The title of world’s best player will always be a subjective one.
In modern football, titles, goals, statistics and individual awards, in particular the Ballon d’Or, play a role in bestowing that accolade on an individual.
Often, there’s little debate, and there remains a lineage generally agreed upon by most fans, or at least most reasonable fans.
Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Pele, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Original Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldinho have at one time or another put clear daylight between their genius and mere mortals.
In the recent times, the question of who is the world’s “best” player has been debated, argued and fought over beyond all meaning and reason.
After over a decade of relentless brilliance from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, could the question be about to have a different answer?
Perhaps not straight away. But soon.
Despite relatively poor World Cup campaigns, the Argentine and Portuguese titans and will surely be back. Sporting greats, like Muhammad Ali and Roger Federer have shown the folly of writing them off at the first sign of faltering.
Also, it might be counterproductive to rush to any conclusions from a tournament that has clearly shown the importance of teamwork and tactics over individual brilliance.
In fact it has been harrowing three weeks for many established players.
Messi and Ronaldo departed from the round of 16 without scoring a knock out goal between them. Neymar, for long the heir apparent, will be remembered more for his playacting than any serious claim to being the world’s finest.
There is one player, however, whose time may have come. Step forward Kylian Mbappe.
Though reaction to it may have been hysterical at the time, the 19-year-old French phenomenon’s devastating run that led to an early penalty against Argentina is arguably the most jaw-dropping individual moment of the World Cup; the nature, as well as identity and age of its executioner recalling the impact Pele had at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
The seemingly hyperbolic comparisons are not completely unfounded, however. In that round of 16 clash against Messi and co, Mbappe became the first teenager to score twice in a World Cup match since Pele in 1958.
He then played his part in the quarter-final win over Uruguay. He is now two matches away from emulating Pele by becoming a teenage world champion.
“My opinion on this boy has been very clear for 10 months: he is a phenomenon,” former France coach Laurent Blanc told Le Parisien.
Mbappe has been a phenomenon for a little longer than 10 months. And that is part of the problem with the perception of this young talent.
In the 1970s or 1980s, an impact like Mbappe’s in Russia would have been seismic. In the age of Champions League football and blanket television coverage, that is no longer possible.
Yet despite that, Mbappe’s destruction of Argentina has still taken many football supporters by surprise and fast-tracked him into the company of the handful of players considered the world’s elite.
Now Belgium and one of England or Croatia stand tantalisingly between Mbappe and greatness.
Two match-winning performances, perhaps with a couple of goals thrown in, and we could, for the first time since 1986 and Diego Maradona, be talking about a World Cup tournament being taken by the scruff of the neck by one individual.
And, potentially, a new world’s best player.
Others will have their own claims in Russia.
Eden Hazard and Luka Modric continue to burnish their already stellar reputations as fantasistas. Kevin De Bruyne has shown in the unforgiving Premier League and at the World Cup that he has few peers as an all-round midfielder. And Harry Kane, the favourite for the Golden Boot, might yet make the decisive intervention of this tournament.
But the world’s best player for the next decade or so?
Mbappe seems to tick of all the right boxes.
He has won Ligue 1 titles with Monaco and last season on loan at PSG, as part of a domestic treble. He has already excelled in the Champions League, and will soon become the second most expensive player in history when PSG pay €180million to Monaco to male his move a permanent one.
His speed and movement evoke Thierry Henry or Ronaldo at their devastating best.
For teenager, he possesses a coolness of character that has seen him take his rise with barely any fuss at all.
And, rightly or wrongly, as a forward and goal-scorer he plays in a position that almost exclusively produces the players we call the world’s best.
After his masterclass against Argentina, Arsene Wenger said it “proves that he is part of the group of five or six top players that will soon dominate the world.”
At this rate the other four and five will in the coming seasons, like the humiliated Argentinian defenders, be left in his wake.
The Ballon d’Or’s importance has become overstated in years, but it is an indication of the utter brilliance of the two men who have shared it since 2008 that no player, unjustly perhaps, has come close to being included in the conversation simply because their finest years have coincided with those of Messi and Ronaldo.
Andres Iniesta, in particular, deserves a lifetime achievement Ballon d’Or in the same way that Oscars are sometimes handed out to artists who have perhaps been overlooked during their pomp.
As much as every football lover would want the era’s two greatest players to go on forever, their time will eventually come to an end.
Mbappe may just be the right man at the right time to take over. The next few days could determine whether he becomes the world’s best player sooner than expected.