David Owen

I never thought I would live to see another footballer dominate a men’s World Cup as comprehensively as Diego Maradona dominated the 1986 competition.

Yet if Kylian Mbappé can inspire France to a second-consecutive triumph in world governing body FIFA’s flagship tournament, currently building towards its conclusion in Qatar, he may achieve just that.

In a tournament where much of the play has so far appeared sedate compared with the cream of European league football, in particular the Premier League, Mbappé’s blistering pace, allied with deft control and a hot shot, has stood out like a cheetah in a herd of impala.

Operating mainly on and around the left flank of Didier Deschamps’s injury-hit team, the 23-year-old has already racked up five goals in the Gulf to add to the four he notched as a teenager in Russia four years ago.

At times when he knocks the ball into space and sprints after it, he can look like Stirling Moss on a pitch full of Reginald Molehusbands, or (for those of you who did not happen to be brought up on a diet of British television in the 1960s) like Usain Bolt on a pitch full of marathon-runners.

I suppose you could argue that a more appropriate comparison, should France win their third World Cup on December 18, is with Brazil’s Pelé, who helped his country lift the then Jules Rimet trophy in 1958 as a 17-year-old before repeating the feat in 1962.

Another reference-point is his fellow Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, a World Cup-winner under Deschamps’s captaincy on home soil in 1998.

After flooring Brazil in the Stade de France with two headers 24 years ago, Zidane played in a second final in Berlin in 2006, scored again, but later got sent off following the most famous headbutt in human history.

Yet unlike Mbappé, who seems to bristle with menace almost every time he touches the ball, Zidane tended to save his best at World Cups for the really big games.

In another match against Brazil in 2006, once again won by France, he put on the most mesmerising display of skills I have been privileged to witness in an international football match.

Kylian Mbappe has been one of the star players of the 2022 FIFA World Cup so far, our columnist argues ©Getty Images
Kylian Mbappe has been one of the star players of the 2022 FIFA World Cup so far, our columnist argues ©Getty Images

Up against Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Gilberto Silva and Kaká, he resembled a kitten juggling a ball of wool, such was his mastery.

A formidable-looking Brazil are among the obstacles which might block Mbappé and Co’s way as they strive to win a second-consecutive World Cup for France.

So are a less formidable-looking Argentina who, however, are blessed with a talisman every bit as gifted as Maradona in the shape of Mbappé’s (and Neymar’s) team-mate at Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Lionel Messi.

First of all, though, Deschamps’s men will have to beat Gareth Southgate’s well-drilled England on Saturday (December 10) at Al Bayt Stadium.

The 1966 World Cup-winners were good enough to secure fourth place four years ago in Russia and followed that up by losing the final of the delayed 2020 European Championships on penalties to Italy.

It would not be all that much of an upset if Southgate’s men, who have learnt to play to their strengths and have bright young talents of their own in Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham, were to oust the holders at the quarter-final stage of the current competition.

If history is any guide, England may opt to revert to a five-man back-line, with Kieran Trippier returning to the starting line-up and Phil Foden reverting to the bench.

I also wonder whether the in-form Marcus Rashford might start instead of Saka for a match in which judicious use of substitutes may be key.

Having played in a back-four in what developed into a convincing win over Senegal, the pacey Kyle Walker is perhaps the England defender best-equipped to counter Mbappé’s searing runs towards the danger-zone.

Diego Maradona, widely considered one of football's greatest players, helped Argentina win the FIFA World Cup in 1986 ©Getty Images
Diego Maradona, widely considered one of football's greatest players, helped Argentina win the FIFA World Cup in 1986 ©Getty Images

But if the PSG man is plainly the most glittering gem in Deschamps’s depleted crown, he is not the virtual one-man band that Maradona sometimes seemed to be in Mexico 36 years ago.

A certain Antoine Griezmann is still around, now pulling the strings in a more withdrawn role, while Adrien Rabiot has an ability to "ghost" dangerously into the box in a manner that might remind some of England World Cup-winner Martin Peters.

The England defenders, meanwhile, should not need to be reminded of ex-Arsenal man Olivier Giroud’s goalscoring record.

Whether or not he becomes a double World Cup-winner in Qatar over the course of the next couple of weeks, Mbappé could turn out to be one of the big stars of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Though the men’s football competition is an under-23 tournament, each side is generally allowed three over-age players.

Neymar was 24 when he played for Brazil at Rio 2016, scoring the penalty that delivered the gold medal to the host nation.

Mbappé’s inclusion in the French squad would almost certainly make them red-hot favourites similarly to win gold in 2024.

France has so far achieved this just once, 38 years ago, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

A second men’s football gold captured at the French capital’s third Summer Games would be a big moment, both for a not-always-sports-mad country and this fleet-footed son of Bondy, not far from the Stade de France in the city’s north-eastern suburbs.