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To the kids in Bondy,
To the kids in Île-de-France,
To the kids in the banlieues,
I want to tell you a story.
It will probably not surprise you that it’s about football. With me, everything is football. You can ask my father. When I was three years old, he got me one of those little 4×4 toy trucks for my birthday. You know, the ones with the electric motor? You could actually sit inside and drive it around. It had pedals and everything. My parents would let me drive from our house to the football pitch across the street, like I was a real footballer driving to training. I took my little routine very seriously. All that was missing was my bag of toiletries!
But as soon as I arrived, I always left the car in a corner to go play football. This cool 4×4 that made all my little friends jealous, I just didn’t care about it anymore.
I just wanted the ball.
To me, the ball was everything.
So yes, this story is about football. But actually, you don’t have to love football to listen to this story. Because this story is really about dreams. In Bondy, in the 93, in the banlieues, maybe there is not a lot of money, it’s true. But we are dreamers. We’re born that way, I think. Maybe it’s because dreaming doesn’t cost much. In fact, it’s free.
Our neighborhood is an incredible melting pot of different cultures — French, African, Asian, Arab, every part of the world. People from outside of France always talk about the banlieues in a bad light, but if you’re not from here, you can’t really understand what it’s like. People talk about “thugs” like they were invented here. But there are thugs everywhere in the world. There are people who are struggling everywhere in the world. The reality is that when I was a kid I used to watch some of the toughest guys in the neighborhood carry groceries for my grandmother. You never see those parts of our culture on the news. You only hear about the bad, never the good.
Courtesy of Kylian Mbappé
There is actually a rule in Bondy that everyone understands. You learn it when you’re young. If you walk down the street and you see 15 people standing on the corner, and you know only one of those people, you have a choice: You either wave and walk on, or you go over and shake all 15 hands.
If you walk over and shake only that one person’s hand, then the other 14 people will never forget you. They will know what kind of person you are.
It’s funny, because I have carried this part of Bondy with me my entire life. Just last year at the FIFA’s Best Awards, I was with my parents walking around before the ceremony, and I saw José Mourinho across the room. I had met José before, but he was with four or five friends that I didn’t know. So I had this Bondy moment. I was thinking, “Do I just wave to Mourinho? Or do I go over?”
Well, I went over to him to say hello and shake his hand, and then naturally I went down the line to each of his friends.
It was funny, because all their faces were kind of surprised, like, “Oh, he’s saying hello to us? Hello!”
When we walked away, my father was laughing, and he told me, “This is all from Bondy.”
It is like a reflex. That’s the rule we live by. In Bondy, you learn values that go beyond football. You learn to treat everyone the same, because you’re all in the same pot. You all dream the same dream.
Me and my friends, we did not hope to become footballers. We did not expect. We did not plan. We dreamed. There is a difference. Some children have posters of superheroes on their bedroom walls. We covered ours with footballers. I had so many posters of Zidane and Cristiano. (To be fair, when I got older, I also had some posters of Neymar, which he finds very funny, but that’s another story!)
Sometimes people ask me why there is so much talent coming from our neighborhoods. Like maybe there is something in the water, or we are training in a different way, like Barcelona or something. But no, if you came to AS Bondy, I’m afraid you would just see a humble family club. Some apartment buildings and some artificial grass. But I think that football is just different for us. It is essential. It is every day. It is like bread and water.
I remember we had this tournament at our school — all the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th graders — and it was like our World Cup. We were playing for this €2 plastic trophy, but we treated it like it was life or death. In the 93, your honor is always at stake. And it’s funny, because the rule was that every team had to be mixed. Girls and boys. Well, unfortunately not all the girls wanted to play in the tournament, so we had to really negotiate. I remember telling my friend that if she gave everything on the pitch and we won the Cup, I would buy her a new coloring book. I was begging her.
Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but it really meant everything to us. As we say, “This is the Neuf Trois. We can’t lose.”
