by Tony Wyman
Remember that name. Practice saying it and keep it handy for those moments when you need to impress the football-loving redhead in your office with your knowledge of the beautiful game, what we Americans insist on calling “soccer.”
Soon, you will see that name on the backs of jerseys worn by kids hip to the world’s sport. It will take the place of Barcelona jerseys with Messi’s name or Ronaldo’s Real Madrid shirts, both relegated to the closet to hang forgotten next to old Manchester United strips with “Rooney” on the back.
The 18-year-old magician with the Hollywood smile who led Monaco to win France’s League 1 title last season, breaking Paris St. Germain’s four-year hold on the top flight of French football, is about to break out and be the Next Big Thing in soccer. Like fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba before him, Mbappe is on the radar of all the major European clubs – Arsenal, both Manchester clubs, Real Madrid and PSG, all rumored to table an interest – eager to pony up world record level bids to sign the young star.
Arsenal, thought to be front runners to sign Mbappe, have already had an £87 million bid rejected and have readied a world record second bid of £130 million pounds, according to English pundits like Metro’s Mark Brus. (The previous highest bid for a single player was Manchester United’s purchase of Pogba last year for a reported €105, the equivalent of £92.57 million in today’s money.)
The Sun reported Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is about to table a £121.8 million bid and 30-year-old striker Olivier Giroud, who scored 27 goals in 56 appearances in ‘16/’17 for club and country. Real Madrid’s boss, the French legend Zinedine Zidane, reportedly offered £103 million and was turned down by Monaco.
English paper Daily Mail reported recently Real believe they can win Mbappe’s signature by offering £100 million and to allow the youngster to remain at Monaco on loan for the ‘17/’18 season.
So, why are the biggest clubs in Europe willing to offer such lavish deals? Why is Arsenal, notoriously frugal and reluctant to spend serious money in the transfer market, throwing around sums greater than the combined money they paid for record signings of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, two established world class players, for a player just entering adulthood?
Watch Mbappe play and, if you know anything about football, you’ll see why. Arsenal supporters see legend Thierry Henry in the way Mbappe plays. Henry, like Mbappe, started his professional career at Monaco, before transferring to the North London club.
During the eight years he played for the Gunners, a period where he scored 228 goals, won three FA Cups and two league championships, including the 2004 “Invincibles” season where Arsenal became the first team in English top-flight football to go unbeaten since Preston North End did it in 1889, Henry routinely made opposing defenders look lead-footed with his blistering pace, deft touch and clever dribbling.
Mbappe looks much like the same type of player.
Like Henry, Mbappe runs past defenders with eye-popping speed that seems as effortless as it is graceful. Watch clips of him on YouTube and you’ll see him cut with the ball so abruptly that he sends top professional defenders crashing to the turf in often futile attempts to stop him, just like Henry did years before him.
And even though Henry teammate and Arsenal favorite Robert Pires believes comparisons to TH14 are “premature,” it is almost impossible to watch the young Frenchman without seeing the older.
“So far, he reminds me of Thierry [Henry]. Maybe he is more mature in his game already than Thierry was at the same time,” former Aston Villa manager Remy Garde, who played against the Arsenal man during his early professional years in France, told the Guardian paper.
And the numbers certainly back up Garde’s comment. Mbappe, in just 52 matches with Monaco, has 25 goals while Henry scored 28 in 141 games with the French side. Plus Mbappe broke two of Henry’s Monaco records: the youngest player to play for the senior team (16 years and 347 days) and the youngest to score a goal for the first squad (17 years and 62 days old).
But, no matter how impressive Mbappe’s early successes are – and they are very impressive – soccer’s history is littered with players whose careers started out brilliantly only to burn out before reaching their potential. Monaco has a few players in their history whose careers fizzled after they left the club, players like Phillipe Christanval, who went from League 1 Young Player of the Year to a flop after leaving the club to play for Barcelona.
Another was Park Chu-Young, a young striker at Monaco in 2011, the year the club was relegated to League 2, who was at the peak of his early career.
When Arsenal came calling, Park was about to sign with top flight French team Lille, which finished third that year. Rejecting Lille’s overtures, Park signed for Arsenal for £5.5 million in August 2011 and began a career that ended in him being released in June 2014 having played only seven matches and scoring one goal.
But it seems that Mbappe is destined for greater things. Even Henry believes the player is heading in the right direction. In an interview with Canal Plus, Henry said, “I met him and he gave me the impression that he has a good head on his shoulders.”
Henry, who believes a player’s intellect is as important as his physical abilities, heaped praise on Mbappe’s mental game, listing it as a reason he believes the player will not burn out should he move to another club from Monaco.
“When I watch him dribble, he is thinking. He thinks when he plays and that for me is the most important thing in a player. He uses his brain. Yes, he is quick, but he is thinking and that is the sign of a kid who can go a long way in the game,” Henry told Canal Plus.
Going a long way is exactly why top managers like Arsene Wenger are willing to break the bank to sign Mbappe to a long-term contract and elevate him to the top of the world’s most popular spot. So, move your Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney and, yes, even your Henry jerseys to the back of your closet and make room for a couple new Mbappe shirts.
If we are to believe the best minds in world football, he’s about to become the biggest thing in the game.