Two months from now, and two days before his 24th birthday, Kylian Mbappé could be lifting the World Cup trophy for the second time. If he does
so, it will guarantee that one Paris St Germain teammate, the 35-year-old Lionel Messi, will never win football’s ultimate prize. It would also make it
highly unlikely that another, 30-year-old Neymar, would ever do so. And it would be the end of the hopes of Cristiano Ronaldo, now 37.
These things alone should remind Mbappé that football is a team game. He is becoming so self-centred, such a prima donna, that he risks destabilising the clubs that pay his fortune.
Last week, Forbes magazine – guessing, like the rest of us – put the French superstar on top of its annual list of world athletes in terms of remuneration. Forbes reckon that Mbappé will earn £115m in this calendar year – £90m from the Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain, the rest from endorsing the products of Nike, Dior, Hublot, Oakley, Panini and EA Sports.
Mbappé can move with breathtaking swiftness. His top speed has been recorded at 36km/h (22 mph), and the balance, the control, the instinct that
goes with that put him unquestionably among the greats of sport. But he and
Neymar have a relationship based, it seems, on self-centred jealousy. He even has a problem with Messi – imagine being lucky enough to have that luxury – and with taking instruction from whoever is coaching PSG.
It would probably be lost on Mbappé that Ferenc Puskás, the great Galloping Major of Hungary and Real Madrid in the 1950s, famously compared the role of a striker this way: “The artists are like piano players. They need artisans to carry the piano on to the stage.”
The great player, in other words, must respect his colleagues. Mbappé has a problem respecting his own teammates, not simply in the current Paris collection of star turns, but also in Les Bleus, the French team with which he won football’s biggest trophy in Russia in 2018 and hopes, perhaps in his mind expects, to win again in Qatar this winter.
He and Neymar, in particular, barely tolerate one another’s stardom. Even
if we discard the tedious Instagram swipes that the Frenchman and the
Brazilian put out there for their 100,000 or so “followers”, it is evident on the field, where they squabble and glare over who takes a penalty kick, like kids in a playground.
Even Messi, who has spent a lifetime being a likeable team fulcrum in
Barcelona and Argentina, has been given the simpering treatment of
Mbappé standing hands on hips in disdain when the Argentine takes a
shot at goal rather than make a pass to the French wunderkind.
The mutual respect between Neymar and Messi is clearly not shared with
the third member of their triumvirate. They get by because PSG transcends
Ligue 1. And because Neymar and Messi also need to maintain decent form to be in shape for the World Cup.
Statistics should never be the only way to inform the value of performance, but take a look at their figures for this season:
Neymar: Played 13, goals 9, assists 9. Messi: Played 12, goals 7, assists 8. Mbappé: Played 12, goals 11, assists 0.
The assists statistic can tell us everything or nothing. It might suggest that Neymar and Messi take as much pride in creating goals as scoring them. However, I have a distinct memory of a goal scored against Lyon last month by Messi from a pass by Neymar. Yet to my eye, the space for the pass was created by a run from Mbappé that took two defenders out of the way.
Assists make idle work for statisticians but can sometimes be misleading. And the zero in Mbappé’s contribution is therefore unfair. Even he, though, cannot operate in his own universe. Last weekend he was given the stage to himself, with a team of “artisans” and no Messi (injured) or Neymar (rested) in the lineup. Nothing worked, in part because Sergio Ramos, the ageing ex-Real Madrid defender, foul-mouthed himself to the 28th red card of his career, before half-time.
A man down and two superstars light, PSG were held to a scoreless draw in Reims. The coach Christophe Galtier said that, without Messi and Neymar, Mbappé was “a bit like an orphan” in attack. Mbappé let his fingers do the talking, posting an Instagram message under the hashtag “Pivot Gang” with the explanation, the excuse, that his coach did not know how to use him.
His preference, he said, was the way that Didier Deschamps sets up the
French national team, with Mbappé free to exploit the spaces created by
the hard-running, selfless Olivier Giroud.
Mbappé’s appreciation of his privileges with Les Bleus does not spare the French Football Federation from his disruptive selfishness. The super striker, and his travelling caravan of advisers, are at loggerheads with the FFF over image rights concerning a photoshoot and sponsorship activities.
In commerce, as in performance, Mbappé wants to be the main man. He, or one of his minders, later retracted the petulant post towards the PSG coach. However, the impression lingers that he believes that the coach is the servant to his talents.
Perhaps someone should explain that the “orphan” quote can be interpreted in another way: Even the most talented player in the bunch needs brothers to help him to perform.