Kylian Mbappé: Boy from the Banlieue
May 12, 2021
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Born and brought up in a Parisian suburb (or banlieue), Kylian Mbappé is a symbol of France’s aspiring working classes, striving for fame and fortune through sporting success. In advance of the UEFA European Championships, Joe Boyle discovers the person, the player, and the much-loved ambassador who hopes to unite France through soccer.
You can’t miss the mural. It covers the entire side of the housing block, one of many in the Parisian suburb of Bondy. A boy lies in bed, hugging a soccer ball. It’s a young Kylian Mbappé, you realise. He’s dreaming. What is the subject of his dreams, rising in a mosaic above him? It’s himself, now grown up and wearing the No.10 shirt of France. “Aime ton rêve et il t’aimera en retour,” says the mural caption. “Love your dreams and they will love you back.”
It’s a message of hope and possibility, crafted in Nike’s marketing department. But how possible is it for Bondy’s residents to love their dreams into reality? And how might this Parisian suburb and its famous son shape France’s dreams, both on and off the pitch, during the European Football Championship in June and July?
On one level it’s clear. Mbappé will illuminate this summer’s tournament. Aged just 22, he has four league titles to his name and is already a World Cup winner, unlike Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. His rise to the top was both rapid and long foreseen. A precocious talent as a boy, he was soon absorbed into French soccer’s elite training system. Coveted by Europe’s top sides, he chose AS Monaco as his first professional club, where he scored 26 goals in 44 games as the team won the French league in 2016-17. Again, Europe’s finest sought to entice him but he chose to stay in France, returning to his home town and Paris Saint-Germain FC in August 2017. Since then, only the Champions League title has eluded him.
But the Euros will prove to be much more than a soccer event. Covid-19 will cast its shadow and these will be the first rootless championships, played in 12 cities across Europe. Geography, location and identity will be paramount.
It is a cliché to say Mbappé has the world at his feet. Besides, French soccer’s more interesting story is less about the global than the local, as former national team captain Zinedine Zidane summed up in 2014: “Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.” The local, the suburb, comes first.
Zidane’s words find an echo in those of Mbappé to teammate Ousmane Dembélé, moments before their first match at the 2018 World Cup in Russia: “Look at us. The boy from Évreux. And the boy from Bondy. We are playing at the World Cup.” Subsequent celebrations of France’s win saw the players’ faces projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, together with just their first names and home towns: “…Kylian, Bondy… Ousmane, Évreux… Corentin, Tarare… N’Golo, Suresnes…”
For the French, the local is often valued much more than the national. After all, this is the country of ‘le terroir’, an agricultural and culinary term, denoting the combination of geology, weather and cultural practice that give local food and drink its distinctiveness. There are no grapevines in Bondy but it boasts its own vintage, as if Mbappé de Bondy has acquired an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée), that mark of geographic authenticity; soccer’s equivalent of Bordeaux supérieur wine, or Roquefort cheese, or Le Puy lentils.
That may be too whimsical, and not all soccer players would take kindly to be being compared to cheese or lentils. The banlieues, such as Bondy, are not always places of whimsy, but grittier, often working-class suburbs that surround French cities, home to many communities of immigrant origin. They have also become a fertile source of soccer talent. Eight of the 2018 World Cup-winning squad hail from Paris’s banlieues alone. Bondy latched on to their good-news story for some positive place-marketing, coining the phrase “Bondy: Ville des possibles”. Mbappé’s sponsors followed. Nike branded his first boot collection Bondy Dreams. Video game developer EA Sports focussed their PR campaign on 93, the number of the administrative department that Bondy falls into. Their video short paints an uplifting picture, spoiled by the glib line that “perceptions about the Parisian suburbs can make it that bit harder for people here”. In reality, there is often no ‘can’, no ‘bit’.
Albrecht Sonntag is professor of European studies at ESSCA School of Management in Angers, in northwest France, and has studied soccer in depth. He explains how Mbappé’s success cannot gloss over the limited life opportunities faced by many who grow up in his home neighbourhood. “Sports heroes used as a prototype of successful integration is always a false message because the percentage of success is so low,” he says. “They give a distorted view of reality.”
Bondy’s real success story lies in Mbappé’s parents. Cameroon-born Wilfried is one of an estimated 30,000 coaches in Paris’s banlieues who help develop the quarter of a million registered players. He was a sporting director at AS Bondy, the club where Mbappé emerged, running multiple youth teams. Mbappé’s mother, Fayza Lamari, a former professional handball player of Algerian origin, worked in a youth centre. They are some of the oil that keeps Bondy’s community machinery turning. “Mbappé is not representative,” says Sonntag. “The parents are.”
Their son’s education did not fit the Bondy mould: he attended a private Catholic school for a while, skied, learnt to sing and play the flute. Once he was swept up into French soccer’s sophisticated development process, the remnants of a typical Bondy adolescence were scattered. How many 19-year-olds are summoned to the Élysée Palace to meet the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Liberian President, former soccer player George Weah? Here, too, place was everywhere as they discussed a sports development project in Africa. “There were some topics that are dear to my heart,” Mbappé said. “Even if I am French, I have African roots.
"Mbappé has become part of a wider conversation about identity..."
Mbappé wears these multiple identities without effort: middle-class, working-class, French, African, cosmopolitan, suburban, athlete, politician, global, local. How appropriate this is in France, the country of existentialism – a philosophy that theorises that an authentic life is about whether one succeeds in making oneself. Mbappé has become, suggests Sonntag, part of a wider conversation about identity. “Soccer is a great teacher in terms of multiple belongings,” he says. “It creates case studies that are not risky to discuss, a trickle-down of a reality that is not easy to swallow for some societies, especially former colonial powers.”
This seems a lot to invest in a young man. When Mbappé’s form dropped mid-season, perhaps the lingering effects of catching Covid-19, one critic called his soccer “polluted”. It’s an ugly description, laden with anxiety, lest Mbappé lose his authenticity. Attempted flicks and tricks suggested Mbappé was mimicking his teammate Neymar rather than playing his own game. Would the authentic Mbappé become subsumed by conflicting identities?
No, says Sonntag. He is too grounded, too well prepared by France’s soccer system to collapse under the weight of expectation. France hopes so. It is reassuring to see a world-bestriding giant rooted in the hyper-local banlieue, embracing his multiple identities. Mbappé holds up a mirror to his nation so that, for all the social and political challenges of the past year and more, France can look back, admire what it sees and for a moment agree that, yes, on and off the pitch, anything is possible.