The Boy Who Would Be King

Kylian Mbappe grew up in a town notorious for its riots. Now he's creating them himself. He's the new Pele, the next Thierry Henry—maybe even better than Neymar, his fellow multimillionaire teammate. But this is who he is right now: a teenage superstar we can all believe in.
photo of Joon LeeJoon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterDecember 6, 2017

Kylian Mbappe wills things into existence—even a pitch in his living room, and especially where the good things are not supposed to belong, like right here at home in the suburbs of Paris. Little Kylian set up miniature goals and kicked the ball around, the French prodigy begging the under-13 coach-turned-babysitter not to tell his parents of their exploits. "Please, please don't," he pleaded. "I'm not allowed to play here."

They played until sundown, when his mother returned from work to check on her son, who was already in bed by nightfall. Except little Kylian was also good at faking sleep…even if he was already 15. He loved playing FIFA, you see, and because he had no top club to root for, the prodigy gravitated toward players he admired.

"I will take Neymar," little Kylian told his coach, staring up at the PlayStation. "You'll see what I can do with him."

That was only three years ago, when Kylian Mbappe could walk around his hometown—the home of "immigrant slums" that the riots almost tore down, the place many blame for terrorism but where the kids still dribble when it's pouring rain—in relative anonymity.

“It’s taken a while to realize the impact, that the city was revolving around me,” Mbappe tells B/R Mag. “If they want me to be their representative, it’s what I’m here for.”
“It’s taken a while to realize the impact, that the city was revolving around me,” Mbappe tells B/R Mag. “If they want me to be their representative, it’s what I’m here for.”(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

Now that Mbappe is 18, his video-game premonition has come true, and then some: He isn't just teammates with Neymar; inside the private executive club at Parc des Princes, the only two players with luxury suites have their names embossed atop the entrance in gold, side-by-side. Because this summer, Paris Saint-Germain reportedly spent more than €400 million ($475 million) to get Mbappe (€180 million) from AS Monaco and Neymar (€222 million) from Barcelona, making them the most expensive duo in all of professional sport—with a net worth higher than the GDP of 10 countries. And while Neymar remains the big name, many think the tide will turn—and fast. "I'm sure that he can be better than Neymar," says Antonio Riccardi, the FIFA-playing coach from the suburbs, "in two years."

Next year, at 19, Mbappe will be expected to help France reclaim the World Cup alongside young countrymen like Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele and Manchester United's Anthony Martial. "In France," Riccardi says, "there will be [Zinedine] Zidane—and then there will be Mbappe."

After becoming the youngest player to score 20 goals in the last 40 years of Ligue 1 and to score five in the Champions League, Mbappe has been called "the new Pele"—or at least the next Henry and, less politely, the "Black Zidane." The honorifics are everywhere these days, but little Kylian is a boy no more…even if he's still a teenager.

"I'm only just beginning," Mbappe tells B/R Mag through a translator, in his first extended interview with a North America-based outlet. "It's something you see when you're at the end, trying to anticipate what's going to happen. There's a long way to go before I stop playing."

That hasn't stopped insiders and outsiders from believing it is only a matter of time before Mbappe gets mentioned alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, competing annually for the Ballon d'Or. But for now, the heir to France's football throne is living his best life, a stone's throw from home.

"You can't do anything. You're forced to stay at home because any time you go out, you create a huge riot." —KYLIAN MBAPPE

"It's like I'm living a completely new life now, which is the only difficult thing about it," Mbappe admits. "You can't do anything. You're forced to stay at home because any time you go out, you create a huge riot."

Mbappe sits down wearing Off-White Air Prestos and a sweatsuit, radiant with a blemish-free face and strikingly dark eyes that have recently led his teammates to call him Donatello, what with his apparent resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. PSG has just dominated OGC Nice in a late-October Ligue 1 match, after which a crowd of 35 fans—including several children in tear-dried selfies—mobbed the family's white Volkswagen.

Mbappe mobbed by fans outside the PSG training centre. He and the team are working on getting him a driver’s license.
Mbappe mobbed by fans outside the PSG training centre. He and the team are working on getting him a driver’s license.(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

Growing up in the Paris suburb of Bondy, Mbappe dreamed of buying beautiful cars once he had made good money as a professional athlete. Except now, when he reportedly has more money than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Ronaldo did at his age, Mbappe's family members still drive him around. He swears he's working on it, but the next Henry doesn't even have his driver's license. He and PSG are talking to driving schools to figure out how he can get instruction at the Red and Blues' practice facility.

