With 44 minutes gone at the vast, craning, wildly over-engineered Al Janoub Stadium, Kylian Mbappé did something extraordinary, perhaps even unique in modern World Cup history. Basically, he missed an open goal from six yards out. No great shakes. It happens. Ball, bounce, angles, collisions.
This is still a kind of physical chaos.
Mbappé’s miss was different, however. He didn’t snatch or shin or prod at it. The problem wasn’t overstretching or leaning back. The punditry staples will not do here. Mbappé missed an open goal arrogantly. The problem was, meeting Antoine Griezmann’s cross at full stretch, with the game against Australia there to be guillotined out of existence, Mbappé was just too arrogant to score.
He was insouciant. He was super-chilled. Sliding cinematically on to the arc of the ball, he basically tried to score twice, to zing the net, to bulge and billow the net, to create the moment, the freeze frame, the montage gold. Instead he smashed it over the bar.
Mbappé, smiled, shook his head and sprung up out of the back of the net.
That’s football. Sometimes it’s a toe, a shin, a scuff. Sometimes, sometimes, you’re just too arrogant to score. The key is to go again, to come back and be arrogant in exactly the same place time and again.
The score was 2-1 at the time. Australia hit the post two minutes later. But the fact is France were simply running through them at that stage, Mbappé barely leaving a dent in the lime green turf, a man moving through lighter air and ofter gravity, and en route to a 4-1 win for France that really might have been anything.
Welcome to the Mbappé‑verse, and an occasion that felt remarkable even in this remarkable sporting life. It can be hard to keep up with the many layers of the Mbappé identity at this World Cup. Mbappé is France’s key creative hope. Mbappé is a paid employee of the state of Qatar. Mbappé does Doha billboards. Mbappé wants to leave Paris. Mbappé is the best footballer on the planet.
Plus he has an energy these days unlike any other athlete. This is not so much a footballer now as a blue-chip athletic commodity, to be traded and hoarded and displayed like a private Picasso. Currencies quiver, exchange rates shift at his every twitch and yawn. Talk of his unhappiness at PSG has already set the hares running.
Even this is novel. This kind of lovely, gossamer, hyper‑engineered footballer was seen in the past as a butterfly broken on a wheel, delicate objects for football to exploit and stretch thin. Mbappé is a butterfly, a jaw-droppingly lovely footballer. But he is also, to an unprecedented degree, a power-player in this world, a broker of his own talent. Mbappé is the wheel.
And of course, because he’s brilliant, razor sharp, and pretty much unstoppable one on one, he did score here, heading in Ousmane Dembélé’s cross early in the second half to make it 3-1.
It seems significant too that it was Mbappé’s initial cross that sparked the move, because Mbappé also never stopped moving, working, running, brain whirring, engaged at every moment in trying to win this game. Five minutes later he set up the fourth, crossing for Olivier Giroud to head his second and his 51st goal for France.
There had been much talk before this tournament of the players France are missing. In the absence of the Ballon d’Or incumbent Karim Benzema, Didier Deschamps went with a front three of Mbappé, Dembélé and of course the stately and hugely reassuring Giroud, the grand old belle epoque mahogany sideboard of international football. Giroud is a different kind of marvel, still that same bespoke mix of rumbling physical splendour and something oddly diffident in his persona 15 years into an elite career.
And who knows how good France might be when this tournament starts to narrow. The defence looked shaky here at first. They went behind in the game, Craig Goodwin finishing expertly after Lucas Hernandez twisted his knee as he turned to block Mathew Leckie’s neat little catch and turn.
It took France 17 minutes to equalise, Adrien Rabiot nodded in a fine deep cross from the substitute Theo Hernandez. And by now Mbappé was gliding past Nathaniel Atkinson with alarming ease. Mbappé doesn’t really run in the normal sense of the word when he puts those thrusters on. He drifts, floats, shimmies, moving in a way that seems so seductively elegant you wonder why every upright human biped doesn’t do it like that.
It was 2-1 not long after, and this was Rabiot’s work too, as he nicked the ball high up the pitch. Mbappé jump-flicked the ball back to him, Rabiot crossed and Giroud rolled the ball into the net.
After which Mbappé began to dance and twirl and add little trills into his routine. It seemed, frankly, a bit much at times. But it probably has an effect. Imagine trying to face this thing down. From a distance the Mbappé persona is a gripping thing to watch, and oddly uplifting for all the planetary-scale amour propre.
Here is a man supremely happy in his skin, in his dazzling talent. Far tougher challenges will await than these game yellow‑shirted athlete-footballers.
But Mbappé, you just know, won’t stop, will play like this, will continue to be utterly himself. A kind of ultimacy is within his grasp over the next three weeks. Either way it will be compulsive viewing.