Bengaluru: Croatia were desperately unlucky to be undone by a dubious penalty in the World Cup final. But while we scrutinise whether Ivan Perisic’s handball off a corner kick was deliberate, it’s worth rolling the tape back a little further.

Then we would see Croatian defender Domagoj Vida running back and heading out an innocuous punt to gift France a corner. The reason? He could see a blur in the shape of Kylian Mbappe out of the corner of his eye.

The speed and skill of young Mbappe made him the standout striker in World Cup 2018, upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar. His two goals against Argentina made him the first teenager to score a brace in a World Cup game since Pele in 1958. Both came from quickness of thought and action, along with the power and poise needed for the finish.

His goal to seal Croatia’s fate, becoming the second teenager after Pele to score in a World Cup final, blindsided the goalkeeper as the ball shot around Vida’s ankles from 25 yards out. Again, it happened in a flash.

“Welcome to the club, @KMbappe—it’s great to have some company!" tweeted Pele.

Like the great Brazilian, Mbappe’s effect on France and its opposition was far more pervasive than the four goals he scored in the tournament, two short of golden boot award winner Harry Kane of England. If France scored their first two goals with the referee’s assists, the third one came from Mbappe taking the defenders back with him and hooking the ball back to Griezmann who laid it up for a one-two punch from Paul Pogba—a right-foot drive rebounding off a defender and then a left-footer finding the target.

The precocious skills of Mbappe are a joy to behold. But to me, it’s equally fascinating to see the effect he has off the ball or even before the game.

It’s unlikely Vida would have given away a corner so easily if he hadn’t been terrified by the Usain Bolt of football. Earlier, in the semi-final, Belgian coach Roberto Martinez moved Kevin De Bruyne out of the false 9 centre-forward position, which had worked so well in combination with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard in the quarter-final elimination of Brazil. De Bruyne going to a more defensive midfield position and other changes in players’ positions were a reaction to the constant threat of an Mbappe run.

It doesn’t help the opposition that the 19-year-old looks so self-assured. He was the only one with a smile on his face as the players waited in the tunnel before coming out for the World Cup final. There had been a huge buildup on whether he would live up to his billing of following in the footsteps of Pele and Diego Maradona. But Mbappe had just turned up to play ball.

There was also none of the dark arts of Ronaldo, who escaped a red card after elbowing an Iranian player in the face, or the theatrics of Neymar, whose rolls after going down have become an object of ridicule. Mbappe did have moments of play-acting, like when he went down after barely a contact with Cristian Rodriguez of Uruguay. But it was good to see he had put his amateur dramatics away for the big occasion on Sunday. And, unlike the riots in France, there was nothing over-the-top from him in the French post-match celebrations.

Mbappe has the world at his feet, with reports of Manchester United and Real Madrid chasing the World Cup superstar for a transfer out of Paris Saint-Germain. If he remains as grounded as he has looked in Russia, we may be seeing the start of another legend in football.

What made Pele the greatest was that he was surrounded by talents like Jairzinho and Tostao. Football is a team game, after all, so it usually takes the coming together of a constellation of stars for a genius to sparkle.

France had the second youngest side in the 2018 World Cup. The oldest player in its formidable defensive line of Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Pavard, and Lucas Hernandez is 25-year-old Varane. Pogba, who scored the goal from Mbappe’s cutback, is also just 25. The French academies of football seem to have a conveyor belt of outstanding talent. So we ain’t seen nothing yet from Mbappe. Qatar in 2022 and the North America in 2026 beckon.

Teams often win even before a ball is played because of the sheer psychological pressure they’re able to exert. Like the Australian cricket team at the turn of the millennium. Or the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby.

Mbappe has brought a similar aura around the French football team.

Croatia, to their credit, did not flinch, and even dominated the game for nearly an hour. What a pity the Argentinian referee played spoilsport by first letting Antoine Griezmann con him into a free kick that gave France the lead, and compounding that with the penalty which put Les Bleus ahead again. It would have been fun to see Mbappe and this French side being forced to hit top gear without referee assists. We’ll have to wait for Euro 2020 for that.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.

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