Column: Like Pele, Mbappe’s World Cup timing is perfect

France's Kylian Mbappe, (10), is mobbed by teammates after scoring the opening goal of the game during the group C match between France and Peru at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Yekaterinburg Arena in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Thursday, June 21, 2018. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

MOSCOW (AP) The delicate move was ballet worthy of the Bolshoi. Having shaken off his marker, Kylian Mbappe spotted N’Golo Kante haring to his left. At this point in the attack on Peru’s goal, a simple pass to his France teammate would have been just fine.

But where’s the fun in that?

Instead, the 19-year-old did a prancing Bambi-like skip and flicked the ball to Kante with the back of his right heel.

Completely unnecessary, but delightful to watch.

Like 17-year-old Pele at the 1958 World Cup , France’s thrillingly fleet and inventive forward is that most precious of football gems: A player whose searing debut on the sport’s biggest stage is coming when the child in him is still alive and gloriously displayed for the world to see.

Which isn’t to say that Mbappe is out of his depth among the oldest group of 736 players in tournament history (average age nearly 28).

Quite the opposite. The cocktail of a kid’s insouciance and of a man’s speed and power makes Mbappe intoxicating.

Like Pele, who made his debut with Santos Futebol Clube in 1956 and first played for Brazil in 1957, at age 16, before scoring six goals at the 1958 World Cup, Mbappe is an accomplished pro before he has finished growing. The second most expensive footballer after Neymar (180 million euros; $216 million), a French League One champion with two different clubs (Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain) and a re-writer of records (becoming France’s youngest World Cup goal-scorer at this tournament), Mbappe already has more milestones before his 20th birthday this December than most players get in a career.

Best of all for the World Cup in Russia: He makes football look like fun.

In his quick flicks, can’t-catch-me dribbles and ear-to-ear grins both when tricks work and when he can’t quite pull them off, one can still imagine Mbappe where he was just seven years ago: A boy playing on the pitches of Bondy, the Paris suburb that was his world before the world became his oyster. He was recruited to France’s football hothouse at the Clairefontaine academy in 2011, by Monaco in 2013 and by PSG in 2017.

His play so far in Russia has seen both the kid and the man in Mbappe shine. Shadowing France forward Olivier Giroud’s run into the box in the 34th minute against Peru, so he could tap the ball into the net when Giroud’s shot ricocheted off a defender over Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, showed the maturity of Mbappe’s footballing instincts.

He’s headstrong but not selfish, implementing coach Didier Deschamps instructions in a central, predatory attacking role in France’s opening 2-1 victory against Australia and patrolling the right wing, running from deep at defenders but also back-tracking to defend, in the 1-0 win against Peru.

But the youthful voice in Mbappe’s head tells him to try funky things, and Deschamps encourages him to listen. That means opponents and crowds can never be sure what he will do next. His unpredictable creativity will become increasingly important the deeper France progresses into the tournament, against teams harder to unlock.

The jersey number Mbappe chose for the World Cup speaks to his both wide-eyed freshness and adult ambitions. From his debut for France in March 2017, when he shot at goal with his very first touch of the ball as a late substitute in a 3-1 World Cup qualifying win against Luxembourg, Mbappe wore No. 12.

That used to be the number of Thierry Henry, scorer of a record 51 goals for France to whom Mbappe has often been compared. Henry also first flowered at Monaco as a young pro and was the club’s youngest scorer until Mbappe , having made his Ligue 1 debut at age 16, scored against Troyes two months past his 17th birthday.

For this World Cup year, Mbappe switched to No. 10, a jersey that carries an even greater weight of history, worn by 1998 World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane and by Michel Platini when France reached the semifinals in both 1982 and 1986.

The choice – ”I wanted it. It wasn’t taken,” Mbappe said – is doubly encouraging for France. It shows that he isn’t afraid of expectations and is dreaming very big, but also that Mbappe is still in touch with the kid who was inspired by footballing idols as he grew up in the blue-collar outer belt of Paris that was scarred by weeks of rioting in 2005.

”Of course you think about it. You say to yourself, `Voila, it’s a historic number,”’ Mbappe said of No. 10 before the win against Australia. ”I see it with the eyes of a kid, who always liked this number.”

With his winner against Peru that advanced France to the next round, Mbappe became the first Frenchman to score at the World Cup who was born after France won the tournament in 1998. That felt like the passing of a flame from Zidane’s generation to this one.

At the Stade de France, the scene of that victory 20 years ago, a France team sponsor has displayed a giant poster for this World Cup that reads: ”`98 was a great year for French football. Kylian was born.”

Cheeky. Ambitious. His task is to demonstrate that it’s true.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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