So France is off to a third World Cup final in the last six tournaments after beating Belgium 1-0 Tuesday on Samuel Umtiti’s second-half header in St. Petersburg. And for that, neutrals around the world ought to rejoice. After all, Sunday’s title match in Moscow will give fans everywhere one more opportunity to watch Les Bleus’ teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe morph into a global superstar in realtime.
Mbappe wasn’t the story of Tuesday’s match. He wasn’t the constant danger against the Red Devils that he had been earlier in the competition. Also, it must be said that his time-wasting antics at the end of the game – which came on the heels of a pathetic dive in France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay – were unnecessary and immature; at 19, Mbappe is the youngest remaining player at the World Cup.
And if you want to get technical about it, Mbappe was guaranteed to get another game at Russia 2018 regardless of the outcome of this semifinal, with the event’s third-place match slated for Saturday at the same stadium.
But if all you saw was Mbappe’s play acting against Belgium, perhaps you weren’t watching closely enough. Mbappe’s combination of intelligence, ball skills and blinding explosiveness drew eyeballs and defenders from start to finish. He signaled his attacking intent from the opening kickoff, immediately beating his man and taking off on a 60-yard run that resulted in a menacing cross through the penalty area. But Mbappe’s intricate short passes and combination play – including one beautiful flick that created a scoring chance out of nothing for defender Benjamin Pavard shortly before halftime – were almost as impressive.
For much of the match, Mbappe was quite possibly the best player on a field he shared with some of the brightest lights the sport has had to offer over the last half decade or so: Vincent Kompany, Olivier Giroud, Romelu Lukaku, Antoine Griezmann, Kevin De Bruyne, Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard.
It’s a shame that one team had to lose this one, so much talent was on display.
Two of the most gifted attacking teams around produced a spectacle that would’ve been worthy of any final, a thrilling, back-and-forth affair throughout despite a cagey and tension-filled first half. The teams traded chances like boxers throwing punches. Hazard’s off-the-mark opening salvo for Belgium 15 minutes in was countered on the other end moments later by Blaise Matuidi’s rocket directly at goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Hugo Lloris, the French backstop, dove to keep out an effort by Toby Alderweireld before Giroud headed wide of Courtois. It continued this way even after Umtiti’s strike six minutes into the second half gave Les Bleus a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, Things didn’t let up until Ukrainian referee Andres Chuna finally blew his whistle to end the tilt.
It’s sad for Belgium, no doubt. Stalwart central defender Kompany, who prevented Mbappe from sealing France’s victory early in stoppage time with a well-timed tackle, won’t play in another World Cup. How many other dedicated servants among Belgium’s golden generation will still be around more than four years from now in Qatar – the 2022 World Cup will take place in November and December to avoid the oil-rich Gulf state’s searing summer temperatures – remains to be seen.
Meantime, this dynamic young French team clearly is here to stay. Les Bleus might have started slowly in Russia, but they’re now playing with confidence and style and the swagger of an expectant champion. There’s a good chance Mbappe will be front and center if France does manage to win it all. With three goals so far – including two in a breakout performance in the round of 16 that eliminated Argentina and Lionel Messi – he’s a shoo-in for the tourney’s Best Young Player award. The Golden Ball given to the World Cup’s most valuable player could also be in play, depending on how the final goes.
He’s even being tipped as one of the few players in contention to break Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s decade long stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or trophy in the near future, along with the likes of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and his Paris Saint-Germain strike partner Neymar.
Somehow, that doesn’t feel like a stretch. What’s for sure is that Kylian Mbappe just helped France reach the finale at Russia 2018, and that this World Cup will be remembered in the years to come as his own personal coming-out party. It’s scary to think that Mbappe will only get better from here.