Kylian Mbappe's chance to confirm himself as heir to Messi and Ronaldo's throne
A match-winning display in the World Cup final for France can cement the forward's status as the new superstar of football
Ronaldo, Oliver Kahn, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Forlan, Lionel Messi. Kylian Mbappe may hope his is not the next name on the list.
The last five winners of the World Cup’s Golden Ball have two common denominators: none actually won the World Cup in question and, arguably, none was the best player in that tournament.
Ronaldo was actually the finest in 2002, when Kahn was the individual honoured.
Zidane ended up being the most influential in the right way in 1998, but perhaps ultimately in the wrong way in 2006.
Messi was not even Argentina’s outstanding player four years ago; that was Javier Mascherano.
Each illustrates that the votes can be cast too soon and that judgment should be withheld until after the final.
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Mbappe’s candidature rests so far on an explosive, extraordinary display against Argentina and a scintillating second half versus Belgium.
He is the favourite, Luka Modric his closest rival. It is speedster versus passer, teenager against thirty-something, a generational clash between France and Croatia.
Yet, unlike in 2010, it is about something bigger, a question if the baton is being passed, not just about the World Cup’s best footballer but the world’s.
It is a precursor to the Ballon d’Or vote. It may be marking the end of the decade-long duopoly of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in a way that was not anticipated when the Portuguese won the Uefa Champions League and then began his World Cup with a hat-trick against Spain.
Mbappe may have deleted Messi’s entry by eliminating Argentina in the second round of the competition.
Yet Ronaldo altered the landscape, too. His move to Juventus altered the all-consuming rivalry with Messi, ending a nine-year saga when they scored a combined 922 club goals for Spain’s two biggest clubs.
It created a vacancy at the Bernabeu at a point when there was a shift in the global pecking order.
Neymar, as the unofficial third finest footballer in the world, the costliest ever and the star player for the World Cup favourites, looked likeliest to step up but, without actually playing particularly badly, squandered his chance.
He failed to define the tournament. His incessant diving damaged his reputation.
If the image of Neymar was of him rolling around in apparent agony, the vision Mbappe presented came in the 65-yard burst to win a penalty against Argentina.
Or perhaps the audacious backheel to release Olivier Giroud against Belgium.
Each may explain why he topped a poll in Marca for Real Madrid supporters’ preferred candidate to replace Ronaldo. He got 54 per cent of the vote, Neymar a mere 14 per cent.
The deeper truth, and a reason to query the Golden Ball’s relevance, is that World Cups do not tend to be dominated by one player; not in the way Diego Maradona reigned supreme in 1986.
Mbappe was comparatively peripheral in France’s quarter-final win over Uruguay when Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba were more influential.
Raphael Varane was the pick of the bunch in the semi-final against Belgium. Hugo Lloris and N’Golo Kante have been consistently good.
Yet Mbappe has become the face of the team. It reflects the energising powers of youth and what he symbolises.
It is in part because the Argentina match was arguably the game of the tournament. His display that afternoon was perhaps the individual performance of the World Cup.
It was the sort of thing that sticks in mind when votes were cast. Mbappe was already the second most expensive footballer ever.
Yet as football prepares to enter an era of uncertainty, shorn of the old guarantee that either Messi or Ronaldo was the best, it could lead to his anointment as their successor.
Producing something similar in the final would help him seem a worthy heir to their throne.
Updated: July 14, 2018 11:47 AM