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Why footballer Kylian Mbappé could be France’s greatest soft power

Sports star’s appeal for calm after the recent riots shows his huge influence off the pitch as well as on

Kylian Mbappé grew up in Bondy, a northeastern suburb of Paris Pic: ph.FAB / Shutterstock

“This man is the face of French football for the coming years, and only in his wake can French football continue to grow”, said commentator Grégoire Margotton to the 24.1 million people at home in the aftermath of their World Cup Final defeat. President Macron, playing father of the people, wrapped his suit sleeve about the shoulders of a bleary eyed Mbappé. Almost a ‘Gazza moment’, but for the steel in Mbappé’s eyes.

The 24-year-old had just scored a hat-trick in the World Cup Final, dragging France back into the game with two goals in the last ten minutes and scoring again in extra-time against an Argentina side themselves inexorably drawn along by a player with perhaps a greater footballing destiny. 

In some strange plot of the football gods, Lionel Messi and Mbappé were both playing for Paris St Germain at the time of the World Cup. They had won three trophies together. Yet Messi was unloved in Paris, and his time there was forgettable. 

"Lionel Messi, I don't question his fantastic career or his talent, but his coming to PSG is a total fiasco”, former winger Jérôme Rothen told RMC Sport.

Messi did not seem to care about Paris. This was not his town, not his people. Paris and France belong to Mbappé.

Mbappé addresses the people

Follow his Twitter leads

His was an unexpected voice among the multitude of people calling for calm in the aftermath of 17-year-old Nahel M’s death during a police check in June, releasing a statement on Twitter appealing for an end to the riots engulfing France. 

The message was coordinated and supported by other members of the French team, as well as their coach Didier Deschamps and French Football Federation president Philippe Diallo. It raised a few eyebrows in a country where sport and politics seldom mix.

Not until the Black Lives Matter movement started hitting headlines did stars really begin to challenge the perception that they should just keep quiet and play, rather than petition for social change. 

Certainly, Mbappé has not shied away from attention off the pitch. In 2020, he called for solidarity after teacher Samuel Paty was murdered by an Islamic terrorist, comparing schools to football teams and, by extension, teachers to coaches. "To learn and win, we must always play together," he tweeted.

Read more: Racism protests: how attitudes to inequality have changed

The world's most influential Frenchman

People seem to listen. In April, the striker was named "the world's most influential Frenchman" by the US magazine Time, and he has so far racked up more than 100 million followers on Instagram – more than his club – 12.7 million on Twitter, 17 million on Facebook, and secured a string of high-profile sponsorship deals to boot.

Born on December 20, 1998, Mbappé is more commonly associated with Bondy, a northeastern suburb of the city where he grew up and started playing football at the age of six. The area, known for its large population of migrants from central and north Africa, now displays a mural of their local hero.

His parents – father Wilfried was a Franco-Cameroonian footballer and coach of Bondy's under-15 team, and mother Fayza Lamari a Franco-Algerian handball player – ensured sport was in his blood. Indeed, Mbappé's younger brother also plays for Paris Saint-Germain, and his adoptive brother is a professional footballer too.

From unruly prodigy to football maestro

Although he was unruly at school, teachers recognised that Mbappé was gifted and could be incredibly focused when he wanted to be. He has learned several languages and appears completely at ease giving interviews in English and Spanish.

His professional career took off when he signed with Monaco, becoming their youngest first-team player yet, aged 16. Other records soon followed. In 2018, Mbappé became the youngest French player to score at a World Cup and the second teenager, after Pelé, to score in a World Cup Final.

When he moved to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, aged 18, in a deal worth €180 million, he became the second-most expensive player and most expensive teenage player of all time. 

Controversy and positive influence

He famously said during an interview for the French TV show Intérieur Sport: "It's not about whether you're old enough – that means nothing. If you're good enough, you are on the pitch and take responsibility. If you are not, you shut up, stay on the bench and watch others play.

Some journalists claim Mbappé dines with President Macron once a month, and the footballer certainly proved a government asset when he helped with their Covid vaccination campaign. Mr Macron gushed in an interview with the sports newspaper l'Equipe in 2022: "He has taken the risk of social engagement: for vaccination, against violence, in communion with the feelings of the country. Kylian Mbappé has a rare awareness of his role, the weight of his words, and the strength of his actions."

Read more: New report reveals cost of Brigitte Macron to the French state

It is hard to tell whether Mbappé's tweet at the end of June had any direct effect in calming the riots, or whether it was coincidental that police reported violence easing in the days that followed. It would not be without precedent that his social media comments have hit home, however.

A voice for change and philanthropy

In February, the then-president of the French Football Federation, Noel le Graet, resigned, ostensibly following a damning report into the organisation and accusations of harassment.

Pressure to step down had also come from Mbappé a month previously when, incensed by disparaging comments that Mr le Graet had made about former French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, he tweeted that "Zidane is France. You do not show disrespect".

For a celebrity to speak out on controversial issues is perhaps not uncommon, however, Mbappé also puts his considerable money where his mouth is. 

Forbes estimated the Paris Saint-Germain forward would earn $128 million (€117 million) this season, however he is known to donate to good causes, even giving his World Cup match fees and bonuses to a children's charity. 

Other beneficiaries have included the Abbé Pierre Foundation – a charity that helps people without housing – and, in 2019, a crowdfunding campaign to finance a private search to find footballer Emiliano Sala, whose light aircraft went missing over the English Channel, as well as the plane's pilot. 

More recently, in July, he paid a three-day visit to Cameroon in west-central Africa to see at first hand the type of work that his children's foundation is financing there.

Too big for the Parc des Princes?

Lionel Messi lifted the World Cup in a swansong that seemed unlikely after losing the first game of the tournament to Saudi Arabia. Now he has left Paris for Miami. Neymar has left Paris too. Mbappé remains but there are doubts about his future. 

He has won twelve trophies with PSG, won a World Cup with France and won a President’s ear. However, in 2024 Mbappé will be a free agent, able to walk into any team in the world and demand a his worth. At 24, he knows full well that this is every cent of a hundred million euros if only to serve advertisers’ fever dreams as a sphinx whose utterances can make or break any brand.

Indeed, Mbappé has made no secret of his desire to play for Real Madrid and was linked to a big-money move there in 2022 before President Emmanuel Macron allegedly convinced him to stay in France. Macron is no doubt acutely aware that Mbappé is France's greatest soft power. And if the football gods conspire to lead him away from Paris will Macron’s soft power leave with him?

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