‘22 Goals’: Kylian Mbappé, 2018 World Cup in Russia
‘22 Goals’: Kylian Mbappé, 2018 World Cup in Russia

The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Kylian Mbappé announcing himself as a global superstar at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.


1. The Woman Who Sued God

Let me tell you the story of the woman who sued God.

The time was the 1960s. The place was the planet Earth, an insignificant blue dot surrounded by a void so dark that it doesn’t even lighten up when it hears my Arsenal jokes.

We’ll get to those.

In Phoenix, Arizona, in 1960, there was a big thunderstorm. Rain, wind, thunder (obviously), also lightning. A lightning bolt fell from the sky and struck the house of a woman called Betty Penrose. The house burned to the ground.

By the way, I am aware that this is second time in this series that a lightning bolt has hit someone’s house. I can’t explain it. Lightning does what it wants.

Betty Penrose’s house goes up in flames. She loses all her stuff. She’s devastated. Fortunately, Betty Penrose has something most of us want, but only ever attain inside group texts. She has a detailed plan to get even.

How do you get even with a lightning bolt?

Well, Betty Penrose is a legal secretary. She works for a lawyer in Phoenix. So she goes to her boss and says lightning destroyed my house. He’s like, Oh, shit. What are we going to do about this?

Answer: We’re going to take the God of the Christian Bible to court and compel him to pay damages.

Pretty straightforward logic.

But there’s just one problem. If you want to take someone to court, you have to be able to show that the court has jurisdiction over them.

Now, I’m no theologian. But establishing legal jurisdiction over the radiant creator of the universe sounds like it would entail a lot of paperwork.

So Betty Penrose’s boss went to work trying to track down a court that would accept Betty’s lawsuit.

The boss was a lawyer called Russel H. Tansie. Russel, in newspaper articles from the period, is often spelled with one l, for some reason. Russel H. Tansie. Arizona lawyer. He spent years trying to figure out how to drag the Almighty into county court.

Finally, Russel H. Tansie discovered the existence of a hippie commune in Santa Rosa, California, called the Morning Star Ranch. 31.7-acre ranch. Free love, the works.

What Russel H. Tansie found was that until very recently, the Morning Star Ranch had been owned by a well-known double-bass player called Lou Gottlieb, who was a member of the folk-comedy music trio the Limeliters. In 1969, in a fit of transcendent drug-taking, presumably, this commune-loving double-bassist filed a deed granting ownership of the Morning Star Ranch to God himself.

Aha! Now God owned property in California. Sonoma County, actually. Wine country. Nice investment. Probably the best thing about property is that if someone owns it, you can sue them. Russel H. Tansie swiftly filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Court asking for $100,000 in damages on behalf of Betty Penrose. The suit said that the defendant, hereby named in court documents as God, “is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona,” and that he had maintained the weather “in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening, and shocking the plaintiff.”

They go to court. God … does not show up. I don’t know why. I’d like to think He was bowling. Betty Penrose and Russel H. Tansie win by default. The court finds that God owes Betty Penrose $75,000 in general damages and $25,000 in property damages.

I cannot find a photo of Russel H. Tansie on the internet—I have looked extensively—but I like to imagine he wore a white suit to court that day. I like to imagine him coming out onto the courthouse steps in pearl-gray cowboy boots and adjusting the brim of his enormous Stetson as he gazed out upon the California sky and reflected that he had just won a legal case against the guy who put it there.

That’s a good day for a lawyer.

Sadly, he’s in hell now. They’re all in hell, except for that one double-bassist. I don’t make the rules.

Anyway. As far as I know, God never paid Betty Penrose what he owed her. Probably the second-best thing about owning property is that if you own enough of it, you can do whatever you want.


2. East of Eden Hazard

What does this story have to do with the World Cup, I hear you asking, as you arch your eyebrow attractively, in the charismatic and intelligent manner common to all readers of this series.

Well, to be a soccer fan in 2022 is not dissimilar to being a person grappling with the fundamental injustice of the universe. Soccer and the universe are both beautiful. They’re also both prone to dumping lightning bolts on your roof when you least expect it.

Especially in this era, when, no matter how much you love the game, you can’t help but notice that it’s been bought and sold by corrupt bureaucrats, megalomaniacal billionaires, and autocratic heads of state. Soccer and the universe both make you ask how something that awakens your sense of wonder and joy can also be brutally unfair and harmful.