"It's one of the disadvantages of succeeding early," Mbappe says. "I missed simple things like having a driver's license. I think everyone has one. For so many people, a license is an obligation, but it wasn't for me. Licenses are often synonymous with autonomy, but I had my autonomy so early that I've had drivers at my disposal. It was never a priority."

He may be a teenager, but Mbappe is a busy man with great expectations. He wakes up at 8:30, goes to practice, comes back to his place in the mid-afternoon, takes a nap, then takes in matches at night with his family. He likes watching the shows Power and Empire, and prefers comparing himself to The Rock and Jason Statham from his beloved The Fast and the Furious franchise over the press comparing him to the all-time greats, including the one who's on his new club.

"I have to do a lot of things to be able to do what Neymar is capable of," Mbappe says, turning his focus to a new dream, winning the Champions League in May. "In terms of evolution, I think that for me, it's all about titles. That's what you become world-renowned for, what you've won, and not just the growth you've had on the pitch. When you retire, people don't look at how good you became. They look at what you've won. We remember the winners."

Nonetheless, big Kylian wants to build a movie theatre in his next home (he now lives in Yvelines, closer to the PSG facility than where he grew up), because he misses being able to sit quietly in public. The Little Prince of Bondy, as his hometown's mayor once dubbed him, may have missed the life of a teen, but that is something the future King of France has come to accept.

"All of those memories in life that you can tell your children, I don't have those," Mbappe says. "When my kids ask me, ‘What did you do when you were 18?' I will tell them I was already at Paris Saint-Germain, that I was already a star and had to stay at home. I'll have my stories about home."


The other day, en route home, Elfilali Ahmed looked up from his bag of groceries and saw construction workers hanging from the side of his apartment building. There was no announcement, no email about any planned work here in the Seine-Saint-Denis area of Bondy that the locals call "Department 93." As he walked closer, a familiar face came into focus: The workers were installing a five-story mural of the kid he used to coach at the local club, AS Bondy. The coach looked up again, and laughed.

"It's very weird to walk home and see Kylian staring at me," Ahmed says.

A mural in Bondy’s “Department 93,” previously reserved for the likes of Zidane.
A mural in Bondy’s “Department 93,” previously reserved for the likes of Zidane.(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

Right here, about 175 football pitches northeast of Paris, was a focal point in the 2005 French riots that ignited racial tensions after two boys died running from police. A string of terrorist attacks over the following decade further ostracized lower-class families living in Bondy, which many saw as a hotbed for French jihadists, despite a lack of statistical evidence connecting terrorism to the suburbs.

"People were really scared of Bondy for a while," Mbappe says. "There were two to three incidents that people conflated that led people to make generalities even though our people are not like that. People fixated on it, which is a shame.

"It's not the city people think it is."

A walk around the block of his coach's housing project, known as "The S," reveals the area's diversity: African, Chinese and Arab immigrants abound, with boisterous families full of kids wearing PSG gear. Ahmed's family of nine has lived right here for nine years.

"Our children suffer because we have no hope," says Fatounaia Dabo, a mother at AS Bondy. "When they came home, they asked us, ‘Even if we work, mommy, it's not possible for us to be lawyers and doctors. We are really French. Why is it like this?' Now, Kylian has changed the way they see things."

“When I used to tell people I was from Bondy, they would ask about the violence and drug use,” a former youth coach says. “Now, they all ask me about Kylian Mbappe and if I know him.”
“When I used to tell people I was from Bondy, they would ask about the violence and drug use,” a former youth coach says. “Now, they all ask me about Kylian Mbappe and if I know him.”(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

But coming up from the banlieues, as the towers that make up much of the city's public housing are known, has created massive roadblocks to employment. Forty percent of residents under 25 are unemployed. In recent years, Bondy residents insist that living right here has become viewed as synonymous with life in "immigrant slums."

"We have to prove that we love France," says Soumahoro Nakissa, whose 11-year-old son plays for Ahmed at AS Bondy. "I'm Muslim, but my son, Thomas, has a French name. I had to give him that name because otherwise people doubt our loyalties. The color of our skin makes people ask whether we love France."

"We are doomed to fail—we tell ourselves that because we know our kids are going to have a hard time finding a place in this world," she continues, in French. "With Kylian, it can all change."

Bondy gave Mbappe an early code: You respect others. You remain humble. And you love football. "A place like Bondy simply has values you keep wherever you go," Mbappe says. In the last five years, since he left to pursue his football dreams, this has been a city under repair, with many of the older housing complexes getting knocked down. There are construction workers hanging from structures all over, and they are building upward.

