Pelé. Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi.
Those names reel off the tongue rather easily when we discuss the greats that have graced a football pitch with their near-divine presence.
Throughout the World Cup, Kylian Mbappé has been compared to all three, worshipped like a deity by every commentator and pundit left salivating over his pace and power.
After a virtuoso performance against Messi’s flailing Argentina in the last 16, it seemed natural to talk about a baton being passed over from the master to the prodigy. With Portugal exiting the competition in the same round, Ronaldo’s aspirations to steal the limelight from the young Frenchman would also be shattered.
When Mbappé – 19 years, 6 months and 25 days old – rattled a low drive past the despairing Danijel Subašić in the final, it seemed inevitable that a certain Brazilian would be name-dropped. After all the last teenager to score in a World Cup final was Pelé himself.
And yet, there is one other name that was bandied around in some quarters that certainly stirred my own interest. Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, more commonly known as the Brazilian Ronaldo, has also been graced with the title of an Mbappé ancestor of sorts.
In many ways, it makes so much sense. Like Mbappé, Ronaldo burst on to the world scene when he could have still been sitting in a classroom. Although he didn’t play, he was part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning squad at just seventeen years of age. This would be followed by a move to PSV Eindhoven where his domination of world football would truly begin.
Mbappé has invoked fear in the minds and hearts of Ligue 1 defences over the last two seasons with both Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Twenty-nine league goals in 68 league appearances, with one coming every 137 minutes, and the numbers aren’t looking too shabby whatsoever. However, they aren’t on the level of the teenage O Fenômeno, whose appetite for putting the ball in the back of the net was simply insatiable.
Playing in the Eredivisie between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, Ronaldo racked up 42 goals in 46 games, averaging a goal every 91 minutes. Once Holland was ticked off, he packed his bags for Spain, and as he ended his teenage years at Barcelona, he finished with 47 goals in 49 games across all competitions in 1996/1997. Tidy to say the least.
A closer look at Mbappé reveals that his move to the French capital has actually seen his clinical behaviour in front of goal regress. In 2016/2017, his first full season for Monaco, he scored 15 league goals despite his expected goals (xG) being a lowly 8.28. His debut campaign in a front-line with Neymar and Edison Cavani reaped rather different returns. The young tyro contributed 13 league goals to his side’s title-winning run, but with an xG of 14.18.
Of course, one has to also take into account the positional differences of both players. Ronaldo was an out-and-out centre-forward, while Mbappé plays out on the right-hand side for club and country. In fact, that is what makes the youngster such an unusual specimen.
In France’s glorious campaign, Mbappé seemed happy to parade himself close to the touchline, almost in the sense of a traditional winger. Nevertheless, rather than represent a crossing threat, he proved to be significant for France on the counter-attack with late diagonal runs into the box that left full-backs in a daze.
This can be most aptly demonstrated with his second goal against Argentina, in which he finished a wonderful team move with calm side-footed finish that began with a blood-curdling burst of pace from near the halfway line.
If one takes a casual evening stroll into the YouTube forest of Ronaldo clips, witnessing his travels in Eindhoven and Barcelona, you see a monster of a centre-forward, driving through defences single-handedly through the middle of the park, almost unaware of the dimensions of the pitch.
But despite these differences, the Mbappé-Ronaldo comparisons are not accusations to be frowned upon. Mbappé’s most telling moment in the win against Argentina was not one of his goals, but the sensational 70-yard dribble that saw him win a penalty for France in the first-half.
As Mbappé picked up the ball in his own half, it was like a man possessed, bewitched with the ability to run faster with the ball than the poor Argentinian defenders could move without it. When Marcos Rojo came across Mbappé in the box, felling him to the ground, he raised his white flag and pleaded for surrender, conceding himself as unworthy to this most precocious talent.
The run evoked memories of a similar act of wizardry conjured by Ronaldo at the 1998 World Cup.
Let me set the scene. Brazil faced Holland in their semi-final in Marseille. As the Brazilians launched a counter-attack, the man who had lit up the tournament stood by the halfway line with his back to goal. The centre-halves trusted to keep him quiet? Frank De Boer and Jaap Staam. Yikes.
And yet, as Ronaldo received the ball from Emerson he turned two world-class defenders into frightened schoolboys in the playground, simply unable to match the ferocity of a human tank.
He took the ball and turned for the goal, igniting the jet fuel in his legs, speeding past De Boer as if overtaking him on the far lane of an athletics track. As the 6ft 3 Stam tried to halt the Brazilian, the ball was poked through his legs, stripping him of his dignity. Only a great recovery from De Boer would see Ronaldo stopped in the box before he could pull the final trigger.
While Mbappé trails behind Ronaldo in a goal-scoring sense, this World Cup demonstrated that like the legendary Brazilian, his mere presence can wreck havoc in the minds of defenders.
In the 32nd minute of the final against Croatia, when Hugo Lloris punted a hopeful ball into the right channel, Mbappé rampaged forward. What should have been a comfortable header to safety for Domagoj Vida became an ugly glance away for a corner, a corner that would lead to the French penalty.
Like Ronaldo, Mbappé has become every defender’s nightmare. With his career still at its formative stages, he’ll be haunting many for years to come.