Speak to those who saw Kylian Mbappé as a child, who watched him take the first steps in his skyrocket of a career, and they will tell you the same thing: All they needed was one glimpse. That was enough, even then, to know.
When Jean-François Suner, the general manager of AS Bondy, the first club on Mbappé’s journey to Monaco, Paris St.-Germain and the World Cup, first saw him play, he simply said, “Wow.” The sensation, he said, must have been the same for those who, a decade or so earlier and an ocean away, first watched Lionel Messi.
Antonio Riccardi, the first coach at Bondy to work with Mbappé, remembered a boy who did “everything better, faster, more often” than his peers. His talent needed to be honed, of course, but Riccardi knew early on that there was no point trying to inhibit him. Mbappé loved to dribble, to skate past opponents. “I never told him to stop,” Riccardi said. “He was the best at that. Why would I have told him to stop? He was the best kid I coached. He is probably the best I will ever coach.”
They knew he was special, but they did not know — could not know — quite how far his talent would take him: a French champion, the world’s second-most expensive player and the spearhead of France’s attempts to reclaim the World Cup this summer, all while still a teenager.
Nor could they know that his face would beam out from an enormous advertising board on the Résidence des Potagers, overlooking the road out of here, toward Paris, the slogan, “Bondy — Ville des Possibles,” emblazoned across it.
They could not know that his name would be plastered across the backs of the PSG jerseys worn by the latest batch of hopefuls under Riccardi’s aegis at AS Bondy or that it would reverberate through the club’s paper-strewn offices: A couple of times a week, a journalist will come to see Suner, asking for Mbappé’s number or that of his father, Wilfried.
They could not have predicted the extent to which he would become a symbol not just of Bondy, a few miles north of, and a world away from, central Paris, but of the vast concrete sprawl of suburbs and satellite towns of which it is a part.
Officially, Bondy is in Île-de-France, the broader Parisian region. To most in France, though, it is in the northern swath of the banlieues, a label that is both a euphemism and a stigma: places with large, working-class, nonwhite communities, synonymous with riots and social strife, thought of as breeding grounds for crime and terrorism. This is the world Mbappé comes from; this is the world he has come to represent.
There are stories like Mbappé’s throughout the banlieues. The names change, of course, and the details. Sometimes the talent is not quite as clear, not at the start, or the trajectory not quite as precipitous. Sometimes the suburb is a little more well-heeled. Sometimes the obstacles are a little more daunting.
The plot, though, does not change. Take away Mbappé in Bondy and replace him with Paul Pogba in Lagny-Sur-Marne and Roissy-en-Brie, N’Golo Kanté in Suresnes, Blaise Matuidi in Fontenay-sous-Bois, Benjamin Mendy in Longjumeau. They all have followed much the same path.
It is here, amid the tower blocks of the Parisian banlieues, that France finds its soccer players: hundreds who go on to Clairefontaine, the national training center, dozens who go on to play professionally at home or abroad and, this summer, the select few who will represent France at the World Cup in Russia.
Of the 23 players whom Didier Deschamps, France’s coach, will take to Russia, eight started their stories here, in the banlieues. Mbappé is among them, of course, but so too are Pogba, Kanté, Mendy and Matuidi, as well as Alphonse Areola, Presnel Kimpembe and Steven Nzonzi. Many others, from Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman to Adrien Rabiot, narrowly missed out.
This French team, which features a generation of players widely regarded as the country’s best in 20 years and is considered by many to be good enough to win the World Cup, was forged here, in Bondy and the many places like it. It is a team built in the long shadows cast by the city of light.
A few months ago, Huseyin Ergunes called Yves Gergaud and told him it might be worth coming down to watch Argenteuil, the team Ergunes coaches.
The club was established a few years ago, largely as a social project, Ergunes said. Argenteuil’s soccer team was created to help with “social cohesion”: It gave young people somewhere to go, something to do. The municipal funds that paid for it built a neat, well-maintained facility, the sort that are dotted around the banlieues, a contrast to the unloved tower blocks that ring their fields.
Ergunes, though, is not just a social worker. First and foremost, he is a coach. So whenever he thinks he has a player with the talent to interest a professional team, he gets in touch with someone like Gergaud. A youth coach and talent-spotter for PSG for five years — he takes credit for discovering Kimpembe and Coman — Gergaud is now head of recruitment for players ages 17 to 20 for Sochaux, a Ligue 1 team based in Montbéliard, near France’s border with Switzerland.