In early September, Mbappe returned to the site of a childhood pitch near his old school—"at the time, it was tar and sand and more holes," he says—to christen a renovated stadium. The locals, willing the area's rejuvenation into existence, call it Mbappe Field. Three posters near the upgraded pitch had, by the time B/R Mag visited nearly seven weeks later, been ripped off the walls. "Everyone wanted a piece of him," says a kid playing on the nouveau-camouflage pitch, despite the park being closed for the day.

"When I used to tell people I was from Bondy, they would ask about the violence and drug use," Ahmed says. "Now, they all ask me about Kylian Mbappe and if I know him."

The mural, which remains plastered over his former coach's building, put Mbappe in the company of French sporting royalty: The footwear-sponsored art installation is a distinction previously awarded only to Zidane himself. Now, a giant Mbappe overlooks the road connecting Bondy to the Peripherique, the large highway that joins the suburbs to Paris. (That passage, locals joke, requires a visa.) His hands are making the sign-language signal for "I love you," as a scroll unfurls behind his head.

Bondy, the City of Possibilities, it reads.


"What are we going to do, Kylian?"

The score was 2-0. Then, suddenly, 2-1. On the dirt pitch of Stade Leo-Lagrange, playing their rivals from the town to the southeast, the lads of AS Bondy started to tense up. Two-goal leads often lead to complacency, and a comeback seemed feasible. Little Kylian wanted no part of the negativity.

"Don't worry," he said. "In two minutes, I'll score a goal."

The whistle blew, and he took the ball from his own side, dribbling past defenders toward the goal. As he approached the net, little Kylian faked out the keeper, who fell on his side and watched the ball roll into the net. While his team celebrated, Coach Riccardi, who'd seen Mbappe do this in his living room countless times before, felt a chuckle coming. It had all been too easy for little Kylian—and he was only 13.

"You can laugh," Wilfried Mbappe, Kylian's dad and then-coach at AS Bondy, told him. "You can laugh."

"It was a joke," Riccardi remembers. "He was doing stuff like this all of the time. He would do this 10 times a match."

"My teammates thought I was God," big Kylian says now.

Mbappe in action against OGC Nice. He is expected to be a future contender for the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the world’s top football player.
Mbappe in action against OGC Nice. He is expected to be a future contender for the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the world’s top football player.(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

Watching Mbappe dribble a ball is like watching seasoned salsa dancing. Each step contains this extra bounce, like he has affixed springs to the heels of his boots. One second, Mbappe will be still, the silence of the crowd awaiting his next stride, even during an early-season Ligue 1 matchup against OGC Nice. Blink, and he's already taken two gallops across the field. As the supporters' drums thump, the PSG crowd begins to crescendo. The nitrous kicks in. Mbappe salsa-steps his way past three defenders, the ball his dancing partner as he cuts through the defense in short, intense bursts. "I play on instinct," Mbappe says. "It's like something is on my heart, and I just have to get it out." The local kids in Bondy called him Beep-Beep, his speed reminding them of the Road Runner from Looney Tunes.

He learned it all in his hometown, at AS Bondy. Mbappe has hung out around the club since he was an infant, following his dad, a coach, to work. As a two-year-old, he walked in the hallways with a ball, sometimes sitting in on team meetings. The coaches joke that nobody has accumulated more time in AS Bondy team meetings than Mbappe himself.

When the club realized little Kylian was far and away the best player in his age group, they moved him up two years, and by age nine, most everyone knew the kid would go pro. When Mbappe was 11 years old, Chelsea invited him to train with them for a week. At 15, Mbappe trained with Real Madrid's U15 team. Later that year, major European clubs—from Manchester City to Bayern Munich to Liverpool—came calling, but he settled on nearby Monaco, believing it was the best place to develop his career. Even now, Mbappe is known to go home after games to sleep, most notably after his team won the French title.

"We didn't push him on football," Riccardi says. "It was the push from himself in football. It's his entire life. When he wakes up, he thinks football. He eats about football. He lives about football. In school, thinking about football. Only football."

"When he wakes up, he thinks football. He eats about football. He lives about football. In school, thinking about football. Only football." —ANTONIO RICCARDI, former coach

The only locals who really knew about the prodigy in their backyard were the members of AS Bondy, who had seen the human lightning bolt grow up from restless child to jetsetting young star. Many diehard world football fans did not learn of Mbappe until his breakout performance in 2016-17, when he scored 15 times in 29 games for Monaco.

Soon after, there were rumors that Arsenal and Barca and Real Madrid had come calling, too.

Mbappe didn't grow up a diehard supporter of PSG, instead gravitating toward players whom he could use to dominate his friends on PlayStation. He taped dozens of Ronaldo posters to his wall. And he fell deeply in love with the French national team, gravitating to Zidane. So much so, in fact, that when Mbappe went to the barbershop, he asked for "The Zidane"—which is, in fact, a buzz cut featuring the former French captain's bald spot.

