At 19, Lionel Messi was running through the Getafe defence single-handedly and scoring a goal that made the world sit up and take notice. It was a goal of rare quality and immediately brought up comparisons with Diego Maradona’s goal from the 1986 World Cup. Messi started in his own half, dribbled past five players and put the ball past Luis Garcia.
So perhaps it is fitting that Kylian Mbappe’s legend starts with a run too; a run of such astounding pace and verve that it took not only all those watching but the Argentina defenders by surprise too.
Yet, it was a different kind of run. It wasn’t the close-quarters, ball-stuck-to-the-feet kind of run that Messi showed us. It was different.
The 19-year-old Mbappe came upon a loose ball near the edge of the penalty area – the French penalty area… some 80 yards away from the Argentina penalty area. Then, he decided to run with it. And run he did.
At first, he (like most footballers) seemed to want to get the ball out of the danger zone but as he started running, gaps opened up, he saw the gaps and then he got faster. He initially had two Argentina players in his path, as he started to outpace them… a third (Mascherano arrived).
It really didn’t matter – he tapped the ball into space, kicked into a higher gear, put on the afterburners and left them in his wake. Faster and faster, until he finally reached the defence. Marcos Rojo (the fourth Argentina player) saw him charging in, panicked and brought him down to concede a penalty.
In hindsight, Mbappe had probably pushed that final ball too wide and he might not have been able to do much with it at that pace, but the brilliance of that run blinded Rojo and he instinctively tried to stop him by whatever means he had at his disposal. That in a nutshell is what intimidation looks like.
The fastest human foot-speed was recorded between 60 and 80 metres in Bolt’s world record 9.58-second 100-metre race in Berlin. He was clocked at 44.64 kph. Mbappe, according to reports, ran at 38 kph during the penalty-winning sprint. It was beyond the realm of imagination. As the referee pointed at the spot, Messi’s head dropped. The game had just begun and his side was already in trouble.
But Argentina weren’t about to let it end that way. Angel Di Maria brought them level with a screamer from distance and, then, Lionel Messi’s shot deflected off Gabriel Mercado to give the South Americans the lead.
A moment of inspiration by Benjamin Pavard, the right back, brought Les Bleus back level before Mbappe sealed the deal with two goals. Three goals in a 11-minute span knocked the stuffing out of Argentina.
It would have been okay if Mbappe was just fast. There are many in football who are quick but he’s got skills to back up that pace. And that’s what makes him deadly; that’s what makes him worth the estimated 180m euros that Paris St-Germain will pay for him. Only the 200m euros PSG paid for Brazil forward Neymar in 2017 surpasses that fee.
Mbappe became the youngest player since Pele in 1958 to score at least two goals in a World Cup game.
“It’s flattering to be second to Pele,” Mbappe said. “But we’re going to put things in context. Pele, that’s another category.”
Still, to many, the show against Argentina signalled the end of Messi’s era and the start of Mbappe’s. Part of this era talk is a byproduct of their ages – Messi is 31 and Mbappe is 19. In four years’ time, Messi may or may not be playing in the World Cup. In four years time, Mbappe may have got even better.
At 31, Messi isn’t going to get faster or stronger. Mbappe could do both. The Frenchman has been looked upon as a future superstar for a while now but for him to rise up and seize the moment as he did, puts him in an all-new category. Messi and Ronaldo have never scored in a knockout match at the World Cup and with a burst of magic – Mbappe did what they both couldn’t.
Sport can be unforgiving
‘What were you doing at 19?’ they asked.
The fact that they can ask that question shows how time has not stood still for Messi and even Cristiano Ronaldo. Both crashed out on the same day and both might have said goodbye to their chances of ever winning a World Cup. Sport can be unforgiving – giving you but a tiny window to make your mark. If you can’t shine at that moment, it will blow by you before you know it. Life can be cruel but perhaps sport is crueler still.
It now seems unimaginable that two of the greatest footballers of our age will end up without a World Cup trophy. When they were 19, scoring wonder goals, breezing past defences, hoodwinking the opposition – it had only seemed like a matter of time. But a decade has gone by and still they wait.
Now, perhaps their wait has come to an end. Now, perhaps they will run no more in these fields. Now, perhaps they will leave the running to Mbappe – maybe because he clearly has the legs for it.