There’s a series of pictures that have been circulating for a while now that features a 13-year-old Kylian Mbappé in his Bondy bedroom, surrounded by homemade wallpaper comprised of Cristiano Ronaldo photos. The first thing you notice is how neatly arranged they are, hung with care as if by a Tetris expert. The second thing is that almost every one of them features the Portuguese icon wearing the white of Real Madrid.
The most popular image in the series depicts Mbappé lying on his bed with his chin resting in his hands, his eyes gazing up and away toward his limitless future. Six years later, Mbappé was a world champion, a goal scorer in the World Cup final and arguably the most valuable player on the planet. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo, Mbappé’s teenage inspiration, could say that.
His future had arrived, but there still was so much more to achieve.
“My ambition is to go further,” Mbappé said following France’s triumph two years ago in Russia. “As far as my potential allows me, to my limits. … Winning a World Cup so young opens other doors. Now, I have to keep working. I’m only at the start of the road.”
It was assumed for years that his road eventually (and perhaps quickly) would lead to Madrid. The Spanish giants are soccer’s gold standard, and they not only employed Ronaldo during Mbappé’s most impressionable years, they once featured—and then were managed by— Mbappé’s other boyhood hero: Zinedine Zidane. Mbappé once admitted that he loved Zidane so much as a kid, he asked his barber to shave a bald spot into the top of his head.
Real Madrid long has seemed like Mbappé’s destiny, both before and since he joined Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco in the summer of 2017.
Zidane has said that Mbappé “always said his dream is to play for Real Madrid.” Mbappé’s father, Wilfried, once told France Football that his son, “is a Real Madrid fan and his idol is Cristiano Ronaldo.”
But nothing that definitive has come from the phenom himself. Good luck finding a quote in which Mbappé says explicitly that he is or was a Madrid supporter, or that he’s committed to following Ronaldo and Zidane to the Spanish capital. Ronaldo’s larger-than-life persona and his staggering success at the Santiago Bernabéu may have been Mbappé’s inspiration, but it also smacks of wide-eyed childhood idol worship. Kids like superheroes. How many millions revered Michael Jordan in the 1990s? How many of those millions continued cheering for the Bulls after Jordan left?
"I admired him when I was younger, but that ended,” Mbappé told Marca ahead of PSG’s Champions League round-of-16 meeting in early 2018. “Now I go to the Bernabéu to play and to win.”
PSG lost, as it always did in the Champions League and as it continued do until this week when, at last, it advanced to the title game after seven consecutive knockout-round failures. Two years after playing in a World Cup final as a 19-year-old, Mbappé will face Bayern Munich on Sunday in Lisbon, Portugal, in the biggest club contest there is. And that’s what makes his fandom, motivation and whatever resides inside his footballing heart relevant.
Because while this final does offer star power, it’s lacking in sympathetic storylines. Are those narratives always necessary? No, not if Mbappé’s old bedroom is any indication. But they do make up a big part of what draws fans and future players to the game. If soulless excellence was all that inspired, we’d be content watching computers play chess. And what about Sunday’s game genuinely inspires? Bayern is a deserving finalist, certainly. It’s a brilliantly-constructed team that’s playing dynamic, practically unbeatable football. It’s also a five-decade dynasty that’s going for its sixth European title. It’s the fourth-richest club on the planet and it’s been sucking almost all the oxygen out of the Bundesliga for years. Cheering for Bayern is like cheering for Amazon.
Then there’s PSG, which rose to global prominence a decade ago thanks to Qatari largesse. Typically, in a scenario like Sunday’s, a first-time finalist would be the neutral’s choice. But watching the free-spending, financial-fair-play-taunting Parisians run roughshod over French football year after year—and then choke in the Champions League year after year—all while behaving as much or more like a glitzy appendage of the Qatari government than the Île-de-France, hasn’t exactly stirred the soul.
If soccer is supposed to be the people’s game, if clubs are supposed to be an extension of their community, then this final missed that memo.
That’s where Daniele De Rossi and LeBron James come in. They spring to mind because they embody what could be the sentimental storyline of the Champions League final. It’s there if we seek it, or if we hope for it hard enough.
During an interview with Sports Illustrated four years ago, De Rossi pondered the roots, the responsibility and the fate that tied him to AS Roma, his hometown club. He was a World Cup champion who’d been courted by the likes of Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United. But he stayed in Rome (apart from a few games with Boca Juniors before retiring), watching the later rounds of the Champions League on TV, because the prospect of one trophy there meant more than a dozen somewhere else.
"Sometimes on my couch I think, ‘If I were not born in Rome, I would never be a Roma fan. I would never feel this sort of owed, this duty, to my fans, to my people, to my city,’” De Rossi said. “For me, a good player, [leaving] could be easier for sure. But the other side of the coin is that I loved to stay here. I love to [make] my people happy—for only one match, for only three matches. I love to see them happy.’”
