It was only a penalty kick, and it was only in the UEFA Nations League, but it still felt like a statement moment for Kylian Mbappé, whose persona has endured a whirlwind of a few months.
On June 28, it was at the penalty spot that Mbappé brought an abrupt and premature end to France's run at the Euros. The reigning World Cup champions were supposed to reconfirm their status as the world's preeminent team by securing another trophy. They'd added Karim Benzema to an already stacked attack, and Mbappé's star was continuing to rise. Yet a collapse against Switzerland, a fine team in its own right but not the kind supposed to trouble these incredible Bleus, sent the round-of-16 bout to PKs, and with France's tournament life on the line, Mbappé failed to deliver. His decisive spot kick was saved by Yann Sommer, and France, shockingly, was out.
He's not the first star to miss a penalty on a key stage, with the weight of his country on his shoulders—his new club teammate at PSG, Lionel Messi, can tell him all about that—but for a player who won the World Cup at 19 and has become accustomed to things bouncing his way, it was a significant setback that capped a truly subpar tournament from a personal standpoint.
So it was important, then, that not only did he confront those demons head-on by stepping up to take the penalty won by Antoine Griezmann—France is not light on options for PK takers—in Thursday's Nations League semifinal vs. Belgium, but that he vanquished them. Certain penalties have a panache about them, the way they are struck and the spot to which they are directed. Mbappé's was just that. Seven minutes after he set up Benzema for one goal, he delivered another, and France had overcome a 2–0 deficit in a flash. Thanks to Theo Hernández's 90th-minute winner, it'll play Spain for the Nations League title Sunday in Italy.
But the Nations League in and of itself is of little relative consequence. For Mbappé, it's about restoring his standing with France—he was hurt vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina in World Cup qualifying last month and came under harsh criticism this summer—and taking back the narrative. This summer got away from him a bit, as the Euros preceded a saga with PSG that continues to permeate.
While his club was busy building a Supreme Team by adding Messi to a front line that already had Mbappé and Neymar and reinforcing its squad elsewhere with a summer transfer window for the ages, the boy from the banlieues had his sights set on Madrid. Into the last year of his PSG contract and without an extension signed, he wanted out. He confirmed in recent interviews with French outlets RMC Sport and L'Équipe that he asked for a transfer in July, and his other dream club, Real Madrid, had come calling. It's no secret how it all played out. PSG resisted, and Mbappé is free to sign a precontract with any club on Jan. 1 that would precede a free transfer next summer—that is, unless PSG can use the next two-plus months to convince him otherwise.
But there's a reason that he's talking so openly and doing so at this moment. Minor spats with Olivier Giroud (this summer before the Euros) and Neymar (recently at PSG), have cast him in a different light, and with Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and PSG sporting director Leonardo and president Nasser Al-Khelaifi controlling the summer messaging regarding his club future, Mbappé has seemingly felt the urge to step to the proverbial spot and reassert control.
"I think that most of all, I needed to explain myself. I had to put an end to the silence, and I said that I would do it," Mbappé told L'Équipe about his recent forthcomingness. "I owed it to the supporters, to football fans and those who read me. I couldn’t speak over the summer, that wasn’t possible. Now the summer is over, I had to clarify things, and I think now is the right time."
Mbappé's future remains one of the hot-button issues in world soccer and will until he either signs a new deal at PSG or heads elsewhere. His mother recently told Le Parisien that staying put has not been ruled out, which only adds to the melodrama. Along with Erling Haaland, he's the most sought-after talent on the planet. He is unsurprisingly on a 30-man "shortlist" for the Ballon d'Or, which France Football revealed Friday, and whether he stays or goes will be of great interest in Paris, Madrid and beyond, but what's become clear is that he's not going to let those who run his current club and his prospective one maintain full control over the messaging.
"I stayed and I’m really happy," Mbappé told L'Équipe. "At no point during the season will you hear behavior along the lines of, 'You didn’t let me leave, I’m going to take it easy.' I have too much love for football and too much respect for the club and for myself, to take it easy even for one game. With regard to my situation, we haven’t been discussing a renewal for a month and a half, two months, since I said I wanted to leave.
"I’ve been in football long enough now to know that yesterday’s truth is not necessarily today’s, nor tomorrow’s," he continued. "If I was told that Messi was going to play at PSG, I wouldn’t have believed it, so you never know what’s going to happen.
"We’re far from [committing to stay], seeing as I wanted to leave this summer. I’m not going to act like a hypocrite. ... This summer my ambition was clear, I wanted to leave and put the club in the best circumstances to bring in my replacement. Right now, my future is not my priority. I’ve already wasted a lot of energy this summer; it’s draining."
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