“How do you ignore the context?” Kylian Mbappé asked. “Easy: play football.” And better than anyone else. Everybody knew he was special, a World Cup winner at 19, his goal in the final against Croatia one of more than 200 he has scored already aged 23, the man for whom Paris Saint-Germain turned down €200m even as they knew that would probably mean losing him for free, but this was still a moment that hit you in the face.
It hit Mauricio Pochettino, at least. Asked what he felt when Mbappé scored the 94th-minute winner here against Real Madrid, the PSG coach replied: “Two things. First, happiness. Then, pain. Leandro Paredes leapt into me so hard that I thought I had broken my nose.” Along the touchline, Mbappé was going wild, teammates piling in. There was no choreography, and no apology either, no sign of mixed emotions, just release. Maybe a touch of vindication too. There, told you.
He told everyone, on all sides. The Parc des Princes erupted, except in the corner where they had cheered Mbappé before the game, applauding as his name was read out. Madrid’s fans had serenaded him then and were quiet now, but there was admiration and anticipation too. From many Madrid supporters, not so much here as elsewhere, there was soon something that looked like celebration.
Mbappé had received the ball below them, pushing Madrid back into their area one last time, then gone between Lucas Vázquez and Éder Militão and put the ball between Thibaut Courtois’ legs and into the net.
“To concede a silly goal at the end is hard to take,” the goalkeeper said, but that’s not how you spell bloody brilliant. “It was really stupid to lose the ball, he goes away from two people too easily and then I have the bad luck that it goes through my legs,” Courtois reasoned, but this was about the fusion of grace and power, the speed and smoothness with which he leant one way then the next. The way he went through the middle of two men, gone before those doors could slide shut on him, like Ronaldo: the original one, not the one whose posters decorated Mbappé’s bedroom wall.
“In the end he showed his quality and class; that’s why he’s the best player in the world,” Courtois concluded. “Unstoppable,” Carlo Ancelotti called him.
For an hour and a half Madrid had managed to stop him, just about. He had turned away from Casemiro in the first minute and decided it in the very last. Between times, he had torn into them, looking like the only athlete in the company of elite athletes, pulling away with apparent ease, elegance in every stride. As if it is just the athleticism. Seventy touches, seven shots, four dribbles, a penalty won, and now a match too. Not just any match either, and not in any way.
“We tried to control him, to double up on him, and Militão did well, but he can always invent something,” Ancelotti said. “And in the last minute he invented something.” Madrid’s manager called him the best in Europe. PSG’s manager claimed that he didn’t have the words to say how good Mbappé is. “I can’t describe him,” he said.
Pochettino is a man who over the past few days has looked as if he doesn’t enjoy Paris much, all the things – and, yes, all the people too – that come with coaching this club. But Mbappé comes with them too, and he appears different, not so blinded by the lights. “Mbappé isn’t like the rest,” Danilo said. He was ostensibly talking about the talent, but it could be the temperament too. “He is incredibly mature,” Pochettino said. “I am lucky to have been able to work with him every day over the last year.”
There may not be long left, but these are months that might not have happened at all, and they are to be enjoyed. It was mostly pride that meant PSG refused to let Mbappé leave, Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, complaining that it is not normal for a club to turn down a bid that big for a player in the last year of his contract and Nasser al-Khelaifi, PSG’s president, admitting that the relationship between the clubs is broken. It felt like financial folly too, however rich they are, but in that moment on Tuesday night it felt worth it even at €200m for a single season.
If Mbappé does deliver the European Cup that obsesses them, it certainly will. And then he can go, if he goes, as a hero. Their first will always be the best and it would always be his. After this game, he again insisted that a decision on his future had not been made. Asked whether this might change that, he replied “no, no, no, no, no”, the fact that he said so in almost flawless Spanish feeling as significant as the fact that he said it all. The fact that he was asked underlining that there was no escaping the context to this game, even if Mbappé said doing so was easy, which football often seems to be to him.
After the way he played here, there can be no reproach – from either side. From Madrid – from fans and media, probably from the directors up in the palco too – there was something celebratory in defeat. Only those who seek no consolation find no consolation the phrase runs and it came in losing to Mbappé, his performance reinforcing that they were right to go for him and that with him the future is theirs, deepening the excitement over what is still assumed to be the imminent arrival of the player who will mark a generation.
“How good is Mbappé!” the cover of Marca ran. “Mbappé is the bomb,” cheered AS. And soon they trust he will be theirs, and for free. Madrid may not win this year’s Champions League thanks to this goal but that very moment helped further convince them that if he does come it won’t be long before they do. That he had beaten them like this was welcome in a way, another dimension added: this was an exhibition of ethics as well as excellence.
Mbappé had previously said that he would not talk to other clubs when they were opponents, any decision having to wait until after this tie or even the summer. There was work to do first, matches to win, staring with the one where the spotlight shone on him brighter than ever. “I said I was going to give everything, and I did,” he noted. “We ask so many questions, we say too many things.” He had just wanted to play football, which he does like no one else.