Nobody Is Scarier Than Kylian Mbappé
9:57 AM EST on December 20, 2022
Hungover and awestruck, I spent the first hour or so of the World Cup final marveling at the brilliance of Lionel Messi and appreciating how special it was to watch the greatest soccer player of all time seize his career-capping moment. I then spent the next hour worrying that he would not hold onto that (unofficial, subjective) title for very long, since Kylian Mbappé was putting forth an all-timer of his own, hurtling towards his second trophy and snatching away Messi's crowning achievement and keeping it for himself.
The stakes were much smaller in the moment, though I think the historical frame is a useful one to appreciate the magnitude of his performance. There have only ever been 22 World Cup finals, only 22 contests of luck, skill, and bravery that go on to form the load-bearing struts of legacy. Their scarcity and binary nature may seem to give a cruel, arbitrary flavor to the conclusions we draw from them, but in a sport defined by moments, it feels right that different games, different tournaments are given different weights. Which is to say, what Kylian Mbappé made of his opportunities transcends the present tense.
France was a non-participant in the final for over an hour. Mbappé barely touched the ball, which says more about how overmatched and out-organized his teammates were by Argentina's swarming midfield than his quality, though he was still unable to influence the game when he had the chance. Argentina had the game perfectly under control, and were cruising towards a 2–0 win with such ease that they didn't even let France take a shot until the 68th minute. Ten minutes later, the French were still scarcely in the game when Mbappé hit a hopeful ball for Randal Kolo Muani to chase. Thankfully for France, Nicolás Otamendi tangled Kolo Muani up in his doomed efforts to contain the threat as the Frenchman entered the penalty box, and the clumsy challenge sent Mbappé to the spot. That Mbappé scored his penalty was not really surprising—most players do—though it does seem worth noting that Mbappé's penalty style is fantastic. He simply kicks the ball hard enough that even a keeper that guesses correctly, as Emi Martínez did twice Sunday night, still might not save it.
The next time Mbappé kicked the ball, Martínez again managed to put a paw on it, and again, it didn't prevent another perfect Mbappé finish from screaming past him into the net. There is so much to savor about Mbappé's shocking equalizer. The instant he heads it off to Marcus Thuram, he sprints into the open space. As Thuram scrambles to get it back to Mbappé, he is forced to stretch and pop up a soft floating ball into Mbappé's path. The crowd roars to its feet, bearing witness to the tiny window of opportunity that Mbappé has flung open. Mbappé has one kick to beat Martínez before the defense steps to him, and he will have generate all the power on his own. He twists his body, connects with the looping ball right as it's about to hit the ground, and pounds it past Martínez.
The best part about soccer is the improbability of each goal. In order to put a ball past 10 defenders and a guy who can use his hands, so much has to go right. All the beautiful subtlety and creative magic that goes into creating scoring chances evaporates into nothing if the player on the end of the move doesn't beat the keeper and hit the target, which most of the time, they don't. This is the Mbappé difference. He seems to warp the parameters of chance and nudge them in his favor through, yes, athletic superiority, but just as importantly, unassailable swagger. To put the ball in the net, you have to believe you will put the ball in the net. And from what felt like little more than pure, unadulterated confidence and cussedness, Mbappé had put the ball into the net twice in the span of a single minute.
As someone who was absurdly invested in Argentina winning the game, I felt an icy sense of inevitability at that moment. Knowing that Argentina were the better side during the game, had the better keeper, and were bulletproof in penalty shootouts didn't matter, because how could I have believed in anything so rational when I was staring down 40 minutes of a tired Argentinian defense trying to withstand Kylian Mbappé running straight at them with bad intentions? It was Lionel Messi who broke the deadlock early in the second half of extra time, in what could have been the defining moment, the iconic play from the greatest player in the greatest final in World Cup history. And yet even in the face of all that, Mbappé never stopped believing and kept attacking, sending in at least two inch-perfect crosses that could have been French goals, drawing a second penalty, then once again smacking the life out of the ball to lock down a hat trick.
Mbappé is 23 years old and already has the most goals in World Cup finals of any player ever. But a more useful statistical measure of what makes him great in my opinion is the fact that those four goals in two finals represent over ten percent of his international scoring output, and that he's scored one-third of his international goals at World Cups. The quality that best encapsulates Mbappé's excellence is a genuinely unshakeable belief, a game-warping confidence that he is great enough to defy the odds every time, on the biggest stages.
The strongest endorsement I can offer of Mbappé as he enters his prime and inches closer to the undisputed title of best player in the world is that nobody scares me like he does. All that awe I felt for Messi wasn't nullified by Mbappé's performance, in fact it was enhanced. If Mbappé doesn't seize control of the game late in the second half, we don't get Messi's extra-time go-ahead banger, we don't get the double-strength catharsis of Argentina winning after blowing two leads. Clearly he didn't just scare me, he scared the greatest player of all-time. What higher praise could there be?
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