His most fertile scouting patch, though, remains here, in Île-de-France. This, after all, is where the talent is, in greater concentration than possibly anywhere else in Europe. It is also where the competition is: It is widely claimed here that there are more scouts in and around Paris than anywhere in the world, apart from São Paulo.
Gergaud maintains contact, then, with people like Ergunes: people on the ground who might be able to alert him first to an emerging prospect. In this case, he is looking for a defender; Ergunes thought he had a couple of 16-year-olds who fit the bill, so he made the call, and so Gergaud came along, on a freezing February afternoon, to watch Argenteuil’s under-17s play Créteil.
“When you work with young players here, you do not want to miss the next great one,” Gergaud said.
Or, worse, be beaten to him. It is not just the local Parisian clubs, particularly PSG, panning for gold in the banlieues: All the major French teams — even those, like Lyon and Marseille, with traditional recruiting grounds of their own — scour the banlieue clubs.
Increasingly, predators from further afield do the same: England’s Premier League teams often send their own scouts now. It makes it tough for teams like Sochaux, a club of relatively limited resources. Gergaud and the team’s two other scouts dedicated to the area — Sochaux employs only nine in total — now look for players as young as 11 and 12: They have to, given the intensity of the competition.
“We make them sign at a younger age now,” said Matthieu Bideau, the head of recruitment for Nantes, on the country’s Atlantic coast. “There is so much competition that if we don’t make them sign, someone else will take them.
“The local clubs are at war with one another to get the best players as young as possible. The English clubs are sharks. The French teams are sheep. The amateur clubs are sardines.”
What attracts them all is the sheer weight of talent here. As Mohamed Coulibaly, a coach at AAS Sarcelles, pointed out, there are 12 million people in the broader Paris area — “almost a country, with a bigger population than Belgium.” He added, “It is a big pond.”
Just as important, though, is the type of player the banlieues tend to produce. Coulibaly described the model as “athletic, vigorous, dynamic, technical, aggressive — the sort of player the French national team is made of.”
Not just the French national team, though: At the World Cup this summer, there will be players representing Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and Senegal who grew up in Île-de-France. Their style is a type of play instilled in them by the nature of soccer in the banlieues: small-sided games, with a mix of ages, in the small space of a concrete ball court. “Those games favor speed in the legs and in the mind: They have to make quick decisions,” Bideau said.
“We have the best young players in the country confronting each other every weekend,” Coulibaly said. “That is what makes the difference.”
And it is what ensures Gergaud never passes up an opportunity to watch a new prospect. That day at Argenteuil, he left before the final whistle. Neither player met his requirements; neither is the “next great one.” There will be a next great one, though. He is sure of that. There always is.
With a couple of days to go before a crucial cup game, Riccardi, Mbappé’s former coach, has made a decision. Instead of training on the artificial turf of the Stade Léo Lagrange, where most of Bondy’s training sessions take place, his players will have a session on an uneven dirt field. The ball bounces unpredictably. The surface undulates wildly. Squalls of dust kick into the air.
“This is where it is the hardest to play,” he said. “So this is where they learn the most.”
He does not go easy on his players when a touch goes awry. He barks instructions, warns them that not mastering the conditions could cost them a place on the team for the game. Players in the banlieue, he has found, respond better to the stick than the carrot: They all know that they are not here simply to play.
“They all have in mind what Kylian did,” said Riccardi, the son of an Italian father and Spanish mother. “Kylian is the most straightforward example for them. He is their own star: He did what they can do, he changed in the same dressing room, he trained on the same pitch. He was here just a few years ago, doing what they are doing now.”
That is the dream for all of the players here, and at the hundreds of amateur clubs that dot the banlieues: that they might be the next Mbappé, the next star; that they might leave the tower blocks and make it all the way to the World Cup.
Having such a tangible trailblazer serves as powerful inspiration. Bondy has been swamped by youngsters hoping to enroll in the years since Mbappé broke through, believing they can follow his path.
“What parents do not understand is that we do not have a magic wand,” Suner, Bondy’s general manager, explained back at the club’s offices. “They see the money their son could get, and they have gone a little crazy in the last 10 years. Once a parent asked me what the project was for his son. I told him the project for his son was called school. The kid was 12.”
Preparation for Life
Riccardi sits on the desk in his tiny office, little more than a cupboard, as his players arrive for training. Before they head to the locker room, they dip their heads inside: a dozen in 12 minutes. Each one offers a soft “bonsoir” to Riccardi, then proffers a hand to the two strangers in the room.
Riccardi does not believe his job is to teach talent. It is, in part, to hone it and direct it. But it is also to imbue his players with the values they will need whether they make it or not: “Punctuality. Manners. Fair play. Authority. Respect for the jersey.”
