Aug 31 (Reuters) - Even in his early teens when cutting a dash at the French national football centre in Clairefontaine, it appears young Kylian Mbappe was intoxicated by the distant allure of playing at the very highest level.
“It is better to target the moon. That way, if you fail, you get to the clouds,” the bright boy from the multicultural Paris suburb, Bondy, mused in an early interview when asked about the prospect of one day playing at his favourite club, Real Madrid.
It has not taken long for this footballing comet to soar.
The only question, after teenager Mbappe signed on loan for Paris St Germain on Thursday is whether he sees playing for the free-spending giants in the French capital, rather than his favourite childhood club, as his ultimate destination.
At just 18, Mbappe would become the world’s second-most expensive footballer if PSG exercise their option to make the transfer permanent at the end of the season.
Local media say PSG will have to pay French champions Monaco up to 180 million euros ($214.22 million) for the young diamond. Whatever the precise figure, it will almost certainly only be exceeded by the 222 million euros PSG paid for Brazil forward Neymar this month.
It is a deal that, in its own way, feels slighlty surprising in that Madrid and their manager Zinedine Zidane have followed Mbappe’s rare talent so assiduously since he was 13 while the Real fan was growing up on a diet of Cristiano Ronaldo videos.
The wide-eyed kid first met his idol and France great Zidane, then scouting the next generation of starlets for Real, and had his picture taken with Real’s Portugal forward Ronaldo after being invited to the training ground five years ago.
He could have signed for the Spanish giants back in 2013, Mbappe has noted before, but decided to learn his art at Monaco, perhaps always believing Zidane would end up making him the focus of the sporting world.
Yet PSG’s extraordinary financial muscle under their Qatari owners completely shifted the goalposts for the youngster.
Now comes the tough bit. For while he is unquestionably a startling talent, the pressure is on a relative novice who has enjoyed one full season in Ligue 1 - albeit a truly spectacular one - to justify potentially a mind-boggling price tag.
The good news for Mbappe is that he will at least be able to do so in the shadow of Neymar and will not face the sort of suffocating billing as the “world’s most expensive player” that another French starlet, Paul Pogba, endured in his first year at Manchester United after last season’s move from Juventus.
Mbappe should thrive. Long, lean and more powerful by the season, he has frightening pace, skill and strength to instill inferiority complexes in the best defenders and, best of all for PSG, he keeps improving at a dramatic rate.
So, how good is he? Listen to Andrea Barzagli, a tough, streetwise Italian defender who along with the rest of Juventus’s miserly back four, found Mbappe devilishly hard to handle for three hours in the Champions League semi-final.
“He is a devastating player,” raved Barzagli. “I’ve met some over the years, but at his age with that technique, physical strength, pace, and above all his movement — because he changes things up and makes excellent movements off the ball — I’ve not seen someone like him.”
The inevitable reference point has been Thierry Henry, another supremely lithe and athletic French striker, but the World Cup winner shies away from comparisons.
“Mbappe has to become Mbappe — and that’s all,” Henry told Canal Plus. “But my word, he is good! Ooh la la! I met him, and he gave me the impression that he has a good head on his shoulders. I really like watching him play. He thinks.”
That “Ooh la la!” quality was evident pretty quickly when Mbappe, whose mother was a professional handball player, started being coached by his dad Wilfried at the successful regional team, AS Bondy, in the Paris suburbs, when he was six.
At 13, he was fast-tracked into France’s national football centre Clairefontaine, following a similar path to other French starlets like Henry, Nicolas Anelka and William Gallas.
It seems incredible to think that Mbappe made his first team debut at Monaco two and a half years ago but it was really only last season that he bloomed, scoring 26 goals in 44 matches.
Monaco’s Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic noted during the season: “No wonder everyone is crazy about him. He runs like he’s riding a motorbike. He has no respect, which is good, but at the same time in our locker room he is very calm, polite, never pushes himself into the front row.
“The guy is great, normal, not flying high. Everyone talks about hundreds of millions of euros that are waiting for him somewhere and still his mother or the club’s driver takes him to training every day.
“And believe me, you haven’t seen everything from him. I see every day at training how good he is.”
Now that will be PSG’s privilege as the football world awaits the full impact of the Bondy bullet.
$1 = 0.8403 euros Reporting by Ian Chadband, additional reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Neville Dalton