It was in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by walls plastered with posters of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, that Kylian Mbappe laid the plan for his football career.
Even as young as nine years old, he knew how it would go. He would remain in France for his early years. He would play for his country. He would lift the Champions League trophy. And the ultimate aim: He would win the Ballon d’Or.
French journalist Ronan Boscher, who has covered Mbappe for years and written extensively on him, calls the plans laid out in that room the “grand project” of not only Mbappe but also his whole family. “He has always had a very clear path and wanted to keep to it,” Boscher says. “He would not be swayed at all. He would not be rushed. He is a determined and very single-minded character. He always imagined this career for himself. He knew where he wanted to go.”
And now, he is there.
Starring for Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe has 15 goals in 29 games this season for his hometown side, playing alongside Neymar on a team at the top of Ligue 1 and about to face Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League.
It’s a testament to the skill of a player being billed as the world’s most exciting young talent but also to the faith of a family in that “grand project.” Because there have been many chances for Mbappe to deviate from this path, as both a child and as recently as the summer, including offers that could have landed him with Chelsea or Real Madrid. He did not allow himself to be tempted.
“I have had a career plan since my youngest age,” Mbappe recently told former French international Jerome Rothen on his RMC radio show. “I know what I want to do, where I want to go, and I will not let anything disturb me.”
Mbappe grew up in a close and naturally sporting family in Bondy, a working class suburb of northeast Paris far removed from the city most tourists see.
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His father, Wilfried, was a coach at his local non-league club, AS Bondy. His mother, Fayza, was a professional handball player. And his 28-year-old adopted brother Jires Kembo Ekoko is a professional footballer who plays for Bursaspor in Turkey.
At seven, Mbappe started playing for his father’s club, and he soon was playing against older boys, as it became obvious he was a rare and prodigious talent.
“Even at 10, he was being looked at by many clubs,” Boscher says. “It had been a long time since anyone had seen a young player this good in French football. Scouts from all across the country were very excited. He was a wunderkind who had everything.
“His father knew his son was the best French player since Zinedine Zidane and wanted to be careful. They had no desire to grab the first thing that came along.”
As word of his talent spread, though, the opportunities began to present themselves.
Chelsea had been following Mbappe through their French scout, Guy Hillion, and in autumn 2010, when he was 11 years old, they invited him to their Cobham training ground for a week’s trial.
While Chelsea hoped they could lure him to southwest London, the Mbappe family—his mother, father and uncle Pierre all made the trip—went to England primarily for the experience, with no intention of uprooting themselves and leaving France.
For Mbappe, this was more an opportunity for inspiration, to test himself at one of Europe’s biggest clubs and meet some of his football heroes.
During his week at Chelsea, Mbappe played one game for their under-12 side, an 8-0 win against Charlton Athletic.
Mbappe played alongside a rich crop of players, including England striker Tammy Abraham, who is on loan from Chelsea at Swansea City, and fellow Frenchman Jeremie Boga, who is also still at Chelsea but on loan at Birmingham City this season.
The Charlton manager was Sean Daly, who has worked in youth football for over 17 years.
“Whenever we play Chelsea, they have several young players we have never heard about before—they have a conveyor belt of outstanding talent from all over the world—and Kylian Mbappe was one of them that day,” Daly recalls. “Sometimes it can be competitive, but that day, we got hammered. You look at some of their young players and think, ‘Oh my word.'”
Mbappe enjoyed his week at Chelsea’s training ground. Coming from a non-league club, he was hugely impressed with the modern training centre, which then had only been open for three years.
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While in England, Mbappe also was taken in to London for a tour of Stamford Bridge, met Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti and star forward Didier Drogba and was presented with a Chelsea shirt with “Kylian 10” on the back, which he hung in his bedroom when he returned home.
Still, he was not “overawed at Chelsea,” French football commentator Matt Spiro says. “He had tremendous belief in himself and knew he could play at a club like this. He had always known he belonged at this level, and this week had proved it.”
Last summer, when he was unveiled at Paris Saint-Germain, Mbappe spoke about the important role the visit to Chelsea had played in his career.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he said, as reported by the Daily Telegraph. “Chelsea was the first great club, the first big club, that I went to visit. So it was a real discovery for me.
“I was coming from my grassroots, amateur club. It was a whole new world. Of course I had an idea what a great football club was like, but I was really impressed by the working culture and the mentality of wanting to be better day in, day out. And visiting this infrastructure helped me, actually, with my development. …
“An idea has been reinforced since I was a kid—not just because I went to Chelsea. I always thought, ‘I want to be there, I want to be one of those big players who is trying to give people fun out of the game.'”
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At the end of the week, Chelsea had been keen to offer Mbappe a place in their academy, but his family, though grateful, did not contemplate it at all and returned to France.
“They were quite happy to turn down Chelsea because they knew it was the first offer, not the last,” Spiro says. “They knew these offers would come again. They saw his future in France.