You probably know already that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the one that’s kicking off in a few months’ time, comes with a long history of crimes and human tragedies attached. The game gives you the miracle of the game, and then burns somebody’s house down.

But when creation hands you Lionel Messi, how can evil exist?

It’s enough to make a soccer fan start cold-calling lawyers in Phoenix. But soccer fans don’t have their own Russel H. Tansie. Everyone knows the institutions are broken. There’s no higher court to take the case. Not even in Sonoma County.

Today we’re going to talk about, not this World Cup, but the last one—the 2018 men’s World Cup, in Russia. We’re going to talk about a goal that brings these questions into focus. We’re going to talk about Kylian Mbappé, just the second teenager ever to score in a World Cup final.

The first was Pele.

We’re going to talk about a goal that exists at the junction between beauty and corruption. Between innocence and cynicism. Between what fans feel thrilled to witness and what fans feel ashamed to support. Between paradise and Sepp Blatter.

Stick with me, and over the course of the next few pages we’re going to definitively solve the problem of evil. Or at least the problem of Neymar.

This is not a soccer essay, this is a revolution in metaphysics. Let’s jump right in.

Paris Saint-Germain v AS Monaco - French League Cup Final
Mbappé during the French League Cup final against AS Monaco in 2017
Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

3. Mbappé the Boy Wonder

I remember Kylian Mbappé’s run through the World Cup in Russia as one of the most exhilarating stories I have ever followed in sports. Here was this kid, just 19 years old. He’d played in fewer than 110 top-level soccer matches. He wasn’t the biggest star on his own team, France. And France was a good team, but not the team most favored to win the World Cup.

I don’t know if you were following soccer in 2018. But the narrative heading into the tournament was dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two aging megastars who were supposed to be facing their last good chances to win the biggest prize in soccer. Messi and Ronaldo were the North Pole and the South Pole of the game. The sport’s magnetic field ran right through them.

By contrast, Mbappé was famous, but not Beyoncé-famous. He probably couldn’t have gone out for a latte in Moscow without being recognized, but he probably could have gone out for a latte without a mob spontaneously forming around him. Which is for the best, because the mob would have run into some serious autocorrect problems as they frantically texted their friends sentences containing the word “Mbappe” and the word “latte” in close proximity.

He was born on December 20, 1998. In my notes here, I just wrote, “Add an incredulous snort at the absurdity of anyone being born in 1998.” But I’m not going to do it, because I’m too old, and I might hurt my back.

As an old person, I do at least have a mature perspective formed by ancient historical events that Kylian Mbappé was born too late to experience. I’m thinking of reference points from the primordial past like the series finale of Seinfeld, the launch of Google, and the publication of the first two Harry Potter books.

Unlike Harry Potter, Mbappé was born in a suburb of Paris. Also unlike Harry Potter, he was born to a mother who had once played professional handball. Though I bet the wingardium leviosa spell would come in really handy on a handball court.

In my notes here, after the word “handy,” I wrote, “Pause so readers can groan,” and I’m going to go ahead and do that, because it will give me a chance to rest my back.

Ahhh.

Mbappé’s mother was an Algerian of Kabyle descent, just like Zinedine Zidane’s parents. His father was Cameroonian. He grew up in Bondy, part of the dense network of working-class and immigrant suburbs around Paris. A world of tower blocks, high crime, and concrete soccer pitches.

When Kylian was a little kid, there were large-scale riots in Bondy, and a lot of cars were lit on fire, which made some people in France see the suburb as a violent and lawless place. But people who lived there said that the problem was that the police were violent toward them, that they faced prejudice from white French people, and that young people had no jobs and no prospects.

Footnote 1, see colonialism.

As a little kid, Mbappé went to music school. This is something I’ve always loved about him. He learned to play the flute! But whenever he wasn’t busy tootling Mozart sonatas, he was playing soccer. His early love of the sport is depicted in a famous French Nike ad that shows him as a kid, asleep in bed, using a soccer ball as a pillow.

Not in a cupboard under the stairs. Just in a regular bedroom.

He was so into soccer that his father said Kylian’s obsession almost put him, the father, off the game. And that’s saying something, because Kylian’s dad was a soccer coach.

