NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia - Kylian Mbappe shuffled out into the blaze of flashbulbs with a sheepish smile and a shrug and he pulled the cuffs of his training top a little further over his fists.
At the age of 19, Mbappe is in the process of making this World Cup his World Cup, another elegant stride on his sprint to the top. Against Peru, he became France’s youngest ever scorer at a major tournament, a mantle seized from the grasp of David Trezeguet. Against Argentina, he stretched his tally to three, level with Karim Benzema in 2014 and Thierry Henry in 1998, winning the game in the process.
Already, the only Frenchman who can boast more goals at a single World Cup tournament is Just Fontaine, who will in all probability never have his record of 13 beaten. Whispers resurfaced of interest from Real Madrid, long-standing admirers and a club who love to snap up the star of a major tournament, and were then quashed by a statement from the Bernabeu claiming no deal was in place. So all lenses were trained on one teenager ahead of a quarter-final rich with sub-plots.
There are Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, if fit. There is the cultural icon that is Paul Pogba. There is Antoine Griezmann and his intriguing duel with Atletico Madrid teammates Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. Still, what about Mbappe? How does he follow that? Don’t worry, promised France boss Didier Deschamps, there is more to come.
"He is only 19 and he will grow a lot," said Deschamps. "He will learn how to manage these situations. When there are hard times, the trend is to question yourself and to dig deep but when things go well you shouldn’t relax and think things come easy or you need to put in less effort. Kylian is intelligent, he listens and knows this."
Blaise Matuidi’s ban will force at least one change on Deschamps as he tries to find the balance. France want to keep the goals rolling in but are wary that Uruguay pose a very different threat to Argentina. Uruguay’s build-up to the quarter-final has been dominated by the fitness of Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain striker and clubmate of Mbappe, who limped off having scored twice in a 2-1 win against Portugal in the last 16.
The injury has been dismissed as a ruse by some to the annoyance of manager Oscar Taberez, prompting the Uruguayan FA to issue a statement complete with medical confirmation of damage to a calf muscle. "He is very sad to have suffered an injury during the World Cup," said 71-year-old Tabarez. "He is very important for us and playing very well. So as soon as he was injured he started working hard to recover."