He takes time to learn exactly what the home life of each of his players is like. Some, like Mbappé, benefit from strong, secure families. Many others come from more challenging situations. “We tend to forget the crucial role played by the coaches,” said Cyril Nazareth, a professor of sociology studying the role of soccer in the banlieues. “They help provide structure to the kids and often act as a key authority figure.”
Their reach is extraordinary. There are some 30,000 coaches in the Paris banlieues for 235,000 registered players, more than a third of them under 18. It gives the sport and the coaches important social roles. “These kids may struggle at school, but by being excellent soccer players, they become legitimate and respectable,” Nazareth said.
That is what Riccardi hopes to instill in his charges; it is the example Mbappé sets. At 19, with the world at his feet, he is famed for his maturity, his intelligence, his politeness. He has been invited to the Élysée Palace, no less, to discuss sport in minority communities with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. “He carries himself well on and off the field,” said Riccardi, with no little pride.
France has, for years, had an awkward relationship with its national team, not only because of a litany of poor recent performances in tournaments, but also because of a string of scandals: a player strike during the 2010 World Cup; a blackmail case centering on a sex tape; resentment that several players do not sing the national anthem before games.
At the heart of the controversies were hints of social prejudice. The players who led the strike in 2010 grew up in the banlieues. Karim Benzema, theoretically the bad guy in the blackmail case, is from a deprived background in Lyon. Hugo Lloris, the country’s captain, the middle-class son of a lawyer from Nice, always sings “La Marseillaise.” Benzema and Franck Ribéry, boys from the banlieues, did not.
“The shortcut goes like this: Soccer in France means working classes, which means banlieues, which means thugs,” said Stéphane Beaud, a professor of sociology at the University of Poitiers, who has written extensively about the links between the French national team and immigration.
That view has only become more entrenched: Beaud contends that the 2005 riots in Seine-St.-Denis — of which Bondy is a part, and which is one of the most deprived areas in Île-de-France — together with mounting fears over crime and terrorism and a rise in nativist politics, have only served to increase the idea that players from the banlieues, and the banlieues themselves, bring only trouble.
The spate of recent terrorist attacks — France was in an official state of emergency until November 2017 — has worsened the prejudice attached to the suburbs and their immigrant populations. In the aftermath of the terror attacks of November 2015, the police conducted a series of house searches in Seine-St.-Denis.
Sports and the infrastructure they require have long played a role in trying to stimulate growth in the banlieues. Building the country’s national stadium, the Stade de France, in Seine-St.-Denis for the 1998 World Cup was supposed to transform life here. Where that plan failed, France hopes the 2024 Olympics will succeed: The area is set to host the aquatics center, the Olympic Village and the media center for the Games.
More potent still, though, may be the effect Mbappé and the rest can have. France’s World Cup team draws heavily from the banlieues, and yet it is widely regarded as young, fresh and — crucially — likable. It is tempting to think a French victory in Russia could have a similar impact as the country’s previous world champions: the 1998 generation of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, the side that was known as Black Blanc Beur and was supposed to represent a vision of a new, multicultural France.
At Bondy, they are not hopeful. Just as France was not reborn after 1998, it will take more than a good World Cup to erase decades of stigma and scorn. “When things go wrong for young players, people say they are bad kids and blame the suburbs,” Suner said. “But when everything goes well, we do not say anything.”
Regardless, there is a limit to what soccer can achieve. For all that politicians make hay with every player that emerges from the banlieues, local leaders and community workers like Riccardi and Coulibaly repeatedly point out that young people there need more than one (incredibly unlikely) way out.
“Success in sports is the hidden side of a widespread social failure,” Beaud said. “The pond of talent in soccer shouldn’t hide the drought of opportunities for the youth there.”
That Mbappé and his peers cannot transform French society does not mean they do not have a significance, however. To those in the banlieues, in the places they came from, players like them are a source of pride, of hope, a proof that the stereotype is wrong.
“It shows that there can be success here,” Riccardi said.
Across Île-de-France, thousands of aspiring players — each dreaming he might be the next great one to come from the tower blocks — will watch the World Cup, supporting not only their nation but the exceptional boys who were just like them, the stars of a team built in the shadows that conceal the greatest hothouse of talent in Europe.
“At the World Cup, the players could be our neighbors, our little brothers,” Coulibaly said. “They are people of our universe, and they are representing France.”
Rory Smith and Elian Peltier © 2018 New York Times News Service
(Image: Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)