CAPE TOWN - Football, in its inimitable way, often loves to throw tantalising twists of fate at its audience of billions. Saturday at the 2018 World Cup in Russia was no different - because, as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo crashed and burned, it was conspicuously appropriate that, from the wreckage of the carnage wrought by France and Uruguay respectively, the sport’s next global football star triumphantly emerged: Kylian Mbappe.
The baton had, symbolically, been handed over. To embellish football’s devilish irony even more, there’s a sponsor’s billboard in France that trumpets: “98 was a great year for French football. Kylian was born.” How fitting. Clairvoyant, even. Because on July 12, 1998, France destroyed Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final - and, months later, on December 20, Mbappe forced his way into the world.
Now, just 19-years-old, he has heralded his arrival, justifying all the hype that had gone before with regard to his precocious talent, with a match-winning display as France put Messi and his cohorts on a plane back to Argentina. The French teenager’s performance will have people talking about his brilliance for days, for months, for years; because that’s what happens when an individual lights up the World Cup .
So let’s talk a bit about that performance. Wow, just wow. The pace, athleticism and the confidence; the Usain Bolt-like run to win a penalty was simply incredible, leaving watchers stunned and asking: Did he really do that? France coach Didier Deschamps captained his country to that 98 World Cup triumph - he played against the great Brazilian Ronaldo, who was super-fast on the ball.
Kylian Mbappe, aged 13, in his bedroom - a shrine to his hero Ronaldo. Now, just 6yrs later, HE’S the new king of world football. The hero-worshipper becomes the hero. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/eRfzjBnMBc
After Saturday's win, when asked about Mbappe’s speed, Deschamps said: “Ronaldo was very, very quick, but I think Kylian is even quicker.” For me, having idolised Ronaldo in the 1990s, especially the manner in which he was able to be lightning-quick and still be in control, there can be no better endorsement of Mbappe’s rapid elevation, and his dethroning of Messi and Portugal's Ronaldo.
Direction les Quarts de finale 😍🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/CKFaTLaKNN
But this dazzling, demented sport of football wasn’t, as yet, finished with our sense of wonder. After Mbappe’s magnificent, majestic march into the annals of memory, Angel Di Maria’s thumping long-range strike and Benjamin Pavard’s stunning effort which had all the hallmarks of a Shane Warner top-spinner, we thought that was it: surely, it couldn’t get any better. But it did, boy did it!
Enter Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani - and, like Diego Maradona, like Dennis Bergkamp, like Mario Kempes, like Mbappe, his two goals will surely book a place in the realm of folklore. The first, involving intuitive long-range inter-passing with the excellent Luis Suarez, and the sublime headed finish; and the second - man, I just can’t forget that one - the technique, the opening of the body, the intrepid conviction, and the beguiling, curving shot: I know I say it often, but I’m going to have to say it again. Wow, just wow.