In the waning days of summer in Paris, Kylian Mbappé sits high above a stadium, trying to find the words to describe how drastic a turn his life has taken this past year. His breathtaking soccer skills have propelled him to global fame in a matter of months. He earns more money than he could ever have imagined. Nike is designing pricey sneakers in his name. LeBron James wants to see him when he comes to town later that week. And when he steps out on the street, people beg him for autographs.
Then there’s the fact that he’s still just 19 years old, making all this vastly more complicated.
Capturing the wild ride of his last year as a teenager isn’t easy. “My life has been totally turned upside down,” he says, sitting in an airy, wood-paneled lounge atop the Parc des Princes stadium of soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG, for which Mbappé is a forward. “I am happy, and I am living the life I always dreamed of.” And yet, he says, “I think I might have missed out on something. I did not have the moments of so-called normal people during adolescence, like going out with friends, enjoying good times.”
Until recently, Mbappé had an adoring following among millions of European soccer fans, who believed he would emerge as the best player of his generation. But outside that realm, he was little known until 2018, when his abilities catapulted him to worldwide fame. His Instagram account now has nearly 20 million followers—twice the number, for example, as that of Serena Williams.
Mbappé’s major stardom began in September last year, when PSG’s Qatari owners agreed to pay an astonishing €180 million ($207 million) over five years to the club AS Monaco to transfer Mbappé, its star striker, to his hometown of Paris. They offered to pay him, at the age of 18, a monthly salary of €1.5 million, or about $1.7 million. (PSG will not confirm the figure, widely reported in the French media.) That made Mbappé the most expensive teenager in soccer history at an age when he had just graduated from high school and learned to drive.
In hindsight, that sum now seems like a steal. Mbappé scored 13 goals in the last French Ligue 1 season, winning the trophy for PSG. That earned him a spot on France’s national team headed to the FIFA World Cup in Russia. It was there, this past summer, that Mbappé became a global superstar.
Even among casual watchers of the monthlong World Cup, word of Mbappé spread as a phenomenon you had to see to believe. He would fly past defenders in a blur at speeds over 20 m.p.h., before shooting the ball into the net and then dropping to his knees, a broad grin on his face, as if to say, “You’re welcome.” In the final match on July 15, against Croatia, Mbappé scored one of France’s four goals, clinching soccer’s biggest prize for his country and becoming the first teenager to score in a World Cup final in 60 years—the last being none other than Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. “Welcome to the club,” Pelé tweeted to Mbappé.
At the medal ceremony, French President Emmanuel Macron stood silently hugging Mbappé tight, seemingly on the verge of tears. More than 1 million people poured into the streets of Paris, jamming the vast Avenue de Champs-Élysées. Mbappé says he barely grasped what had happened until the team rode through screaming crowds in Paris in an open-top bus the next day. “We realized we left a mark on history,” he says.
As he hurtles toward household-name status, the question looming over Kylian Mbappé is what kind of a soccer player he will be. Will fame and riches turn him into one of the game’s cautionary tales—an adored wunderkind who soon flames out? Or can he remain grounded enough to grow into his skills and become a role model to soccer-loving kids around the world? “Mbappé has this explosive speed. It is amazing he has got to this level at this age,” says Richard Fitzpatrick, a soccer author in Barcelona who has tracked Mbappé’s career for years. “But I would urge caution,” he says. “It is too early to tell his future.”
For many in France, Mbappé embodies more than just an extraordinary soccer player. He is a living rags-to-riches fairy tale, his story beginning in Paris’ hard-hit immigrant suburbs or banlieues, whose crumbling high-rise blocks ring the city’s glittering core. In fact, eight of France’s 23 World Cup players were, like Mbappé, sons of African immigrants from the low-income banlieues, including stars Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi. “Yes! Africa won the World Cup!” quipped Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who is South African, after France’s victory. The remark drew fury from France. “They are French citizens,” French ambassador to the U.S. Gérard Araud shot back. “They are proud of their country.”
Still, on the streets of Bondy, the Paris banlieue where Mbappé was born and raised by his Cameroonian father Wilfried and Algerian mother Fayza Lamari, the World Cup victory seems more personal than patriotic. After decades of grievances, and with an unemployment rate over 22%, Bondy’s celebrations in July were more complicated than French officials had implied; the area was among those that erupted in violent protests in 2005, when Mbappé was just 6. Bondy’s joy is for the town’s local boy made good—Mbappé, who was just 14 when he left for Monaco in 2013; the Mbappés now live together in central Paris.
Five years on, Mbappé is reluctant to dwell on life in the banlieues, aware that his new wealth is a sharp contrast from his childhood. He donated his World Cup earnings of about $500,000 to a charity teaching sports to sick and disabled children—a piddling sum for him, he admits, that “does not change my life, but changes theirs.” But having left hardship behind, Mbappé still credits his Bondy years for his career. Many children there play soccer almost incessantly from toddlerhood; his father was a coach at Bondy’s municipal sports club. “Bondy is a city that breathes football,” he says.
