Neymar created history when he obliterated the record transfer fee this summer, moving out of Lionel Messi’s shadow at Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain. He wanted to be his own man, and to lead a team rather than playing a supporting role, albeit an influential one.
Twenty-nine days later, the Brazilian watched as the prodigal son returned. Kylian Mbappe had come home.
Born in Bondy, the north-eastern suburb of Paris, the striker moved to the revered Clairefontaine – the national football centre which has produced a glut of French stars – as a young boy, having impressed with AS Bondy, the team his father Wilfried coached.
He returns to the French capital via AS Monaco as an 18-year-old. A precocious talent but the real deal, a superstar not so much in the making as already made.
At £166 million, he will become the second-most expensive player ever when his loan move from Monaco becomes permanent next season.
While UEFA investigates the deal and rival clubs look on curiously as PSG, taken over by cash-rich Qatari investors in 2011, circumvent Financial Fair Play having already spent around £200m on Neymar, there are more pressing matters on Tuesday: a trip to Celtic Park.
It would be understandable if Brendan Rodgers is having sleepless nights over the prospect of the frightening triumvirate of Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Mbappe.
The trio wreaked havoc in their first game together, netting four goals between them in a 5-1 defeat of Metz on Friday evening. And, of course, Mbappe was on the scoresheet, zipping a shot into the bottom corner before inadvertently teeing up Cavani for the Uruguayan’s second goal.
The wunderkind started on the left of a front three and will dovetail with Neymar, either side of Cavani, the trio amassing 95 goals between them last season. However, the long term will see Mbappe move to centre.
“I’ve spoken to the coach, he told me I can play in several positions in attack and that there can be a lot of rotation,” Mbappe said. “There’s no set position. If you ask me now I’d say I prefer centre forward. If you ask me next year I might say on the wing.”
Within football circles Mbappe was well known before his emergence on to the elite stage. Tracked by the game’s greatest and grandest – handed a trial at Chelsea as an 11-year-old before training with Real Madrid’s under-15s – his development has been conscientiously managed by his father and his mother Fayza, a former hand-ball player, involving their son in decisions.
Despite all the interest, Mbappe opted for the French Riviera, proving himself to be an observant, prescient and grounded 15-year-old. And one in love with football. Any chance he got, he would head to watch his boyhood heroes, PSG, analysing game after game in order to improve. He would even sneak out of his room, clad with posters of Cristiano Ronaldo, at Clairefontaine to undertake extra training.
This self-analysis and self-development propelled him into the first-team at Monaco. At 16 years, 11 months and 12 days he was handed his debut, beating a club record held by Thierry Henry. Eighty-one days later he broke another Henry record, becoming the club’s youngest scorer.
The 2015/2016 campaign saw glimpses of a phenomenon, including a goal against Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League. A portent of what was to come. The following season he arrived, gathering steam before steamrollering opposition centre-backs with his unorthodox running style, pace, and go-go gadget legs which either confused or hypnotised opponents.
“Slowly but surely, the more he scored and impressed off the bench, the harder it became to leave him out of the side,” said French football writer Nathan Staples.
“As soon as he hit the first-team in early 2017, he never looked back. The performances in the Champions League are where everyone saw him come to life but he looked ready for that moment about a month prior, with a hat-trick against Metz about two weeks before the first-leg against Manchester City.
“From that moment at the Etihad, he took off like a rocket. Irresistible, a natural goal-scorer, among the best you’ll see at such a young age.”
A bit-part player in the opening half of the season, a meeting with Montpellier acted as a trigger. He appeared to rid himself of his Clark Kent alter-ego, removing his glasses and ripping open his shirt to reveal himself as Superman. Eighteen goals would follow in 21 games, including six in the Champions League, becoming the first player ever to score in each of his first four Champions League knockout appearances.
He epitomised a vibrant, engaging and exciting Monaco team, giving them a certain X-factor as they upset the odds to reach the Champions League semi-finals and claim the Ligue 1 title, willed on by neutrals.
The Monegasques expected departures, they had prepared for it, but not their exhilarating teen. Even Mbappe expected to stay for one more season. However, as the club sold £159m worth of talent and the season started with the player spending much of the time on the sidelines, he took a decisive decision in his career, even putting his driving lessons on hold.
“I had given my priority to Monaco, but certain things happened,” he said. “I will speak about it very soon and say everything that happened.”
With PSG procuring “France’s future” as well as the best player in the world who isn’t Messi or Ronaldo, they’ve put themselves in an authoritative position domestically, primed for sustained dominance. The main aim, however, is European success.
“I’m starving for trophies and I want to win year after year, starting right now,” Mbappe said. “Of course Neymar’s [presence] is an added bonus. It’s extraordinary to play with someone of that level.
“It was important for me not to leave France after just six months at the highest level. I’m an ambitious player who always wants to improve. So my objective is obviously to score more than last season. But individual ambitions should always be part of a wider ambition, and that is for the team to win everything.”
A raucous Celtic Park is the next stage in Mbappe’s career as the club’s European quest begins.