The respective ways in which Neymar and Kylian Mbappe returned to Paris Saint-Germain after the World Cup spoke volumes about how they will be viewed this season.
The world’s most expensive player, Neymar, joined his teammates in China for the Trophee des Champions against Monaco. But there was no hero’s welcome for the Brazilian. In fact, it was all rather quiet as he made an appearance off the bench in an easy 4-0 win.
In contrast, Mbappe linked up with the team back in Paris a few days later and did it like a boss. The club unveiled a huge poster at the entrance of the training ground congratulating him (as well as Presnel Kimpembe and Alphonse Areola), for France’s World Cup win. There was ticker tape, smoke machines and plenty of applause, while Mbappe’s parking space even got the full treatment.
Mbappe returned to his own customised parking space at PSG’s training ground this week pic.twitter.com/bByLp8beQS
— Lilian Chan (@bestgug) August 8, 2018
Mbappe is a World Cup winner; Neymar isn’t. The Frenchman made the 2018 World Cup his own; the Brazilian was knocked out in the quarterfinals to Belgium and was mocked for his diving antics throughout the tournament.
Right now, Mbappe is the name on everyone’s lips. He is the star at PSG; he is the one the fans will cheer the most at the start of the season; he is the one people want to see. PSG have the player with the biggest potential — the most exciting talent since Lionel Messi broke into Barcelona’s first-team more than a decade ago. And that player is not Neymar, it is Mbappe.
The World Cup has almost made Mbappe the king of football already, five months short of his 20th birthday. The former Monaco striker is still a teenager and yet he has arguably overtaken his teammate in the hierarchy of the world’s best players.
A year ago, almost to the day, Mbappe was still only a player of potential — albeit one for which Paris agreed to pay €160m for once his year-long loan agreement expired — while, after his €222m from Barcelona and a host of personal accolades and trophies, Neymar was the biggest name and the club’s natural leader. Twelve months on, the roles have changed.
Neymar failed to take PSG to the next level last season. Despite some wonderful moments and 19 goals, 13 assists in 20 Ligue 1 games, his attitude was disappointing and his injury at the end of February cut his season short. Yes, PSG won the league and cup treble, but unable to inspire his team in a 3-1 first leg defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16, Neymar missed the second leg through injury and saw his side crash out again — 5-2 on aggregate.
Add to that plenty of transfer gossip linking him with a return to Spain, suggestions that his commitment was not as good as it should have been, and arguments with teammates on and off the pitch, and has a lot to redeem himself for this season.
Meanwhile, Mbappe largely stayed out of the gossip and showbiz columns to keep his star on the rise. With 13 goals and seven assists in 28 Ligue 1 matches, he learned a lot about himself, as well as the pressure and expectations on his shoulders. The season was a learning curve in new surroundings, but the way he exploded at the World Cup this summer showed that he is ready for more.
So will Mbappe’s new status change the dynamic at PSG? Of course it will. Neymar is still Neymar, but he will have to share the limelight and some responsibilities on the pitch with Mbappe.
Last season, the PSG players had a tendency to look for Neymar first. This season, it will be more balanced between the two. New manager Thomas Tuchel will also rely a lot on Mbappe, considering the momentum the teenager has created.
But Mbappe knows how much he can still learn from Neymar. He is a humble kid who understands that he still has a long way to go in terms of becoming more mature, more determined and a better player overall. For now, he will be happy to let Neymar be the leader of the team, on paper at least. He doesn’t want the crown just yet, although he is surely ready for it.
Still, one thing will change this season. After he wore the No. 29 shirt, the day of birth of his younger brother Ethan, Mbappe will now wear the No. 7 like his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. The No. 29 was not glamorous enough for the new direction Mbappe is taking, but No. 7 is a much better fit for him now.
Neymar’s No. 10 was the first on the scoresheet in the opening day 3-0 win against Caen, but rest assured that once he recovers from his World Cup exertions, Mbappe will be the one that leads PSG forward.