TORONTO — Kylian Mbappé is 19 years old and carrying the hopes of a nation of nearly 70 million people on his shoulders. The Parisian phenom was not exactly an unknown quantity coming into the 2018 World Cup — Paris Saint-Germain has already made him second-most expensive signing in soccer history — but his performances on the biggest stage have been so good they have cemented his rising status as a star on a global level.
France will face Uruguay in the quarterfinals, advancing after a breathtaking performance by Mbappé against Argentina in the round of 16. First, there was his unthinkably quick run from his own half to Argentina’s box to win a penalty; later, Mbappé shot away from a pair of defenders with two touches in a tight space to score and rushed to finish a counterattack for his second goal and his country’s fourth.
In French footballing circles, they have known about Mbappé for some time — he made his debut for AS Monaco in 2015 and even before that attracted interest from top clubs across the globe while a student at the national team’s training center in Clairefontaine — and Toronto FC defender Chris Mavinga knew about him, too.
The Toronto FC defender is currently injured and returned to France last week for treatment at Clairefontaine, where he is familiar with the staff having come through the ranks there himself. Mavinga watched Mbappé’s performance against Argentina with friends and family, and had a good story to tell: he holds the distinction of being Mbappé’s first victim in top-level soccer.
“It was amazing,” Mavinga told Pro Soccer USA. “I said before the competition, ‘If you have to see one player, it’s Mbappé, because this player is amazing.’ The first goal he scored in the French league was against me. I remember this game. I saw directly — I said, ‘This guy is unbelievable. He will be one of the best players in the world.'”
The date was Feb. 20, 2016, and Monaco was at home against Troyes AC. Guido Carrillo had scored two goals to put Monaco in control, and in the 73rd minute, Mbappé replaced Brazilian striker Vágner Love for his fifth appearance — all of which had come as a substitute — with the first team. He had turned 17 two months earlier.
In the 79th minute, Babacar Gueye scored for Troyes to make things interesting. But as the visitors ran out of time and hope, Mbappé seized his opportunity. Mavinga, at left back, played directly against Mbappé, who was on the right wing, and had pushed up to the halfway line. Closer to goal, a Troyes defender gave the ball away and the counterattack was on.
Mbappé barely needed to get out of second gear to join the attack. A couple of effortless bursts of speed kept him out of Mavinga’s reach.
“I’m fast, but I think he was a little bit faster!” Mavinga recalled. “We were in the same position, it was in the middle. And he sprints when the cross from the left side came into the middle. We sprinted together, but he was a little bit faster than me and he scored. I think now in his career [he] will start to be one of the best players.”
Mbappé is not the only France player Mavinga is familiar with. The 27-year-old was a highly-regarded prospect himself, playing at the youth level for PSG and Liverpool, as well as his country. With France, he won the Under-19 European Championship while lining up alongside Antoine Griezmann, whose contributions he believes have been overlooked at the World Cup.
“I played for a long time with him with the French youth teams,” Mavinga said of the Atlético Madrid striker. “I played with [Raphaël] Varane, too, in the national team.
“Griezmann — we know how he plays. He’s one of the best. But I feel a bit sad, because in France they like to critique him because he didn’t score yet [from open play]. They say he doesn’t play well, but for me he’s playing very good because he’s made some good actions with Mbappé and Mbappé has finished the goal. For me, he’s a good player. We will see against Uruguay, he will be good — I’m sure. He’s playing against his teammate [Diego] Godín, so I think he’ll want to score a goal there. I feel confident for him.”