to offsides. Mbappé did manage to double PSG’s aggregate lead in the 39th minute, receiving a pass from Neymar on the counter-attack and accelerating past Dani Carvajal, and finding his way into the box. He opened his body and looked set to curl it past Courtois into the left corner, only to blast the shot into the near post on the right.
After a one-sided first half in Madrid, Los Blancos held their nerve and found a way back into the contest, with Benzema halving the deficit in the 61st minute and adding two more in the following 17 minutes to seal a comeback victory. In a star-studded side featuring Lionel Messi, Neymar, Marco Verratti and more, it seemed as though Mbappé’s PSG was a one-man team.
Despite a transfer window that would see Messi, Nuno Mendes, Achraf Hakimi, and more join Les Parisiens, Mauricio Pochettino would build last season’s PSG team entirely around Mbappé. Oftentimes, they would struggle to break down the opposition with a slow build-up, and instead, elected to go Route One by launching a long ball forward to exploit Mbappé’s pace.
The sight of Mbappé running at you is a scary one for defenders. He blends Ronaldo Fenomeno’s boisterous acceleration with the flair and irreverence of Thierry Henry. With Neymar missing various spells of the campaign due to injury and Messi slowly adapting to life in France, Mbappé would take the bulk of attacking responsibility on his shoulders, finishing as Ligue’s Top Scorer with 28 goals, Top Assister with 17 assists, and for the third time in four years, won the UNFP Ligue 1 Player of the Year.
PSG’s 15-point gap in the 2021/22 Ligue 1 season may give the impression of a runaway championship win, but if it wasn’t for Mbappé’s clutch goals, the title race would have been far closer. He scored a brace in a 2-0 win at Reims, scored an 87th-minute penalty to snatch a 2-1 win against Angers, scored a brace in a 2-0 win against Monaco at home, scored a 93rd-minute winner to lead PSG to a 1-0 victory against Rennes, and scored a penalty before halftime to secure PSG’s 2-1 win against Marseille.
Les Parisiens found themselves trailing within 16 minutes on February 26 as Denis Bouanga opened the scoring for Saint-Ètienne, only for Mbappé to draw the hosts level before the break, add another goal after the interval, and set up Danilo Pereira’s goal with a delightful side-foot cross as PSG prevailed 3-1 in the Parc de Princes.
After a disappointing campaign for PSG, all signs pointed to Mbappé leaving the club on a free transfer and joining the reigning European champions — instead, Mbappé rejected a move to Real Madrid and renewed his contract until 2024, with an option for an additional year. If he remains at PSG until 2025, he will earn €636 million gross, or €282m net, excluding bonuses, making it the biggest contract in the history of sports.
Admittedly, there was external pressure on him to remain at PSG, with French president Emmanuel Macron consulting him to remain at Parc de Princes, but there are other reasons than money and pressure that explain his decision. Having failed to bring an inaugural Champions League trophy to the club, Mbappé has unfinished business at the Parc de Princes, and he is also 11 goals away from becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in the history of PSG.
In addition to his mouth-watering salary, there are reports that Mbappé will be involved in PSG’s decision-making process, something that the club has openly denied. Mbappé was reportedly pushing for 13 players and Pochettino to leave the club, as well as sporting director Leonardo. Fast forward a few months, Christophe Galtier has replaced Pochettino, Luis Campos has replaced Leonardo, and only Juan Bernat, Danilo Pereira, Neymar, Pablo Sarabia and Sergio Rico remain in Paris.
Whilst playing for France during the September international break, Mbappé admitted that he plays with more freedom for Les Bleus than for PSG. “I play differently. I am asked other things here in relation to my club. I have a lot more freedom here. The coach knows that there is a number 9 like [Giroud] who occupies the defenses and I can walk around and go into space. In Paris, it’s different. It’s not like this. I am asked to play the 9 role, and it is different.”
Despite these polemical comments, Mbappé has not allowed controversy to overshadow his performances this season and has racked up 19 goals and 5 assists in 20 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain, one of the only two undefeated teams in Europe with Benfica, who will resume action on December 28 with a five-point gap over second-placed Lens atop the Ligue 1 table.
This will likely be the final FIFA World Cup for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as well as other veteran stars like Luka Modrić, Thomas Müller, and Robert Lewandowski, but Mbappé is only just getting started — he will be 27 when the 2026 FIFA World Cup rolls around. He has firmly established himself as a generational talent, and alongside Erling Haaland, he looks set to take the baton from Messi and Ronaldo and dominate the next decade of football.
Four of the last five World Cups have seen the reigning champion suffer elimination in the group stage, with Brazil’s run to the quarterfinals in 2006 being the sole exception in the 21st century. However, despite several key absences, France remain one of the heavyweights going into Qatar and are expected to breeze past Denmark, Tunisia and Australia in their group.
It remains to be seen whether or not France can end the World Cup winner curse and become the first country to defend its crown since Brazil (1958 – 1962), but one thing is for sure: Kylian Mbappé will be vital to their hopes of leaving Qatar with a third star on their crest.
By: Dave Ogunbameru / @DaveOgunbameru
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Franck Fife – AFP