A few years after taking his talents to South Beach, James found he derived more holistic inspiration from Northeast Ohio (“You know Cleveland’s great for the whole family?”). It was written all over his face in June 2016, in the moments after the Cavaliers won Cleveland’s first major sports title in more than a half century. James doesn’t appear to have grown up a Cavs fan. Like Mbappé, he was inspired by excellence. It was the 1990s Cowboys that appealed, not the 1990s Browns. But despite that, like De Rossi, James felt drawn and beholden to the place he was raised. He wanted to share something special with his peers.
There were complications and drama surrounding James’s return and during his second stint with the Cavs, but that one trophy appeared to be worth the price paid. That one title meant everything. It certainly made it easier for him to transition to Los Angeles. He’ll likely get more out of life there, but he’ll never do anything for the Lakers—the NBA’s Real Madrid—that’ll be as meaningful or legendary.
Similarly, what would Mbappé have to accomplish in Madrid to be welcomed into the pantheon of club greats? What could he do there that hasn’t been done before? He still has that chance in Paris. And that, maybe, is where the romance in Sunday’s final lies. He’s still young, and often coy or noncommittal when he speaks to the media. His bedroom wasn’t festooned with PSG pennants. He was never an ultra. He doesn’t have an Eiffel Tower tattoo. But there are signs Mbappé enjoys playing for the club—that it means something to him, even though he didn’t progress through its academy—and that he places a high value on roots and community. PSG is the capital’s only major team, and there were fans and neighbors supporting it long before Qatar came aboard. The Champions League must mean everything to them, and there’s a hometown kid who may deliver it (PSG started nine foreigners in the semifinal win over RB Leipzig).
“Being here is like going back home for me,” he told The Telegraph after joining PSG three years ago. “I used to come to this stadium when I was a boy to watch games. I was a football fan, a kid who loved football. And when you are a kid from Paris there are only two stadiums—the Stade de France or the Parc de Princes—and that is what makes Paris so special. There is only one club in Paris, so every Paris kid follows Paris Saint-Germain. And if that kid has money in his pocket, he comes to games here.”
PSG may not be Mbappé’s life, but it’s definitely part of his life. And as he grew up playing in Bondy, a northern, working-class suburb of the city, a bond formed with the region and its people that made him want to give back. He famously donated his World Cup earnings—about $500,000—to a charity that provides local disabled children with athletic opportunities. In January he launched his own initiative, "Inspired by KM," that intends to sponsor and support 98 Parisian children, “until their working lives begin,” he said.
If it’s seemed at times that Mbappé doesn’t relish playing for PSG, or that he has an eye on the Parc de Princes door, a case can be made that he does relish playing for Parisians. When Mbappé left Monaco in 2017, the club's then-VP, Vadim Vasilyev, told Telefoot, “Kylian explained to me that deep down, it was too early to leave for a foreign country. He told me, ‘I only played one year in my country. I’m Parisian. I do not want to leave my country like that. I want to become a great player here.”
But there also have been times, especially lately, when it does seem like he’s fulfilled at PSG. After a couple mixed messages sent speculation soaring and riled up the fan base, Mbappé told BeIN Sports last month that he has every intention of spending the 2020-21 season in Paris (his contract expires in 2022).
"The 50th year of the club is an important year for the club, the supporters, everyone. So I will be there no matter what,” he said, demonstrating his appreciation for PSG’s local, cultural importance. ”I will try to bring back trophies with the team and give the best of myself." This week, he said PSG's locker room has the "same vibes" that France's did two summers ago.
It would be hard to argue that on a purely physical and technical level, the best of himself is more likely to be honed at Real Madrid or Liverpool (Jürgen Klopp reportedly has inquired). PSG is unchallenged in France. But there’s also something specifically and uniquely alluring about this particular team’s quest to win this particular competition that sets apart Mbappé’s journey to Sunday’s final. To the world, PSG may be the nouveau riche Qatari club. But to Mbappé and his friends and family, it's merely the team that represents their city. It was that before Qatar took over, back when PSG had just two Ligue 1 titles to its credit. And it will be that if the owners ever abandon their marketing stunt and move on. There are tens of thousands for whom PSG isn’t a Jordan Brand duty free shop. It’ll be fun on Sunday to imagine that Mbappé is playing for them.
This is mostly speculative, of course. We can’t see inside Mbappé’s head or heart, and it’s unfair to expect his motivation to conform to an outsider’s attempt to infuse this high-profile final with some personal, grassroots stakes. But we can hope it does, and that alone might lend a romantic wrinkle to PSG-Bayern. It certainly would add another eventful chapter to Mbappé’s young but richly compelling story. He eventually may move on to win a 14th, 15th and 16th Champions League crown for Real Madrid. But none of those will be worth the first celebrated by his friends and neighbors.