Up the side of one Bondy high-rise, Nike erected a billboard of Mbappé before the World Cup, referring to France’s previous World Cup win in 1998. It read: ’98 was a great year for French football. Kylian was born. A separate billboard covered 11 floors of a Bondy apartment block for months, depicting Mbappé with his thumbs up, and reading, Bondy: Ville des possibles (“city of possibilities”).
Bondy’s residents have been gripped by that sense of possibility since Mbappé’s World Cup victory. “All the parents come to me saying, ‘I want my son to be Kylian,’” says Jean-François Suner, sports director at Bondy’s municipal athletic center, where Mbappé learned his skills from age 6, and where his father coached soccer. “I tell them gently that will not be possible,” he says, sitting in his cramped office. “I have been working here 37 years, and it is the first time I have seen this. I do not think there will be others.”
For all the incredible talent and luck in reaching the pinnacle of the world’s biggest sport, there is also the danger of falling from a very dizzy height. An unexpected incident, like an injury on the field, or bad behavior off it (he is a teenager, after all) could blow Mbappé off course or lose him the world’s adulation.
Mbappé is often held up as the wholesome counterpoint to PSG’s other superstar forward Neymar. The 26-year-old Brazilian regularly makes headlines for his hard partying and self-promotion, and did poorly playing for Brazil at the World Cup. Fitzpatrick says as Mbappé carves a path for himself, Neymar should be his example of what to avoid. “My advice to him: keep a low profile, and concentrate on the football,” he says.
Even at 19, Mbappé does not mistake the summit he occupies for the status quo. “We can be the best and the world champions, as we are now,” he says. “And in four years, you are forgotten, because there is someone else who has arrived and done better than you.”
And he says keeping his head will require more than simply focusing on his sport. “I have learned that the biggest stars and the greatest players are the most humble ones, the ones who respect people the most,” Mbappé says, speaking as though he has lived a lot longer than two decades. As important is staying grounded. “You always have to keep some lucidity,” he says. “There are three criteria: respect, humility and lucidity.”
Those virtues have been tested since his return from his incredible World Cup victory, when two missteps played out under the klieg lights of celebrity. On Sept. 1, Mbappé pushed an opposing player during a match against the French team Nîmes, perhaps fearing he might be deliberately targeted for injury—not unknown for star players. French soccer authorities banned him for three matches. Then on Sept. 18, Mbappé lost control of the ball in a split-second error in the final minutes of a match against Liverpool, costing PSG the game. “From hero to villain” was ESPN’s brutal conclusion.
Some wondered whether sudden stardom had thrown him off-kilter. The gyrations of fame and pressure are tough at any age, let alone for a teenager. And Mbappé says he has had little time to grow up. Until now, he has been the kid among far older players. “I was right away in the world of adults, grownups,” he says. “They immediately demanded that I behave like an adult.”
Mbappé says he is heavily dependent on one thing to keep him grounded: his family. That much was clear the afternoon that TIME met him. For hours, his mother Fayza, who acts as Mbappé’s fiercely protective gatekeeper, fussed nervously in the background. As we set up a camera in PSG’s lounge, Mbappé’s 12-year-old brother Ethan, who plays youth soccer at the club, darted in and out of the room, giggling at the hubbub, before bounding down the bleachers to play on the empty field; Mbappé also has an older adoptive brother, Jirès Kembo Ekoko, a Congolese immigrant who now plays professional soccer in Turkey.
“We have always been very close,” Mbappé says. “Very much a family, all together at home, all at the table eating together. We have never given that up.” He believes that cocoon has been crucial for his career. “They have always been there to help me, whether it was my first match in Bondy or now in front of 80,000 spectators,” he says. “That is a real support. And it can be felt on the field.”
It is not clear how much longer Mbappé can depend on that closeness. As Mbappé ended his suspension with a spectacular four-goal game against Lyon on Oct. 7, Chelsea, Manchester and Real Madrid have all been rumored to be trying to recruit him, for record transfer fees of up to $350 million.
Mbappé will not yet discuss leaving, and perhaps the dizzying sums of money on offer are too nerve-racking to mention. Instead, he says he clings to some home truths he learned from his mother, who played competitive handball in Bondy, and watched as the coaches there picked out young Kylian as a likely future star. “My mom has always told me that to become a great football player, you must be before all a great man,” he says. Mbappé is not yet fully a man. And what kind he becomes could largely depend on the choices he makes about how to manage his sudden, huge fame. The world will be watching.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally said Mbappe was the first teenager to score at a World Cup in 60 years. He was the first teenager to score at a World Cup final in 60 years.