Kylian could watch four or five matches in a row without getting bored. Most people can watch only part of one match without getting bored. Sometimes, if Burnley is playing? That figure is zero matches.

When Kylian was 6 years old, he went to train at the local soccer club, A.S. Bondy. Right away, his coaches knew he was special. They didn’t try to stop him from playing his own flamboyant game. They just let him dribble solo through opposing defenses and try wild shots—which usually went in.

This is not a training philosophy that would look good in a Hollywood movie about a hardscrabble talent who has to learn to play selflessly to succeed. But Mbappé was so good that movie logic never applied to him.

When he was still little, he would go to the barber and ask him to cut his hair with a bald spot, so he’d look like Zidane. His mom put a stop to this, but that was the level of his dedication to the game. He said he didn’t know what male pattern baldness was. He just thought that anything Zidane had was cool.

He eventually went to train at the national soccer center in France, Clairefontaine Academy. Kind of the Hogwarts of French soccer, except the staircases stay in one place so you can get to training faster. It’s convenient that way.

As a young player, he turned down offers to join the youth academies of Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich. At 14, he went to train in the youth program of AS Monaco. Monaco promoted him to the senior level at 16. He was supposed to play on the B team, but they moved him to the main squad after a whole three weeks.

In a Hollywood movie, there would be a lot of speed bumps facing the protagonist as he battled his way toward soccer greatness. But Mbappé? He basically just steamrolled past all that.

On the soccer pitch, he played with such astonishing speed and agility that he sometimes seemed to be teleporting from one spot on the pitch to another. And in his life, it was as if he teleported from being a 14-year-old kid who always played FIFA as Neymar to being an 18-year-old kid who was Neymar’s teammate at PSG, the super-rich Parisian club owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar.

He was so talented that when he’d barely reached the legal drinking age in France, he’d already become the second-most-expensive transfer in the history of soccer. PSG paid more than $200 million to sign him, a number that everyone took considerably more seriously than the legal drinking age in France.

It’s 18, by the way. (I’m guessing that even my French readers have to Google that.)

He was one of the most exciting rising stars anywhere in sports. And within a year of signing for PSG, he was poised to follow in the footsteps of his idols, Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, and make all his dreams come true.

And then the 2018 World Cup came around, and he went to Moscow and did it.

4. A Little Money Laundering Among Friends

Moscow. A city of dreaming spires, churches that look like they’re made out of hard candy, and celebrities walking around sipping lattes in relative anonymity.

If I had to describe the vibe of Moscow in one phrase, it would be, Not a place where you feel like you can sue God. In Soviet Russia, God sues you. Moscow’s pretty top-down, power-wise. That’s why all the rich people park their Audis right in the middle of the sidewalk.

Probably the third-best thing about owning property.

Now, there may be no story in sports more wholeheartedly thrilling than the story of a young player who breaks through on the biggest possible stage. No matter how old you are, or how your back is feeling after your most recent incredulous snort, it’s a story that takes you back to your own childhood dreams.

But for a young player looking to triumph at the 2018 World Cup—maybe one who had teleported past seemingly every movie-plot speed bump life could throw at him—there was a strange cognitive dissonance in play. Because the 2018 World Cup came slathered in the aura of corruption and bad faith. And an aura you can be slathered in is perhaps the least innocent thing of all.

You may remember—if you cast your mind back to the news stories of a decade ago—that FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia at the same time as it awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The host of the World Cup is chosen by the governing council of FIFA, which evaluates bids from all the different countries and then has a big vote to decide who wins. The FIFA council has expanded in recent years, but back in 2010 when these hosts were picked, it consisted of just a couple dozen people. So if you had one of those couple dozen votes, you had a lot of power over a decision that could throw billions of dollars to one group of people or another.

FIFA doesn’t usually award two World Cups at once, and at the time, observers couldn’t help but notice that many of the members of FIFA’s executive committee were old men, that FIFA’s executive committee had been followed for a long time by rumors that its members had a passion for taking bribes, and that if you wanted to take as many bribes as possible before you got too old, handing out two World Cups at the same time was a pretty good way to do it.

There is a question hanging over this episode like a cloud in a lightning storm. The question is, how do we reconcile the human cost of corruption in soccer with the beauty and wonder the game is capable of bringing us?

