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Messi won, Mbappe won, Football won

The ball looped towards Kylian Mbappe, 97 seconds after he had kicked in a penalty goal. He had barely touched the ball in live play until that 81st minute. He hadn’t shown any special feel for the ball, as if he were a mere pawn in Messi’s destiny. Now the ball was dipping towards him. It would have been understandable had he taken a touch, steadied himself, and taken aim. But nope. Instead, he goes for a remarkable volley, as if he has been in a hot streak all through the night. A true mike-drop moment. How does he do it? How did he bring the Kylian of Bondy, a tough neighbourhood in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris where he grew up, to the world cup stage on what seemed a nightmarish night?

His father would know. “The Kylian of Monaco, you send him back to Bondy and that of Bondy, you tell him to come back to Monaco immediately. That’s the one we need here.” Words of wisdom from when Mbappe was 15-16 when he had joined Monaco and would struggle to fit in. Frequently benched, he would cry every night. That’s when his father had a heart-to-heart chat. ‘Don’t try to fit in with the new style, unleash yourself, unburden, just go for it, Bondy style’. “That phase [early in Monaco] brought out the devil who slept in him,” his father would tell L’Equipe before this world cup.

Every time Messi reached out his hands to clasp the trophy, Mbappe would rip it open; Messi would meet thin air. Right through the game Argentina played like a team who knew their destiny; even crying after scoring goals, the happy tears usually reserved for the end game, once the job was done, once the destiny was embraced. And for a long time, it seemed they were right to be so emotionally feisty about it. France hadn’t turned up, Mbappe had let the devil sleep in him, Giroud’s most passionate moment was throwing a plastic bottle in anger after he was substituted, and even Griezmann, who would be everywhere in this new evolved version of playmaker, was an apparition.

And it would all start from Messi, in some ways. He would lose the ball in the midfield to the right as if his mind was elsewhere, and that would be shuttled to Mbappe who would do one-twos with Thuram, and then unleash his jaw-dropping insouciance on the world.

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“The Town where anything is possible” is a large hoarding that is attached to a building with Mbappe’s image at Bondy. But it’s a saying that mushroomed up long before Mbappe. It didn’t come from sport but from culture and education, as the neighbourhood drives itself to clean up its image after the infamous riots in 2005. The Maitrise de Radio France choir opened a school here to see if kids can be turned to music. Then came the ‘Bondy Blog’, which attained world wide fame by its micro journalism to uplift the area. ‘Cafe Philos’ mushroomed where people study music, art history, astronomy, not for a degree but to educate themselves. And sports of course. It’s in this melting pot that Mbappe grew up. His father aged just 1 had landed up here from Cameroon.

“Our neighborhood is an incredible melting pot of different cultures — French, African, Asian, Arab, every part of the world. People from outside of France always talk about the banlieues in a bad light, but if you’re not from here, you can’t really understand what it’s like. People talk about “thugs” like they were invented here. But there are thugs everywhere in the world. There are people who are struggling everywhere in the world. The reality is that when I was a kid I used to watch some of the toughest guys in the neighborhood carry groceries for my grandmother. You never see those parts of our culture on the news. You only hear about the bad, never the good,” Mbappe would write on Players Tribune.

When Mbappe was four years old, he would walk into the AS Football club, where his father worked, and hear conversations about tactics and football. “There can’t be any other kid in the world who would have heard so many conversations … and assimilated football concepts that others only heard and understood years later,” Athmane Brioche, then general manager of the club, told the authors of the book ‘Mbappe’.

He had wallpapered his room with Cristiano Ronaldo posters and would endlessly ape the Ronaldo side-step on field. He also hero worshipped Zinedine Zidane and even asked the local barber to give him the Zidane cut. “I didn’t understand that it was baldness,” he would tell years later.

When he was 14, Zidane wanted to meet him at a Real Madrid training session. “Zidane met us in the parking lot by his car, and it was a really nice car, of course. We said hello, and then he offered to drive me over to the field for training. He was pointing at the front seat, like, “Go on, get in.” But I just froze and I asked,“Should I take off my shoes?”Hahaha! I don’t know why I said that. But it was Zizou’s car! He thought that was really funny. He said, “Of course not, come on, get in,” he writes in Players Tribune. “He drove me to the training pitch, and I was just thinking to myself, I am in Zizou’s car. I am Kylian from Bondy. This is not real. I must still be sleeping.”

In the last world cup at Russia, just before the first game against Australia while waiting at the tunnel, he would turn to Ousmane Dembele and say, ““Look at us. The boy from Évreux. And the boy from Bondy. We are playing at the World Cup.” When he heard the anthem, he felt like crying.

For nearly 80 minutes at Doha, on another world cup final night, he could barely find himself and the ball. Then, just like that, the star exploded. No one else looked remotely comfortable taking a shot against Emilio Martinez, not just in the final but through the tournament, but Mbappe would put the ball behind him thrice in one night. He would also set up two beautiful crosses in the dying minutes but his team-mates couldn’t breach. The boy from Bondy, who once surrounded himself with Ronaldo posters and thought Zidane’s baldness was a style statement, nearly denied Messi his greatest moment. The footballing gods had to intervene to ensure a night when Mbappe didn’t lose and yet Messi won.

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