Kylian Mbappé, Victor Wembanyama battling to be face of French sports

Kylian Mbappé, Victor Wembanyama battling to be face of French sports

French sports has two global superstars whose fame and popularity dwarfs that of all their country’s other elite athletes.

It is not a newsflash to tell you that they’re Kylian Mbappé and Victor Wembanyama, soccer savant and basketball box office attraction, both young, electrifying to watch, determined to represent France at this summer’s Paris Olympics, known all around the world, and, we can safely presume, on track for a glittering future.

Yet until now, Mbappé has been on his own as l’homme — the man — when it comes to the affection of his homeland’s public, because that’s what you get when you lead your country to a World Cup title at age 19, then darn-near single-handedly do it again four years later in a one-man performance for the ages.

But here comes Wembanyama, the freshly-minted NBA Rookie of the Year, threatening to match him step for step. The wickedly talented San Antonio Spurs center did everything asked of him and more in his debut season, and in terms of staying on everyone’s right side, hasn’t been around long enough to ruffle any feathers.

That’s not the case with Mbappé. When the 25-year-old takes the field for his final home game as a Paris St. Germain player against Toulouse on Sunday, the reception he receives is likely to be somewhat frosty. As his contract expires, he and the club are not bidding farewell on particularly friendly terms.

There is some lingering frustration on both sides that, despite three straight Ligue 1 titles, PSG’s long and expensive quest for Champions League success has been fruitless, cemented by this week’s upset defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals.

Among PSG fans, there have been suspicions that Mbappé has given something less than intense effort on occasions this campaign, and all in all, some of the sheen that he left the Qatar World Cup with 17 months ago has now rubbed off.

As of the start of next season, you can expect to see him wearing the iconic white of Real Madrid, a move that is not yet formalized but which is the worst kept secret in sports.

[Mbappé announces he’s leaving PSG ahead of expected move to Real Madrid]

Mbappé was even booed by his own fans in February and again during a recent home Champions League defeat to Barcelona in the quarterfinal, before his brilliant efforts in the second leg turned things around. It is not inconceivable that there are some jeers this weekend.

Wembanyama knows and understands the burden of expectations that Mbappé is under, for the piercing glare of the spotlight is always there for him, too. He is also aware that despite a five-year age gap, they are entrenched as France’s figureheads for the current sporting generation.

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“I realize that we have a lot in common,” Wembanyama told reporters. “He’s the player who inspires me most when it comes to soccer. He’s someone I identify with a lot. Nevertheless, I want to be original and go my own way.”

The muted response to Mbappé’s last home game is stark when compared to the hero’s sendoff Wembanyama received in the final months of his time in the French league, before heading to the NBA.

Mbappé was sat courtside along with French actor Omar Sy for Wembanyama’s final regular season game, which was greeted with even greater excitement as it came hours before the NBA Draft Lottery — essentially confirming he would be heading to San Antonio.

“The story begins now,” Mbappé wrote on social media, alongside a photo of Wembanyama.

Wembanyama’s last playoff game in France, when his Boulogne-Levallois team lost to Monaco, was switched to the Roland Garros tennis center to accommodate a bigger crowd, and fans sang “Merci (thank you), Wemby,” once the final buzzer sounded.

This may be an unfair expectation, but it could be that Mbappé needs to lead France to victory at this summer’s European Championships to hold onto his top position in his country’s list of favorite athletes.

Indeed, both men, who have become good friends, will have a huge opportunity to boost their legacy this summer.

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The significance of Paris hosting the Summer Olympics for the first time in 100 years cannot be overstated. France holds a special and unique affinity for the Games, which were founded by French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.

France’s basketball team claimed silver at the last Olympics in Tokyo, losing to a stacked United States squad in the final, and with Wembanyama now on the team, hopes are high that home advantage can inspire another medal challenge.

On the soccer side, Mbappé has stated he wants to play in both the Euros and the Olympics, the latter of which is restricted to players aged 23 or under, with three exceptions granted for older players. 

His participation may become a point of negotiation between himself and Real Madrid, who likely would not want him to spend so much of the club offseason involved in tournament action.

Despite the emotional lure of the Games being in Paris, the Euros is overwhelmingly the priority. France’s national team, under head coach Didier Deschamps, has proven to be so successful that it is perhaps the only current nation where losing in the final of a major tournament could be considered a disappointment.

Mbappé’s incredible performance in the 2022 World Cup has created a level of expectation that is almost impossible to match. Any time the team is struggling, the anticipation is there that Mbappé will magically come to the rescue.

If he does so when it matters at the Euros, his difficulties during PSG’s club season will quickly be forgotten.

Popularity in sports is a strange and fickle thing, especially in a county like France that has had so much success on the international stage.

Wembanyama’s career is still in that refreshing early stage where he doesn’t have to worry about such things, but it may come before too long.

If it does, learning from Mbappé’s experience may provide some benefit.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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Kylian Mbappe

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