I said in the first installment of this series that we’re here to talk about the joy of soccer, and I stand by that. I want that joy in my life. I want it in your life. I think it matters.

But we have to remember, when we’re talking about the World Cup, that the tournament is not a victimless miracle. Our joy often comes at the expense of someone else’s suffering. How do we honor both those things? How do we hold them both in our minds at the same time?

Three years before the World Cup kicked off in Russia, on the morning of May 27, 2015, Swiss police officers working in tandem with the FBI raided the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich. They arrested several high-level FIFA executives who were in town for the organization’s annual congress.

The arrests turned out to be the pivotal moment in a long-running investigation of FIFA corruption spearheaded by American law enforcement. This investigation led to the downfall of the longtime president of the organization, a jolly little goblin called Sepp Blatter, and to multiple indictments and guilty pleas for crimes ranging from racketeering to wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, and tax evasion.

Here’s then–attorney general Loretta Lynch on goblin-busting duty.

Well, you may say to yourself, what’s a little money laundering among friends? I get that. I’m not even sure I totally understand what money laundering is. I never even figured out how to wash a wool sweater without ending up with a weirdly tiny wool sweater that looks like it was knitted for a jolly little goblin, possibly Sepp Blatter, possibly as a bribe.

And if we’re totally honest with each other, a lot of the stories that emerged as a consequence of the investigations into FIFA were just really, really funny.

I’ll tell you one funny little FIFA corruption story, as a treat. There was this British soccer official named Lord Triesman. “Lord” was not his first name. He was an actual lord, as in Voldemort. Britain wanted to host the 2018 World Cup, so his lordship paid a visit to see Nicolás Leoz, the six-term president of the South American soccer confederation.

Triesman later testified before a parliamentary committee, and here’s how he described the meeting.

I was guided from the table … to a display cabinet in which there was a large book in which there were many facsimiles of the very many honors that he had received from a number of different countries and indeed photos of streets and street signs around the world which had been named after him. … Mr. Leoz said that he believed that the appropriate way of recognizing his achievements in world football was not by money—he didn’t need money, he already was personally a very wealthy man. … But he was deeply concerned about whether people recognized what he had achieved in terms of the honors that he had received. … I was then told … that he believed a knighthood from the United Kingdom would be appropriate.

Now, I don’t know about you, but personally, I find this story relatable. Whenever an article I’ve written does especially well on the internet, I walk my editor over to my display cabinet, show him bound facsimiles of all my retweets, and explain that a knighthood from the United Kingdom would be the appropriate way to recognize the sheer numbers I post with my takes.

I imagine this is a more or less universal human experience. Sally, did you finish your math homework? Yes, Mom, and I believe a knighthood from the United Kingdom would be the appropriate way to recognize my responsible behavior.

Another relatable soccer corruption story: Consider the tale of Chuck Blazer, the lavishly bearded former president of Concacaf, the North American soccer federation. Who among us wouldn’t do exactly what Chuck Blazer did, and use our soccer accounts to fund an $18,000-a-month apartment for ourselves in Trump Tower, and a separate, $6,000-a-month apartment also in Trump Tower for our cats?

5. The Human Cost

The problem is that corruption in soccer is not all fun and games. Not even when you consider it next to the average Burnley match.

Over the last several years, the sport has been increasingly taken over by billionaires and autocratic regimes who use the glamour of the world’s most popular game to launder their own tarnished images.

That’s why it was so striking that Russia and Qatar were the two countries to emerge victorious from the 2018 and 2022 bid process. Two oil-rich nations with little governmental transparency and leaders who could really stand to benefit from the PR gloss of hosting the tournament. And the thing is, when FIFA decides that human rights don’t matter outside the lyrics of whatever Il Divo song they’ve commissioned for that year’s opening ceremony, staging the world’s biggest sporting event tends to come with a terrible human cost.

The most prominent example is this year’s tournament in Qatar, where more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in the building boom leading up to the World Cup.

In Brazil, in 2014, tens of thousands of poor families were forced out of their homes and relocated to make room for the influx of athletes and tourists.

In South Africa in 2010, thousands of shantytown dwellers were forcibly evicted and moved into a mass camp of corrugated metal houses, with no school and no medical care. All so tourists wouldn’t have to see them on the way to the World Cup stadium nearby.

