Kylian Mbappe zooms past Messi and Ronaldo to continue stellar rise
Herve Renard, the Morocco head coach and former Ivory Coast, Sochaux and Lille manager, could not believe what he was seeing.
It was eight years ago and at the time he was coaching the small team of Cherbourg in the French fourth division. Before the game against Ivry, he saw this 8-year-old kid, nephew of the Ivory coach, having fun with the ball.
"Who is this phenomenon? He will become one of the best," said Renard.
It was Kylian Mbappe. A decade later, Renard's prediction is true -- the prodigious striker is on his way to stardom.
It has been an incredible last six weeks for the 18-year-old Mbappe. Since Feb.1 no-one, not even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, has scored more goals than him (13 in nine games). He is having a breakthrough season with 19 goals in 32 games in all competitions for Monaco (12 goals in 22 league matches and 11 assists, eight of which have come in Ligue 1).
At the same age, Ronaldo had played 33 professional matches, scoring five goals and providing six assists. Messi? Six goals and two assists in 17 games. Thierry Henry? Three goals and five assists in 18 games. Karim Benzema? Five goals and one assist in 21 games.
Mbappe will play in the Champions League quarterfinals next month when Henry and Messi had to wait until they were 20 to feature at that level. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 21 and Ronaldo 22.
Manchester United are on the list of top European teams rumoured to be keen on Mbappe this summer and they are not alone. He is likely to be one of the most coveted players in Europe, with Real Madrid also said to be keen.
Nothing and no-one seems to be able to stop him. Manchester City could not contain him in the Champions League and on Sunday, away at Caen, he scored two goals and won a penalty after an obscene run which started on the half way line with a Diego Maradona-style turn, then continued with a sprint that forced Damien Da Silva to foul him in the box.
Seeing him coming through like this is not a surprise. Since Mbappe, born and bred in Bondy, in the north suburbs of Paris, was young, people knew he would become a star.
At 11, Chelsea invited him for a week to train and spend time at the club but he didn't want to sign. At 14, it was Real Madrid's turn and they got the same answer. Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Arsenal have tried but he chose the INF Clairefontaine academy first and then Monaco, convinced it would be the best environment for him.
He was right. Last season, he became the youngest player ever to feature in the top flight for Monaco and the youngest goal scorer too, each time overtaking Henry in the history books.
Last summer, France teammate Jean-Kevin Augustin was named the player of the Under-19 European Championships won by Les Bleus, but Mbappe was the true star.
He is also well-grounded. His dad, Wilfrid, who was his first coach at Bondy, looks after him. His half-brother, Jires Kembo-Ekoko, plays his football at Al Nasr in Dubai and spent six seasons in Ligue 1 at Rennes. His mum, Fayza, was a professional handball player.
Mbappe was exceptional as a kid playing in Paris, exceptional at youth level in France and exceptional now with the Monaco first team both at home and in Europe. There was never any doubt and only the sky is his limit.
This week is a special week for him. On Monday, he joined the France national team HQ at Clairefontaine for his first call up, becoming the first player in French national team history to be born after France's 1998 World Cup win. He is one of the youngest ever to be called up for the national team. Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri, Kingsley Coman and Benzema were all 19. You have to go back in the 1950s with Maryan Wisnieski, 18 years and two months, to find someone younger than Mbappe (18 years and three months).
Initially, coach Didier Deschamps wanted to wait before calling him up but the young Monegasque is simply too good at the moment to leave behind.
Deschamps confirmed on Monday that between the game on Saturday in Luxemburg in the World Cup qualifiers and a prestigious friendly against Spain at the Stade de France on Tuesday, the new star of French football will have some game time.
Will he score on his first appearance? Given his meteoric rise, it would not be a surprise.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.