World Cup 2018: Kylian Mbappé Bends Time and Space, Leads France Past Argentina
Kylian Mbappé is fast. This requires some clarification: most professional soccer players are fast, in the sense that they move more quickly than the average person. Some are fast in a more impressive sense, in that they move more quickly than the average professional soccer player. The World Cup features many players who can cover a given distance swiftly, and a few players who can cover a given distance so swiftly that their speed approaches the upper limit of human athletic potential. This is generally what we mean when we say a player is fast.
Mbappé is fast in a different way altogether. The nineteen-year-old French forward, who scored two goals in France’s chaotic 4–3 win over Argentina in their World Cup knockout match on Saturday, does not merely play soccer more quickly than other people play soccer. He often seems to play soccer more quickly than other people can watch soccer; he pushes play to a point that seems to run slightly ahead of your ability to perceive it. Watching another fast player—Theo Walcott, say—you might excitedly think, Look at him run! Watching Mbappé, your brain lurches and you think, This isn’t happening—he shouldn’t have gotten there already.
Eleven or so minutes into Saturday’s match, Mbappé came up with a loose ball near the edge of the French area, about eighty yards from the Argentine goal. He tore forward. For a split second it appeared as though he might be going on a good run, the way a conventionally fast player might do. Then you realized he’d skipped through almost the entire Argentine defense in about two long strides, and your brain partially caught up, and you saw that he was already bearing down on the Argentine area, moving in a way that you now recognized less as running quickly than as teleporting slowly, so that by the time Marcos Rojo pulled him down for a penalty the truly surprising thing was that Rojo managed to touch him at all—that they occupied the same plane of existence.
The greatest soccer players all seem to have this ability to alter your perception of time. I’m speaking metaphorically and mystically here, of course, but that’s what it feels like to watch them: think of the way, when Lionel Messi touches the ball, the game radically slows down, or the way, when Cristiano Ronaldo touches it, it skips a beat. My favorite thing about watching old videos of Pelé is the way he seems to roll time around with the ball, luring defenders into a slowed-down otherworld and then leaving them there while he rides the next light beam toward the goal. Mbappé, who joined Pelé today as one of only four teen-agers ever to score at the World Cup, is the second-youngest player at the tournament, and still unfinished. Already, though, he has that quality of temporal magic; the ball finds him and the lights in your head do the stretchy hyperspace thing that the stars outside the windows of the Millennium Falcon do.
Argentina and France can be exhausting teams to follow, because their wealth of individual talent is so often undermined by baffling infighting and self-defeating factionalism. Saturday’s match seemed doomed to be engulfed by the same weary rumors and narratives. The Argentine players were in rebellion against their manager. Messi—possibly playing in his last World Cup, if you hadn’t heard—still hadn’t won a major tournament with his national team. France had looked drab and disappointing in its three group-stage matches, raising questions about the legacy of 1998 and . . . yawn. What a thrill, then, in a game where most of the grownups seemed to be battling the weights of ancient legacies and unbearable stakes, to see things decided by a kid who ran as if he were out to remind the world what magic is.