Stories like these don’t tend to get a lot of attention, because they’re deliberately kept out of the public eye. Instead, journalists travel to Rio or to Cape Town or to Doha for the tournament, spend all their time inside clean, safe, and orderly tourist zones, and then report back on what a great job the countries did hosting the World Cup.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound as though I think the United States and Europe are so vastly morally superior to the rest of the world.

But during the buildup to the World Cup in 2018, Russian authorities imported forced labor from North Korea—workers who were essentially enslaved—to help with stadium construction in St. Petersburg.

FIFA’s human rights policy specifically bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But in 2017, pro-Putin forces in Chechnya rounded up and tortured dozens of gay and bisexual men, some of whom were never seen again. The despotic head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, said this never happened, and couldn’t have happened, because there were no gay people in Chechnya, because to have gay people in Chechnya would defile the purity of Chechen blood.

FIFA made Chechnya a World Cup training center. Egypt was one of the teams that trained there, and Kadyrov tried to milk the positive publicity by proclaiming the Egyptian star Mo Salah an honorary Chechen citizen. Salah was reportedly so upset about this that he considered quitting the national team and leaving the tournament.

6. It’s Metaphysical Open-Mic Night, and I’ve Got the Notecards to Prove It

All right. We are getting into pretty dark territory here. And this is a series about joy. This is a series about soccer goals that strike such a deep and marvelous chord in us that I’m writing hundreds of pages just as an excuse to talk about it.

But part of the power these goals have comes from the moment, the setting, the context in which they take place. And when the context is mixed up with human rights violations, sportswashing, violence, and double-dealing, then the meaning of the game is compromised.

But let’s take a beat to lift our moods.

To cheer us all up, I have a very special treat in store. Please put your hands together for the uproarious comic stylings of one man—namely me—and three Arsenal jokes. Namely these Arsenal jokes.

Number one.

Question: Why did God turn his face away from the universe?

Answer: Arsenal.

Number two.

Question: When Arsenal is on television, does God laugh?

Answer: No.

Number three.

A priest, Russel H. Tansie, and an Arsenal fan are sitting in a canoe one night looking up at the stars. The priest says, “Whenever I gaze upon the beautiful canopy of stars above our heads, I can’t help but think about the majesty of God’s creation and the essential goodness of our universe.” Russel H. Tansie nods thoughtfully and says, “When I look up at the stars, I can’t help but muse upon the essential randomness of life, the injustice of fate, and how I would like to sue each one of those stars individually for one hundred thousand dollars.” And the Arsenal fan says, “When I look up at the stars, I can’t help but wonder … is that really what stars look like?” And the priest says, “Why, child, do you really not know what stars look like?” And the Arsenal fan says, “Well … I used to know. But it’s been such a long time since West Ham signed Nigel Winterburn.”

I wrote that joke myself. I’m kind of proud of it. In my notes here, I’ve just written, “Pause for laughter.” So please, take your time.

Nigel Winterburn.

Nigel. Winterburn.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final
Mbappé’s goal during the 2018 World Cup final against Croatia
Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

7. The Goblet of Fire

And now! Nineteen-year-old Kylian Mbappé, just a few years removed from his final flute lesson, enters his very first World Cup. And what he does there will take your breath away.

We tend to talk about sports in terms of destruction. We use words like eviscerate, annihilate, dismantle, crush. We say Luka Modric carved up the defense like a hot knife through the belly of a tranquilized hippopotamus.

Well, we don’t say that specifically. But we say things of that nature.

When we’re feeling more positive about sports, we describe it in terms of creation. We say an athlete made something out of nothing. Conjured up a moment of magic. Saw something no one else could see. Resurrected the hippopotamus and taught it to sing “Broadway Baby” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Though that description is justifiably reserved for the greatest athletes who ever played the game.

Neither of these metaphorical frames feels adequate to describe Mbappé at the 2018 World Cup. Watching him during France’s run to the final was like watching a kid race through the first, easy levels of a video game so he can get to the more challenging levels as fast as possible.

He played in a state of supercharged impatience, as if he were late for a different soccer game, a way better soccer game, but had to quickly put this one away first before he could get there. Before you can get to Platform 9 3/4, you have to put your token in the turnstile. In this case, the token was the ball, and the turnstile was the goal.

