World Cup Road Trip, Day 2: In Paris by underwater train in search of Mbappé

The first day of the insane plan we call Planes, Trains And Automobiles was long, starting and ending in London but covering 449 miles, starting at 6am and ending around 9pm.

And yet, this absurd journey didn’t quite seem to begin until we left the occasional hellscape of the UK, arriving for the first Eurostar in the third country on our list: France.

There we were joined by Jon, our security detail, whose job it is to make sure we finish this trip more or less in one piece.

Considering he spent five months of this year dodging missiles in Ukraine, hopefully it will be relatively simple for him to guide three idiots across two continents to a football tournament.

The Eurostar then, which even a few decades after its opening still arouses a feeling of childish joy.

It’s a train that goes under water! To another country!

It’s one of those standardized things that’s probably perfectly simple but also feels like real magic, like WiFi or 3D printing. When you think that the seemingly brightest minds of this generation are dabbling in trying to charge people $8 a month to feel important on social media, you can’t help but think that humanity has done a few steps back.

After reaching Paris and resolving a minor travel-related issue (read: we forgot to book train tickets and the possibility of the Qatar trip ending extremely prematurely looms), we head north out of the town center and towards Bondy.

At first glance, it is a popular, rather pleasant but relatively unremarkable suburb, one of the many areas called suburbs that encircle the center of Paris.

But Bondy, as you may already know, is the suburb where arguably the most exciting footballer has emerged from competing in the next world Cup.

It’s a wild swing in the dark, but we may not be the first group of journalists to make the pilgrimage to AS Bondy.

“For Mbappé?” said Sophian, who was carefully mowing the grass on said club’s immaculate main ground when we approached him and explained who we are and why we came here.

They must have a lot.

Kylian Mbappe was 15 when he left Bondy to sign for Monaco, but even now, almost a decade later, their ground has become a destination of minor pilgrimage, a symbol of the extraordinary chain of emerging talent neighborhoods around Paris.

Sophian pauses to patiently answer our questions and her face lights up when we tell her that Laurie is Athleticismit is Manchester United corresponding. “We gave you Kylian Mbappe, you gave us Gary Neville!” he exclaims. We have to assume that he considers this a good thing.

A few gentle negotiations begin to satisfy our childish instincts.

We brought with us two editions of the 2022 World Cup official ball, Al Rihla, hanging from Nick’s backpack. One is for the people we meet and talk to on this signing journey, the other is for as many kicks as we can along the way. And what more appropriate place is there to have a kick than the pitch on which Mbappe learned his game.

Initially, Sophian is reluctant.

But then he says he has to leave for a few minutes to get some equipment.

There is no one else around.

It’s the wink we’ve been waiting for and we spend a few enjoyable minutes sabotaging the ball on the grass. Laurie buries a left-footed shot into the empty net. Nick goes for a Panenka but scuffs it. We both celebrate wildly anyway.

As we leave, a young man, Mohamed, approaches and asks if we speak Italian. It is one of the seven languages ​​that Martino, our videographer, has in his locker. Mohamed has just arrived from Verona in northern Italy and is eager to find out how he can join AS Bondy. He came here because of the reputation of the club.

At this point, we vaguely suspect that someone has tricked us or that some benevolent journalistic deity has sent us the perfect manifestation of what we seek as we visit the ground where Mbappe grew up.

Here is a kid who has traveled a lot, who wants to play football and chose the club made famous by Mbappé. It’s almost too perfect.

We walk 10 minutes up the road to see Mbappe’s vast mural painted on the side of a building. It depicts a young Mbappe dreaming of winning the World Cup, with the slogan ‘love your dream, and he will love you back’ – love your dream, and he will love you back.

Yet there is a reminder that Mbappe is not universally popular: in the lower corner of the mural there are two graffiti: one of them reads “Thomasin, you are not my mother”, which probably doesn’t concern him, but the other one does. ‘Mbappe tes mort’ – Mbappe is dead. Some may not have forgiven him for his recent banter with the departure of Paris Saint-Germain.

Opposite the mural is Harry’s Cafe, where we were told people were happy to talk about Mbappe. But even we didn’t expect the first person we approached to be an AS Bondy coach, himself coached by Wilfried Mbappe, Kylian’s father. Goalkeeper Youssouf calls Mbappe senior a ‘man of principles’ who, together with his son, ‘created this culture of hard work at the club that sets the standard’. He says the kids want to join Bondy because of their reputation for excellence and the belief that through hard work they will become better.

You may not see Kylian Mbappe often in his old suburbs, but his influence remains. He is literally looking over the things in this mural.

He and his family created the culture that made his former club so successful. And its influence is such that young men from hundreds of miles away looking for a place to play football are drawn to it.

(Graphic: Sam Richardson)

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