After Historic Comeback, Mbappé’s Quest to Be Considered the Best Becomes Longer

LUSAIL, Qatar — The president of France waited patiently on the grass, but Kylian Mbappé was not ready to be consoled. Not yet.

He had done all he could to avoid this moment. There was the first penalty kick, the one that shook France out of its torpor, that gave it a lifeline in a World Cup final it was losing. There was the stunning goal that followed just over a minute later, the one that had let Mbappé, had let France, think that the golden trophy sitting on a plinth near the tunnel, the one he had lifted four years ago, was still there to be won.

The rest seemed to play out in fast motion. Lionel Messi of Argentina scored another goal in extra time to give his team the lead. Mbappé scored in response. When the tie could not be broken, Mbappé scored to open the penalty shootout. Messi followed and did the same. Then came two France misses, three Argentina makes and it was over.

That was how Mbappé found himself sitting on the grass near the midfield stripe wondering how it could have all gone so wrong, then so right, and then so painfully, so permanently wrong. It would take a moment to process that. The president would have to wait.

“Kylian has really left his mark on this final,” Mbappé’s coach, Didier Deschamps, said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t leave it in the way he would have liked. That’s why he was so disappointed at the end of the night.”

The story of Sunday’s World Cup final, arguably the best in the tournament’s history, was always going to be about Messi’s quest for the one title that had eluded him in his career. But Mbappé had come to Lusail with history and victory in his sights, too. He had his own story to write.

Mbappé had already experienced the feeling of winning the World Cup. In 2018, he and France lifted the trophy in Moscow, where Mbappé had become the first teenager since Pelé to score in the final. On Sunday, he was hoping to match Pelé again and make France the first country to retain the trophy since Pelé’s Brazil in 1962.

He had already done Pelé one better before the game went to penalty kicks: Not even the Brazilian great had ever scored a hat trick in a World Cup final. Mbappé’s was the first since 1966.

Mbappé scored his third goal on a penalty in extra time. His hat trick was the first in a World Cup final since 1966.Credit…Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mbappé, 23, will have known that. He is not just one of the world’s best players. He is also a student of the game and its history and its stars. For months he had been targeting Qatar as the moment, and the place, where he closed the gap with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the debate over the best player in the game.

In an interview with The New York Times this summer, he was quick to recall the number of times each of his rivals had been named world player of the year. He knew he already had something on his résumé that they did not — a World Cup title — and he knew that a second in a row would be a feat even they could never match.

“I always say I dream about everything,” Mbappé said at the time. “I have no limits. So of course, like you say, it’s a new generation. And Ronaldo, Messi — you’re gonna stop. We have to find someone else, someone new.”

Mbappé thought that he was that someone else. His performance on Sunday made it seem more like a prediction than a boast: a penalty kick coolly dispatched in the 80th minute, after his teammate Randal Kolo Muani was knocked down from behind in the box; a second goal just over a minute later, a sliding right-footed finish after a give-and-go with Marcus Thuram at the top of the area; and a second penalty three minutes before the end of extra time, after Messi, for the second time, had given Argentina the lead and the momentum.

“They managed to get us back in the match, to keep the dream alive,” Deschamps said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t achieve the dream.”

The penalties finished the game and the story. Mbappé eventually rose from the grass, lifted by a hand from Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez, and eventually took a moment to share an embrace, and a few words, with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. But even his moment of personal triumph seemed cruel.

His three goals gave him eight for the tournament, edging Messi by one for the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer. But it also meant he had to walk onstage three times: first to collect the award, then to return to pose for photos and then a third time to receive his silver medal.

Each time, he made the long walk across the curling white stage. Each time, he passed the golden World Cup trophy. Each time, it was close enough to touch.

On Sunday, it was there for the taking. He will have to wait four years to get that close again.

Mbappé received the Golden Boot as the top scorer in the tournament after France’s loss in the final.Credit…Paul Childs/Reuters
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