Mbappé was faster than everyone else on the pitch. He was more purposeful than everyone else on the pitch. He scored his first-ever World Cup goal in France’s 1-0 win over Peru during the group stage, becoming the youngest goalscorer in French World Cup history.

Against Lionel Messi and Argentina, he didn’t so much destroy the Argentine defense as he majestically failed to notice that the Argentine defense was present in the stadium. He scored two goals. He created a third when he ran almost the full length of the pitch, then got dragged down in the box by Marcos Rojo, allowing Antoine Griezmann to score a penalty.

No teenager had scored two goals in a World Cup game since—and stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Pele did it in 1958.

Pele was known to have been pretty good at soccer.

France’s 4-3 win over Argentina took place in the Round of 16. Which meant that Mbappé’s goals sent Messi home from the tournament. Afterward, it was described as one of the greatest World Cup games of all time.

Mbappé was no longer pretty famous. He had seized the stage from one of the biggest stars ever to resurrect a hippopotamus. He was now standing firmly in the center of the world’s brightest spotlight.

France beat Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals and squeaked by an outstanding Belgium team 1-0 in the semifinals. Now the player everyone was talking about would have a chance to play against the upstart Croatian team in the final of the World Cup. The biggest game in sports.

I remember reading an interview somewhere with a recording engineer who works with Kendrick Lamar. The guy said that when Kendrick first started working with Dr. Dre, he wasn’t shy at all, because Kendrick knows exactly what he wants and big names mean nothing to him.

I always found that really impressive, especially as someone who finds even small names pretty intimidating. Put a medium-sized name in front of me and I might be too nervous to eat lunch.

But Kylian Mbappé went into the World Cup final with that same Kendrick-like quality of sublime confidence. The French soccer writer Vincent Duluc once said that Mbappé always thought he was going to be an enormous star, so he finds the limelight “predictable.”

So: What does predictable look like?

July 15, 2018. Men’s World Cup final. Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. It’s a cloudy day. Vladimir Putin is watching from the stands, which is to say, from a heavily guarded luxury box behind what I assume is bullet-proof glass. Putin shakes hands with the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter’s replacement, Gianni Infantino. Putin shakes hands with the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. Putin shakes hands with the president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Putin shakes hands with Conor McGregor, for some reason.

The Croatian team is a wily, physical unit led by the sylphlike midfielder Luka Modric. Who, by the way, I love watching.

You know that one shot in every mystery movie? Where the detective compiles all the newspaper clippings and Polaroid photos and coded messages recovered from secret laundry rooms? Then they make a murder board, taping the stuff all over the wall? And then the detective connects the evidence with crazy zigzags of string?

Luka Modric plays like the string.

The match is intense from the opening whistle. Croatia starts strong. They pin the French back into their own half and attack the goal.

But then France goes on the attack. In the 18th minute, the Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic tries to head away a free kick from Griezmann, botches the header, and hits it into his own net for the first-ever own goal in a men’s World Cup final.

Wow. More like Mario Mandz-ouch-ic. Your dad just texted me that, by the way. About 10 minutes later, Ivan Perisic scores with a left-footed blast.

1-1.

About 10 minutes after that, the referee whistles Perisic for a handball. Penalty for France. Griezmann converts the shot.

2-1 to the French.

A thunderstorm has started over the stadium. You can see this really dramatic backdrop of lightning bolts flashing in the clouds behind the game.

Just after halftime, Croatia is attacking when a group of four people dressed in police uniforms run out onto the pitch. Security guards chase after them. They’re not cops. They’re pitch invaders. It turns out that they’re activists from the Moscow-based protest band Pussy Riot, and they’ve charged into the match to make a statement against Putin’s government. The guards tackle them and drag them away.

Play resumes.

More rain, more lightning.

In the 59th minute, Mbappé plays a pivotal role in a passing move that leads to a goal for Paul Pogba.

3-1 France.

Then, in the 65th minute, Kylian Mbappé gets the ball in the middle of the pitch, about 25 yards from the goal.

At another time, we might have expected to see Mbappé use his unbelievable speed and his unbelievable balance here, and weave through the Croatian defense to try to create a shot.

