Life as a football fan can have its surreal moments. In February 2017 I happened to watch two matches in the space of a week. Both drew crowds of about 5,000 people. Both cost me about £15 to get in.
One was an English League Two match featuring the might of Grimsby Town. The other was a French Ligue 1 match between AS Monaco and Metz that I only caught because I was on the Riviera collecting the last couple of interviews for In The Zone, notably a certain Usain Bolt.
The setting was the gloriously picturesque Stade Louis II, though the tiny crowd gave it all the atmosphere of a pre-season friendly – despite the fact that Monaco were busy running away with the Ligue 1 title.
The home line-up featured the likes of Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho, Fabinho (now with Liverpool), Tiémoué Bakayoko (now with Chelsea) plus Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva (both now with Manchester City). Thomas Lemar (now with Atletico Madrid) was there too, but he didn’t even make it off the bench.
Have I forgotten anyone? Oh yeah, the Monaco keeper was Danijel Subasic, who now has a busy Sunday lined up keeping goal for Croatia in the World Cup Final.
Then there was a young lad who also has his plans for Sunday sorted: Kylian Mbappé.
You might just have heard of him by now. But I’m prepared to admit that as I looked at the team sheets, his wasn’t the name that stood out. His £160million move to Paris St Germain may have been just months away, but this match came before Monaco set the Champions League on fire en route to the semi-finals.
It didn’t take the 18-year-old long to make his mark. As early as the seventh minute Mbappé latched onto a lay-off from Falcao and swept it home first time. By the 20th minute he’d added a second. In the second half he completed his first ever Ligue 1 hat-trick as part of a 5-0 romp. Given the pitiful crowd, something tells me this might be an ‘I was there’ moment that will give me bragging rights for a while…
Fast forward 17 months and – with the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar Jr coming up short – Mbappé is being hailed as the undisputed star of the 2018 World Cup after lighting up game after game in front of slightly bigger crowds. Now France’s golden child has the chance to seal that status, with his nation and much of the world willing him to take Sunday’s World Cup Final by storm.
This French team is loaded up with great players, not least an impressive defence and the midfield duo of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, who would walk into any team in the world. But never underestimate the effect of a genius, particularly when it comes to getting a group of players into the Zone en masse.
No matter how motivated and well drilled a team is, in fast-flowing ball sports the difference often stems from a flash of brilliance. It seems the Zone is contagious and team-mates can catch greatness from each other. That’s according to Marcel Desailly, of the French football team that was the first to hold both World Cup and European Championship, starting with their glorious triumph at home in Paris 20 years ago today.
‘France didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup but in 1996 we started to build that new generation,’ Desailly told me for In The Zone. ‘We had natural leaders who showed they could perform at a higher level. We were professional players, focused and dedicated to the game. On top of that we had Zidane.
‘When Zidane was there it was different, even in a training session. A star like that brings direct motivation and more responsibility for the others. You want to keep the ball correctly, your attention is higher and you are more focused. The concentration and consistency we showed were what allowed us to last at the top.
‘From 1998 to 2001 we were the world’s best team. Luckily we were able to deliver collective performances. A collective link in a team is very important in football and makes the difference every single time.’
Mbappé is not even 20 years old yet, but if he can inspire his team in the same way we could be in for something special. Of course France still have to overcome a team in Croatia that is high on national pride and has its own talisman in Luka Modric, 13 years Mbappé’s senior.
Both teams have shown grit, skill and outstanding team spirit to make it this far, but something tells me Monday’s headlines will mention a magic moment from a man whose name begins with M…
Either way, it was the best £15 I’ve ever spent. (No, not the Grimsby game...)
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.