DOHA, Qatar — When Olivier Giroud was Kylian Mbappé years old — that is, when he was 23 and still looking boyish — he was a mostly anonymous striker at a French second-division club called Tours.
He was, in a sense, where many young-20-somethings are in life, breaking into a profession and trying to find his way. He eventually found it how many do, via endurance and persistence. He broke into France’s men’s national team at 25. He rode self-belief to the top of the world. On Sunday, he became the team’s all-time leading scorer, and placed a cherry on top of a story that can “give a good example for young people,” as he said this week. It’s a reminder that “we can’t have everything immediately,” he said, and that life rewards patience.
But Giroud also knows, as intimately as anyone, that his place in French record books will be fleeting.
Because he plays alongside Mbappé, soccer’s soon-to-be king, who has ascended toward the World Cup’s throne at warp speed.
“He will beat all the records,” Giroud said between smiles here on Tuesday. “I know that.”
Mbappé is currently sprinting toward the 2022 World Cup’s Golden Boot and Ball. He powered France past Poland last weekend with two emphatic goals and a clever assist. He has already scored more at the World Cup than Cristiano Ronaldo, a man 14 years his elder, whose face beamed off posters in Mbappé’s childhood bedroom in Bondy, one of suburban Paris’ notorious banlieues.
Around the time he turned 20, when he’d already summited France’s Ligue 1 and the World Cup, Mbappé replaced those posters with Kylian Mbappé posters. He claimed countless awards for his stunning teenage feats. The most remarkable one, though, is that he never slowed down.
Soccer is full of early bloomers and late bloomers. Mbappe has instead been a constant boomer, accelerating from success toward more success. He’s scored 33 times for France before his 24th birthday, at which point Thierry Henry had 10 national team goals and Giroud had zero.
“He’s amazing and he’s still young, which is scary,” Giroud said. “Because he can still improve his game.”
He was already amazing in 2018. But then, still as a teen, he was a super piece of a superteam that conquered all comers. Now he’s a sizzling superstar around whom a prolific French attack is structured.
He recently conveyed to coaches that, as French assistant Guy Stephan said this week, “he likes to have a pivot player in front of him, to express himself” — something he doesn’t have at his club, PSG. France has given him that in Giroud. “We realized that they needed each other,” head coach Didier Deschamps said.
And Mbappe, in return, has given them more than two goals plus assists per 90 minutes at this World Cup, an absurd production rate.
“With Kylian, we have an off-the-planet player,” Stephan said through a translator. “He has an explosiveness, amazing technical abilities for scoring, for hitting the ball, and he shows it every game. And that’s very important. It’s every game he shows his talents.”
He is now the highest-paid player in the world, an increasingly ubiquitous icon. He has learned, of course, that with fame comes pitfalls. After he missed the decisive penalty in a Euro 2021 shootout, racist abuse bombarded him on social media. He considered quitting the national team. He felt unsupported by the French Football Federation, whose dinosaurian president Noel Le Graet once claimed that racism in soccer “does not exist.”
But Mbappé has come to Qatar with a smile, a happiness that stems from his enthusiasm for the sport and, specifically, for this tournament.
“The World Cup is an obsession,” he said Sunday.
It’s the stage of which he dreamed, and the month he built his 2022-23 season around. “Physically and mentally,” he said, he structured his year specifically to optimize his performance here in Qatar.
While here, he has shielded himself from external noise, and even expressed a willingness to pay fines for not speaking to reporters after games. “I have nothing against journalists,” he explained, “I just needed and still need to focus on the tournament. When I want to do something, I focus and avoid losing energy on other things.”
“He lets his feet do the talking,” Deschamps said. Giroud agreed: “He speaks on the pitch.”
In and around the French camp, Stephan said, Mbappé has been “very serene” and humorous. He is not vocal, but “in his own way,” Stephan said, “he’s a leader. A leader in a sense that he’s able to make a difference, but also on a daily basis, he brings a lot of joy to the group.”
“And he’s thirsty, hungry for records,” Stephan said. “Kylian wants to beat all the records. He’s beaten some, he wants to beat some more.”
He is, somehow, still improving. Even after his dazzling display against Poland, Deschamps said that “he wasn’t at his best today.” Giroud followed two days later with a frightening prophecy: “I think we’ve still not seen the best of Kylian.”
It will strike fear into England, France’s quarterfinal opponent on Saturday. And if Mbappé beats the Brits, he can surely begin making more room in his trophy case alongside his World Cup Young Player Award from 2018.
But personal accolades aren’t his north star.
“I didn’t come here to win the Golden Ball or Golden Boot. If I win it, of course I am going to be happy, but that’s not why I’m here,” Mbappe said Sunday. “The only objective for me is to win the World Cup.”