That’s what he’s been doing all tournament. But unbeknownst to anyone in the stadium outside the French team, Mbappé is carrying an injury.

He’s hurt his back, amazingly. And that’s what I call a player ahead of his time.

So he doesn’t try to dribble. He doesn’t look for the pass. He’s always done things faster than other people. He’s always seemed to move through the universe at an accelerated pace. Now, the fastest thing is just to score a goal with no preamble. He’s waited 19 long years for people to start saying he might be the best player in the world. Now his moment has finally arrived.

He’s out past the edge of the area, defenders rushing to block his line to the goal. He’s got six Croatian jerseys between him and the net. He winds up and takes a hard right-footed swing at the ball. It sails low along the ground, bounces once, and then smacks hard into the bottom left corner of the net.

The goalkeeper didn’t have a chance.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final
Mbappé celebrates his World Cup goal
Photo by Fu Tian/China News Service/Visual China Group via Getty Images

Kylian Mbappé has just scored in a World Cup final as a 19-year-old. The grand narrative of soccer is written in heaven by a group of angelic hippopotami—they wear togas—and we’ve just watched them start a new page.

We’ve just watched the purest thing in sports. A story that ends: and the kid went out and did it.

Croatia gets one more goal. The French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris makes a wild error, lets Mandzukic take the ball away from him and score to cancel out his own goal from earlier in the game.

He’s not Mandz-ouch-ic anymore. Just, like, Mandz-regular-ic. Tell your dad I said hi.

But it’s not enough. France wins the World Cup for the first time since Zidane and his bald spot. This moment probably seemed predictable to Mbappé. It’s a revelation to everybody else.

The rain starts coming down harder. By the time the stewards are done setting up for the trophy presentation, it’s really pelting down. All the dignitaries and politicians on the pitch, to say nothing of the players, are getting soaked.

All except one. An anonymous-looking aide is holding an umbrella for Vladimir Putin. He’s the only one in the stadium who stays dry.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and French President Emmanuel Macron at the 2018 men’s World Cup trophy presentation
Photo by Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

8. The Umbrella Problem

Remember the question we asked earlier? The thundercloud question? The question was, how do we reconcile these two sides of soccer—what the World Cup gives to us, what the World Cup takes away from someone else?

It would be nice to be able to say that the two things are unrelated—that soccer brings us the joy of Kylian Mbappé, and the ugliness of the FIFA executive committee, and those are separate phenomena, and you could have one without the other.

Well, maybe you could have one without the other. But they’re not unrelated. It’s not as simple as that.

Soccer is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous people not despite the joy it gives us but because of the joy it gives us. Our joy is the hook. There’s no way around it. Our joy makes us want to watch the game, which makes the game popular—and valuable. And that makes it vulnerable to cynical people who want to use it for their own ends.

The world needs soccer, because people need an escape. But some of the things people need an escape from are things, like loss and displacement, that soccer puts into the world.

In other words, it’s not just that the lightning falls on random people’s houses. The lightning is carefully aimed. It’s aimed at poor people, at unprotected people, at people in parts of the world that the Western media tends not to worry about. And it’s impossible for soccer fans to feel completely not responsible for the consequences when it was our desire for shelter that somehow created the storm.

Kylian Mbappé went from the World Cup final back to Paris and to his enormous salary paid for by the Qatari oil state.

By the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off in that very same oil state, Mbappe will have flirted with a move to Real Madrid, then re-signed with PSG for a ludicrous fee. Which the Qataris were happy to pay him, as long as they got to hold on to the game’s brightest young star while hosting an internationally televised advertisement for their regime.

Looking too closely at the inner workings of soccer can sometimes feel like discovering the author of a beloved fantasy series is also someone who spends all her time posting terrible opinions on Twitter. It’s disillusioning. Then the game itself re-illusions you.

Mbappé’s run through the World Cup was one of the best things I saw in 2018, surrounded by some of the worst things. The most we can hope for from the 2022 World Cup is that it will be the same.

I don’t mean to sound like a downer. In this series, we’re going to take beauty where we find it. If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to see what Mbappé will do in Qatar.

But try, in the back of your mind, to remember Vladimir Putin’s umbrella. And if you’re going to love this game, cling very tightly to the part of it that nourishes your soul. Because the part of it that does the opposite can strike at any moment.



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