BONDY, France—On the football fields where Kylian Mbappé honed the feints, dribbles and shots that all of France hopes to see in the World Cup final, another generation of French kids with big dreams is already hard at work trying to follow in the superstar’s footsteps.
On the touchline, coach Rohat Sari looked on approvingly Saturday as his young players rampaged to a 10-0 victory for AS Bondy, the club in the Paris outskirts where Mbappé in his boyhood first discovered his knack and taste for running rings around other players.
Now, with those same skills on his sport’s biggest stage, Mbappé not only has a chance on Sunday to emulate Brazilian great Pelé by winning a second World Cup but also to demonstrate how his success is no accident.
Mbappé is the product of a breathtakingly successful system, the latest golden name in a non-stop torrent of top-notch talent constantly being churned out by France, which arguably is outstripping the likes of Brazil, Germany and other powerhouses as a factory of football players.
Since the Cold War ended, no country has had more success in ensuring that one winning generation is then followed by others. France’s first World Cup triumph of 1998 — which was also momentous for French football because that was the year Mbappé was born — was followed by its national team reaching the final again in 2006 (lost to Italy), 2018 (won against Croatia) and again now in Qatar.
Although Brazil, Germany and Italy still have more titles overall, making the final for the fourth time in 24 years allows France to lay claim to being the World Cup’s top performer of the last three decades, even if it loses to Argentina on Sunday.
Small clubs like AS Bondy, where Mbappé enrolled as a boy and quickly caught attention as a fleet-footed prodigy, are start points on France’s football production lines. Just as Mbappé did when he was a youngster, boys following in his wake picture themselves becoming professional footballers — not least because Mbappé and others who wore the club’s green jersey are setting the example.
“It motivates me, boosts me, makes me want to work even harder,” says Yacine Ngamatah, age 12. He scored four of his team’s 10 goals on Saturday against a club from another Paris suburb. The punchy midfielder has already tried out with a professional team, Dijon, which plays in the second tier of the French league.
Because Ngamatah runs and runs, seemingly never tiring, his teammates’ nickname for him is N’Golo Kanté, after France’s indefatigable midfielder who is sitting out this World Cup after hamstring surgery. Kanté also made his football start in a Paris-region team, Suresnes.
“We have nothing to envy the Brazilians,” says Yacine’s father, Eric Ousmane Ngamatah. “There’s such a big reservoir of players now in France, especially the Paris region.”
Money or the lack of it is part of the reason. France invests heavily in sports facilities, and there are pitches, parks and playgrounds across the Paris region and beyond, along with plenty of youth coaches and teams.
But as is also true the world over, football is attractive as a cheap pastime for kids from poorer families and as a possible escape route from working-class neighborhoods like Bondy.
So the success of Mbappé and other idols inspires and motivates.
Sari, the coach of the under-13 team, says the club’s youngsters try so hard to play like Mbappé that they mimic and quickly master dribbles and feints like his. France defender William Saliba also is Bondy-born and made his start at the club. He, too, has his fans among its youngsters. Saliba has made one appearance for France in Qatar.
“Everyone learns by example,” says Sari, who was born the same year as 23-year-old Mbappé and played against him when they both were boys.
“Our good fortune is that we have examples in the national team.”
Parents say they understand that very few kids make it all the way to the top. But dreams cost nothing.
“When I watch the France team I get all emotional, because I think maybe one day my kid, too, will be with them,” Rabiah Bertrand says. Her son, 12-year-old Ilan, scored from the penalty spot Saturday while she watched shivering on the sidelines through the 8-a-side match played in freezing temperatures.
“They tell themselves that what Kylian can do, they can do,” she adds. “We parents dream, too. Everything is possible in life.”
Image credits: AP