With Lionel Messi, now 29, and Cristiano Ronaldo, 32, having hogged the headlines for so long, we have finally arrived at the next generation. In my opinion, the next world star, the next big thing, is upon us. In a name: Kylian Mbappé.
The 18-year-old Monaco prodigy has already taken the French league and the Champions League by storm. His goals and precocious performances have already resulted in Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund crashing out of Europe’s prestigious football tournament.
Mbappé is the youngest player to score twice in a Champions League knockout match – and, in the last 30 years, he is the youngest player to score 13 goals in France’s Ligue 1 (the record he broke was Thierry Henry’s – now that should tell you something). Needless to say, Europe’s top clubs are falling over their feet in their eagerness to sign the brilliant teenage French attacker.
I, for one, haven’t been this excited about an emerging player for quite some while. Mbappé is something really special. For someone so young, there’s a maturity and intelligence to his game that is frightening – and, no doubt, if things map out, you can pencil him in for a world best player award in years to come.
This is why we love football. It’s the sport of the masses, where kids from any walk of life can use their talent as a vehicle to success. It was that extraordinary Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano who said it best in his seminal book Soccer in Sun and Shadow. In it, he expands on issues of history, politics, economics and how the sport of football has a remarkable way of getting underneath the skin, embedding itself in the soul, and awakening a passion that just never goes away.
In his book, Galeano describes the birth of a football star as such: “And one fine day the goddess of the wind kisses the foot of man, that mistreated, scorned foot, and from that kiss the soccer idol is born. He is born in a straw crib in a tin-roofed shack and he enters the world clinging to a ball.”
And that, in a poetic nutshell, is the next generation I’m referring to: Mbappé and Bernardo Silva (Monaco), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Ousmane Dembé* é and Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), to name but a few.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing young footballers come into teams and make their mark in impressive fashion. Teenagers Nicolas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas, and how they seamlessly, sensationally had a major influence at Arsenal; and the thrilling introduction of those two energetic artful dodgers, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, when they first came to prominence at Liverpool.
Here at home, it’s been Benni McCarthy (who can forget how he set the local football scene ablaze in the late-1990s?), the genius that was the teenage Steven Pienaar at Ajax Cape Town in the year 2000 and the enormous potential of a young Mbulelo Mabizela.
To go even further back, to the Federation Professional League (FPL) in the late 1980s, I remember an occasion at Santos when we had a tough away double-header (it’s travelling up, by car, to Johannesburg, Durban or Port Elizabeth, and playing on the Friday and Sunday of the weekend).
That particular weekend was PE, against the always-tough Blackpool and Hotspurs, and we had a major crisis squad-wise, in that we had a number of injuries and suspensions. A very young Edries Burton was hastily signed and roped into the defence; he was brilliant that weekend, and we all know what he went on to achieve.
Yes, there is nothing more exciting than tracking a young footballer’s career and monitoring as he ticks his progress off one box at a time. Football is a universal sport that everybody can identify with.
Whether you’re in the Solomon Islands, Caracas, Ouagadougou, Reykjavik, Paris, Barcelona or Cape Town, the experience, the love, the passion is the same. In the words of former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, “it is a love affair between the child and the ball”.