"Can you make me bald like Zidane?" Mbappe would ask his barber.

The hairdresser would get mad, confused by the unusual request. Mbappe's mother, Fayza, a former professional handball player, kept telling her son that she wasn't going to allow that to happen. He did not give up the fight for 10 minutes—each time.

"I didn't know he had baldness, that he was losing his hair," Mbappe says. "I asked the hairdresser to give me the cut, and he thought I was crazy. I really insisted. I really wanted it. My mom was not going to let that happen, and I'm really thankful for that."


The office of AS Bondy does not look like the kind of place from which you'd expect a world-class sporting talent to emerge. The club's football headquarters make the Michael Scott Paper Company look like a creation straight out of Back to the Future Part II. The beige walls are worn. Flickering fluorescent lights illuminate a room stuffed with registration forms and a corner full of trophies (many courtesy of Mbappe himself). On a table lays a pile of registration forms, each attached by paper clip to a passport-size headshot of a child.

One day, these children may leave and pursue professional careers, too, fulfilling hope in a town once devoid of it. Adults like Ahmed, Nakissa and Dabo talk about how their fears of kids getting into violence or the drug trade have slightly subsided because of Mbappe's success. "It's taken a while to realize the impact, that the city was revolving around me," Mbappe says, warming up to thinking about his legacy. "Now, when I go there, I've realized I've really inspired these children. If they want me to be their representative, it's what I'm here for. It's what they will remember me for."

“I play on instinct,” Mbappe says. “It’s like something is on my heart, and I just have to get it out.”
“I play on instinct,” Mbappe says. “It’s like something is on my heart, and I just have to get it out.”(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

Mbappe landed with his hometown club as part of a major spend by Qatar Sports Investments, which hopes to turn PSG into a Champions League contender—the Red and Blues have never reached the final—and write a significant chapter in the club's 47-year history. Neymar's arrival re-sparked local interest across Paris, which hadn't had a global superstar since the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Manchester United in July 2016. But PSG has invested its future in Mbappe's becoming a star right now—not the next anyone but himself, right back where it all began.

"It's a great visual to see on TV," Youanes Zacbayou, 12, says. "He's born in our city. He's from the suburbs. We watch him and want to do the same thing. I see myself in Kylian."

AS Bondy has seen "an Mbappe effect," with a major rise in enrollment that's created a boom for the club, including the creation of a women's team two years ago. The hope is spreading beyond Bondy, too: In April, in the wake of a bomb attack on the Borussia Dortmund bus, Mbappe became the youngest player to score twice in a Champions League knockout tie. The next day, less than two weeks before the first round of the French presidential election, posters began appearing around the country: "FOR A FRANCE THAT MAKES DOUBLES, KYLIAN 2017." Mbappe, the son of a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, and his success presented a living, breathing counter to the anti-immigration, nationalist campaign of Marine Le Pen, who lost to Emmanuel Macron in the final run-off.

"He represents France, and he's black," Nakissa says, as she watches her son practice for AS Bondy. "His parents are immigrants. It gives us hope."


Right here, outside the turf pitch of Stade Leo-Lagrange, AS Bondy's main field, a group of 12 kids in PSG kits are kicking a ball around in the covered mini-stadium. In just over three months with PSG, Mbappe's jersey has become one of the most popular sold at Nike's flagship store on the Champs-Elysee—nearly on par with Neymar's, according to employees.

On a day when the rain drenches anyone who steps outside for even a moment, the little ones make their way to the park, to the pitch. A yellow fence encircles the field, but it could not possibly contain one particularly high-energy member of the bunch.

Young Mbappes in the making on a rainy pitch in Bondy.
Young Mbappes in the making on a rainy pitch in Bondy.(Photograph by Joon Lee for B/R Mag)

"Kylian!" one kid yells at his friend, hoping for a pass and shot on net.

Kylian is an 11-year-old resident of Bondy, and he finds himself in the middle of every move, even if he is not necessarily finding much success. He, too, is an aspiring football star, you see, and he brags that he plays with Mbappe's younger brother, Ethan. Kylian's a short, skinny kid—a white kid—with slicked-back hair.

"There's a lot of people who call me Kylian Mbappe," little Kylian says. "I see myself in him, too."

Sometimes, if he stares at the pitch hard enough, little Kylian imagines that he'll make a high-level club one day. That he is the Prince of Bondy himself. That he, too, can will himself to become king.


Joon Lee is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjoonlee