Column: At World Cup final, Mbappe, just 19, joins Pele
By JOHN LEICESTER
MOSCOW (AP) The ball skidded across the pristine Moscow pitch and time seemed to slow. This was Kylian Mbappe's moment, at just 19, to become the youngest player since Pele to score in a World Cup final.
Did he hesitate? Did he wilt under the weight of hundreds of millions of eyes trained on TV screens around the world?
Mbappe doesn't do doubt.
With a touch as delicate as anything seen at the Bolshoi, he simply nudged the ball forward, sizing up the goal. The natural shot with his right foot from the edge of Croatia's box would have been to aim right.
Too easy. Mbappe doesn't do easy.
Instead, as cool as can be, he aimed left.
Against a Croatia team that refused to understand the meaning of "Give up," with tough, physical players who grew up in the aftermath of the war that broke up the former Yugoslavia, it was clear when France had first a one-goal and then a two-goal lead that only a sledgehammer blow from Les Bleus would put the Croatians down for good.
And here's the amazing thing: the truly special teenage talent who landed it, Mbappe, is just getting started. Just think: At the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, France's rough diamond will still be just 23. That is about the same age that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were when they began their shared 10-year lock on the Ballon d'Or, football's top individual trophy that sooner rather than later seems bound to have Mbappe's name attached to it, too.
At the US-Canada-Mexico World Cup in 2026, Mbappe will be in his polished prime, at age 27. Book tickets now.
"My ambition is to go further. As far as my potential allows me, to my limits," he said. "Winning a World Cup so young opens other doors. Now, I have to keep working. I'm only at the start of the road."
Mbappe's goal in the 65th minute made it 4-1 for France, effectively guaranteeing a second World Cup victory for Les Bleus to add to the first won by their greatest player, Zinedine Zidane, and his teammates in 1998. Mbappe wears the No. 10 jersey as Zidane did. That is Mbappe's choice. And that says everything about his deep well of ambition and how high he is aiming.
Croatia did get a second goal in the 69th minute to keep the final stretch ticklish with uncertainty. But it was clear after Mbappe's goal that the match would end only one way: With the blocks of French fans in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium and the millions watching back in France erupting in a red-white-and-blue frenzy of joy.
As well as the gold trophy and the second star Les Bleus will now forever be able to wear on their shirts, there's much for the French to be proud of in this team. Like the "black-blanc-beur" - black, white and Arab - team of 1998, it reflects modern France: multi-racial and made richer by its diversity.
"That is the France that we like: Different origins, but all united," said striker Antoine Griezmann. He scored France's second goal, a penalty kick that was preceded by a peel of thunder from the Russian night skies that later dumped a rain storm on the new world champions as they celebrated.
After scoring twice in Brazil's 5-2 win against Sweden in the final of 1958, when he was just 17, Pele went on to win another two World Cups with Brazil.
No one is saying, not quite yet, that Mbappe will do likewise. But one title, at his age, is a terrific start. With his talent and his impressively level head that so far, cross-fingers, isn't showing any signs of swelling with his dizzying new fame, the possibilities are thrilling. And he makes soccer look so fun. He beamed through the Marseillaise sung before referee Nestor Pitana blew the whistle to start the match. World Cup final nerves? Never!
"I've always been ready, mentally, to do beautiful things," he said. "I'm free and, most of all, I enjoy it."
Mbappe's backstory is Hollywood stuff, too, and perhaps significant for France. Without wanting to put too much responsibility on his young shoulders, there'll be many young French kids in tough neighborhoods like the one where he grew up, in Bondy, in the northeastern outskirts of Paris, who will now have stars in their eyes and perhaps with a new appreciation of life's possibilities.
"He is a source of pride and inspiration," Mahmoud Bourassi, who runs a youth center in Bondy, said just ahead of the final. "We're a town that has been stigmatized, had fingers pointed at us, and today we're getting media coverage and we have an exceptional kid."
The final wasn't even Mbappe's best game at this World Cup that has made the 180 million euros ($210 million) that his club, Paris Saint-Germain, paid for him in 2017 look like a steal. Mbappe was most devastating in a 4-3 victory against Argentina where he scored twice, earned a penalty and showed off his blistering speed.
As well as lifting the World Cup, Mbappe also was named the tournament's best young player, like Pele in 1958. Mbappe had no real rival in Russia for the award. He got a hug from French President Emmanuel Macron and a pat on the back from President Vladimir Putin.
"I have a whole story to write," Mbappe said. "This is just the beginning."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
Updated July 15, 2018