The fading powers of France’s man in the mask

Kylian Mbappé has taken 20 shots at the tournament, but has only managed to score from the penalty spot.
Kylian Mbappé has taken 20 shots at the tournament, but has only managed to score from the penalty spot.


Kylian Mbappé was supposed to light up Euro 2024. Then he broke his nose, was fitted with a protective face covering, and has yet to score a goal from open play.

Kylian Mbappé was the French national soccer team’s resident superhero long before he slipped on a mask.

Just 25 years old, the striker who’s faster than a speeding bullet came into the European Championship with 47 France goals to his name, fresh off a sparkling transfer to Real Madrid, and firmly installed as the captain of Les Bleus. He was ready to terrorize European defenses and make miracles in front of goal again.

Instead, Mbappé broke his nose in a bloody collision during France’s opening game. Les Bleus soon realized that the only way he could keep playing in this tournament was to wear an uncomfortable face protector to shield him from any further blows.

The only problem was that the moment Mbappé put on the mask, his superpowers seemed to evaporate—and France’s entire offense seemed to go with them.

Five games into their Euro 2024 campaign, Les Bleus are still waiting for a single Frenchman to score from open play. Their three goals at this tournament have come from two own goals and an Mbappé penalty kick. Yet France is somehow in the semifinals, where it will face Spain on Tuesday. It took one of those own goals for the French to edge past Belgium in the round of 16, before they took down Portugal in a quarterfinal penalty shootout following 120 minutes of scoreless soccer.

“What’s positive is that we’re creating chances," forward Ousmane Dembélé said ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal. “We’re lacking a bit of efficiency, but we have situations where we can score. We just haven’t been able to put them away."

Using the expected goals metric, which gives an indication of the quality of the chances a team creates, Les Bleus should have scored eight times by now if their finishing were up to its normal standard.

And no one has struggled more than France’s man in the mask. Mbappé has taken 20 shots at the tournament, second only to Cristiano Ronaldo, but has only managed to score from the penalty spot. For a player who scored 44 times in 48 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain last season, that sort of paltry return is incroyable.

What’s become clear is that France’s solution for managing the broken nose is almost as bad as the broken nose itself. Mbappé isn’t only bothered by the unfamiliarity of sprinting with a hunk of polycarbonate strapped to his face, he has also told his coaches that the mask also restricts his peripheral vision and makes him feel disoriented.

Despite all of that, there has been no question of leaving Mbappé out of the starting lineup.

“Even if he’s not 100%, I know very well that for the opponent, knowing he’s playing makes them think and forces them to adapt," France manager Didier Deschamps said.

This isn’t the first time that France has brought heavy artillery to a tournament only to misfire catastrophically. In 2002, Les Bleus went to the World Cup armed with the top scorers of the English, French, and Italian leagues, only to be eliminated in the group stage without a single goal. Eight years later, with a squad that boasted Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, and Franck Ribéry, France was again knocked out in the group stage, having scored just once.

The difference is that in 2024, the French malaise in front of goal has yet to cost Les Bleus. While their attack has stalled, they have been rescued by the tightest defense at the tournament, whose 8.8 shots allowed per game is the lowest average of any of the 16 teams to reach the knockout rounds. Deschamps would say that this is precisely how he hopes his side would play—stay rock solid at the back and trust that your collection of talented forwards will snatch a goal at the other end.

But France’s fans—and occasionally its own players—have recognized that this approach rarely makes for pretty viewing.

“It’s boring as hell to watch," veteran playmaker Antoine Griezmann said before the tournament. “But that’s how it is. It helps us win."

“This is the style of the French national team and that’s the way it is," Dembélé added last week. “If people aren’t happy, that’s not our problem."

Even if the games might look staler than a week-old baguette, it’s hard to argue with France’s results since Deschamps took over in 2012. Les Bleus are now hoping to reach the fourth final in six major tournaments, following their runs at Euro 2016 and the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

“It’s a source of pride for my players, even if we don’t do everything perfectly," Deschamps said. “We don’t give an inch. And when we have to tip things in the right direction, we always make it happen."

Write to Joshua Robinson at

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