Project Mbappé: can a summer with France bring smiles again?

<span>Kylian Mbappe</span><span>Composite: Guardian Picture Desk;  Getty ImagesMichael Regan/Fifa/Getty Images;  Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 167dcef64142bc” data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ cef64142bc”/><button class=

Kylian MbappeComposite: Guardian Picture Desk; Getty ImagesMichael Regan/Fifa/Getty Images; Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Cristiano Ronaldo was already 24 years old, with three Premier League titles, the Champions League and the Club World Cup to his name, when the CR7 trademark was registered in June 2009, just under a year after it was first used to mark a promote underwear line.

The Manchester United player also scored 22 goals in 66 appearances for Portugal. He had competed in three major international tournaments and reached the final of the 2004 European Championship. Everything – including a dream move to Real Madrid – was in place to capitalize on his achievements on the pitch as no other footballer had ever done before. Ronaldo was different. He had the talent, the looks and, most importantly, an almost exhibitionistic willingness to be filmed, photographed and admired.

Kylian Mbappé was also different, but in a different way. The image he projected as a very young man exploding into French football was that of a cheerful, slightly mischievous, even cartoonish character who was out to have fun – and also to fool others. You can imagine him looking back and thumbing his nose at the defenders he regularly left in his wake, his heels kicking up sparks and clouds of dust from the pitch. He giggled as he saw his face projected onto the giant screens of the Stade de France. He had the charm of a Parisian poolbot. He was the devil with a winning smile, not a scowling football-playing superman with the physique of a kouros.

Yet Mbappé did not wait as long as Ronaldo and his protector, Jorge Mendes, did to ensure the commercial rights attached to his name were protected. In August 2017, when he was still 18 and had played a total of 40 Ligue 1 matches with Monaco, French law practice Cabinet Flechner filed the trademark ‘Kylian Mbappé’ with the British IPO registration body. There was no doubt that he was a child prodigy. All of Europe knew it then, and France had known it for some time. Monaco had enjoyed an exciting season in the Champions League in 2016/17, with the teenager scoring six in nine in the Monagesque club’s run to the semi-finals of the competition.

Having said this, Mbappe had still not scored his first goal for France. He was not yet the generational player who would become world champion in Russia a year later and a regular guest at Emmanuel Macron’s Elysée dinners; but everyone around him, starting with his father Wilfried and his mother Fayza, later joined by the formidable sports lawyer Delphine Verheyden, was convinced that he would be. They did everything they could to ensure that this would be the case, as Neymar Sr, assisted by legal advisor Marcos Motta, had tried to determine his son’s trajectory. First building a portfolio of sponsorship in Brazil before expanding globally when Barcelona, ​​as expected, came knocking on the door. The difference is that, if Neymar Jr. agreed with his father’s strategy, Mbappé, it seems, embraced it and quickly became one of its architects.

Since there was no doubt that Real Madrid would one day be his club (unless it was Barcelona), it made sense that the privately educated Mbappé would take one-on-one Spanish lessons, as he did from the age of fifteen, just as he did from the age of fifteen. It made sense to specialize in ‘management science and technologies’ for his Baccaleurate. As he explained in a 2017 interview with Le Parisien, he “needed this diploma for [his] post-career plans, including becoming a coach”. Mbappe was 18 when he said that. Unlike Ronaldo, he did not become a project, because he not only developed into an exceptional footballer, but also an exceptional football player. He had been a project from the start.

News of his unique qualities had already spread through European scouting circles before his voice broke. Bondy, where he was registered as a player from the age of six, was known as one of the most fertile breeding grounds for footballers in Île-de-France, itself the most fertile breeding ground for footballers in the world. A Spanish scout told me that any hopes a mediocre European club might have had of signing him were gone by the time the boy was 12 and had joined Clairefontaine’s Institut national du football. No, he corrected himself, probably before. Kylian had already been sponsored by Nike for five years.

The move to Madrid is more than the next logical step for Project Mbappé as he enters the best years of his football life. It constitutes a restart. It’s not so much that what had long been an uneasy relationship with Paris Saint-Germain had turned sour. It was worse than that. It had become flat. The phenomenal stats (256 goals and 108 assists in 308 games over the seven seasons he spent in Paris) don’t add up as they should, given PSG’s crushing superiority over their perceived rivals.

Who would pay attention if a top 10 tennis player beats everyone out of sight on the Challenger circuit? His all-important image has suffered accordingly at home, with fans and media seizing on any perceived display of disinterest or irritability, of which there have been too many in recent years, at odds with the oh-so slick and kid-friendly persona promoted by his foundation “Inspired by Kylian”.

It’s a different story with Les BleusEven if Didier Deschamps chose him over Antoine Griezmann as captain, it obviously didn’t go down too well in certain quarters. France is the environment in which the player can really be himself during a major tournament. It is a safety valve, as it had been for Paul Pogba in other days, but this time also the antechamber to the next phase of the grand plan. After two years of procrastination and frustration on all sides, he has joined Real Madrid, bringing with it the promise of European success and, glittering in the distance, the Ballon d’Or. To be fully successful, the project does not have to be pushed aside, but fade into the background. The boy has to laugh again, and not just for the cameras. The euro gives him the opportunity to do that.

• Philippe Auclair will regularly write for The Guardian during the European Championship

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