“It wasn’t a case of Chelsea failing. He was never going to move abroad so young. Chelsea knew how good he was. The trial proved nothing. It was more a meet and greet, a chance for them to get to know him and lay the foundation for the future.”
Says Le Parisien London correspondent Julien Laurens: “Mbappe had been amazing during his week at Chelsea; the coaches were very impressed with him. Chelsea pushed really hard for him, but the family was certain it was not the right time. I understand Manchester United had organised a similar week for him up there, but it didn’t happen in the end, and they went home.”
The Mbappe family were also well aware of the experiences of other talented young players at Chelsea over recent years.
“He knew he could be swallowed up at Chelsea,” Boscher says. “He knew what happened to young players there. At a big club, you can get forgotten, and young players are normally loaned out.
“He thought it would be very difficult to go straight in to the first team, and that was always his aim, to play from a very young age.”
Says Spiro: “He was always a very mature boy even at a young age and was also surrounded by good people who groomed him for this success. They paid close attention to everything.”
And so Mbappe and his family resisted the charms of Chelsea, and he returned to playing for the youth sides at AS Bondy.
Six months after his return from Chelsea, Mbappe took up a place at the French Football Federation’s revered Clairefontaine.
He boarded at the academy from Monday to Friday, and as it was only 42 miles away, went home for weekends and still played for AS Bondy, which he could never have done if he had moved to Chelsea. It was not the highest level, but he was happy.
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For the next two years, Mbappe developed his game at Clairefontaine under the watchful eye of the coaches, who remember a uniquely driven and talented character.
Former Clairefontaine director Gerard Precheur recently told So Foot that Mbappe was “bathed in the world of football” and that “he was ambitious because he was aware of his potential and confident in the fact that he could reach the bar he had set for himself.”
In December 2012, Wilfried Mbappe received a call from Real Madrid, inviting him and his son to travel to the Spanish capital for a trial in the same week Mbappe turned 14.
Most young boys and their families would have jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime chance, but not the Mbappes. They approached it the same way they had Chelsea. They would go only for the experience.
As Mbappe’s father succinctly explained to France Football earlier this year, “We did not go to Madrid to learn more about our son’s potential but to please him.”
Says Boscher: “He went to Real Madrid for a birthday treat. It was like a present, a little holiday. They saw it as a chance to meet Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, get some signed shirts and pictures with them. They were never joining them.”
Julien Maynard @JulienMaynard
Kylian Mbappé parle de Cristiano Ronaldo dans @telefoot_TF1 : “Il a bercé ma jeunesse. J’avais des posters de lui dans ma chambre. C’est un joueur que j’ai adulé. Il avait un talent de base, mais avec tout le travail qu’il a fourni il l’a transformé en devenant une légende.” https://t.co/QQgFw0f6kR
Zidane even came to welcome Mbappe to his first training session with the Real Madrid youth teams, and he got a picture with his idol Ronaldo, but none of it changed anything.
Mbappe’s uncle Pierre also made the trip to Spain and has since explained the family’s thinking behind rejecting Real Madrid.
“I’m very grateful to Kylian,” Pierre told L’Equipe (h/t AS). “I never imagined my 13-year-old nephew would take me [to] Real Madrid or Chelsea, but he did just that. From a selfish point of view, I had the huge pleasure of meeting trainers like Ancelotti and Zidane.
“[But] you can get to Madrid and start from the back of the queue. The whole world then forgets about you.”
Mbappe grew up in an era when French players routinely left for other countries at young ages. But clearly, he was determined to take a different approach.
“He is very French. He is proud of his country and wanted to continue to live there,” Boscher says. “He saw no benefit in leaving so young. He knows a lot about the history of football in France. He is fond of learning all about the stories in books and wants to be part of that. He is very connected to France.”
After two productive years at Clairefontaine, Mbappe chose to continue his football education at AS Monaco, lured by the reputation of their academy and the knowledge he would have the chance to play in their first team as soon as possible.
There, Mbappe developed into one of the world’s most exciting players, becoming Monaco’s youngest-ever player and goalscorer in his first season.
His goals helped them win the French title and reach the semifinals of the Champions League in 2017.
Then last summer, when Real Madrid returned for Mbappe and had a bid of £161 million accepted, it was assumed he would leap at the chance to join his hero, Ronaldo.
A private jet was on standby to take him to join Madrid on tour in Miami, but he would not be forced into it and stood his ground.
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A month later, he became the second-most expensive player in history when for the same fee he chose to join Paris Saint-Germain.
It came as little surprise to those who know the Mbappe family and Kylian’s history and his “grand project.”
“It was the first time a French player had snubbed a big foreign club for a French club,” Boscher says. “It was a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. …
“Mbappe had been doing that his whole life. He was always going to stay in France and be close to his family. Paris is his hometown. He has everything he wants there.”