We played for this €2 trophy like it was the Jules Rimet Trophy. That’s just how it was. I’m sure it was quite difficult for my teachers. To them, I really apologize. I remember coming home from school one day with nine different warnings from the principal.
“Kylian did not do his homework.”
“Kylian forgot his school supplies.”
“Kylian was talking about football during mathematics.”
My head was in the clouds. And I was quite a good player, but the turning point for me — really the turning point of my whole life — was the Coupe 93 when I was 11 years old. We made it to the semifinals, and the match was at a real stadium in Gagny, and I even remember that it was on a Wednesday. That’s how vivid this memory is for me. I had never played in a stadium that big before, with so many people. I was terrified. I mean, really, I practically didn’t run I was so scared. I barely touched the ball. And I will never forget, after the match, my mother walked out onto the pitch and grabbed me by the ears.
Not because I played poorly. Because I was scared.
Sam Robles/The Players’ Tribune
She said, “You are going to remember this all your life. You always have to believe in yourself, even if you fail. You can miss 60 goals. No one cares. But the fact that you refuse to play because you’re scared, it can haunt you all your life.”
She said those exact words, and it really changed me to the point that I was never scared on a football pitch again in my whole life. There is no Kylian Mbappé without my mother, my father, my community, my friends.
Maybe if you’re not from where I’m from, you cannot understand this. But, for example, when I was 11 years old, I got to go to London for a few days to train with Chelsea’s youth team. I was so excited and shocked that I didn’t even want to tell my friends from the neighborhood where I was going. When I came back home, my friends saw me and said, “Kylian, where were you last week?”
I said, “I was in London with Chelsea.”
They said, “Pfff, no it’s impossible.”
I said, “No, I swear, I even met Drogba.”
They said, “Pfff, you’re lying. Drogba doesn’t meet kids from Bondy. It is not possible!”
I didn’t have a phone back then, so I asked my dad to give me his, and I showed them the pictures we took. That’s when they finally believed me. But the important thing was that they were not jealous. Not at all. They were just amazed. I will never forget what they said to me. I can still picture it, because we were actually in the changing room at AS Bondy, getting dressed for a match.
They said, “Kylian, can you take us there with you?”
It was like I had gone to another planet.
I said, “But the camp is over now. I’m sorry.”
They were looking down at the phone, laughing and shaking their heads. They said, “Wow. It’s like we are living this moment with you, Kylian.”
That’s how much it means to us. Going to these places, it’s like visiting another planet.
After that experience at Chelsea, I was begging my parents to let me leave Bondy and go away to a big club. But you have to understand my mother and father. They wanted me to stay at home so that I could be a child and live a normal life. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was actually the best thing for me, because I learned a lot of hard lessons that I would have never learned in a bubble at an academy.
My father was my coach for 10 years, and even when I started training at the French academy at Clairefontaine during the week, it was incredible, of course. It’s one of the best academies in the world. But then I would still come back home on the weekends and play for my father’s semipro team at AS Bondy. And he would not tolerate any of my fancy academy nonsense.
Courtesy of Kylian Mbappé
It’s funny, actually, because I would come back home with the voice of my Clairefontaine coach in my head. He kept stressing that we had to work on our weaker foot. At Clairefontaine, it was all about developing our skills. But at Bondy, it was real life. It was about surviving in the semipro league. It was about winning, period.
One weekend, I was playing for Bondy, and I had the ball on the wing. It was on my right foot. I was all alone. A perfect situation. And I could hear the voice of my Clairefontaine coach saying, “Kylian, work on your left.”
So I tried a long pass with my left, and I failed completely. The other team took the ball and counter-attacked, and my father absolutely killed me.
I can still hear him screaming.
“Kylian! You are not here to try your fancy Clairefontaine experiences! We have a league to play here! You can go back to Clairefontaine all week and train on your nice field! But this is Bondy! Here, we also have a life!!!”
I still carry that lesson with me everywhere I go. My father knew that my head was in the clouds, so he made sure that my feet were still on the ground.
Then, right before my 14th birthday, I got an incredible surprise. My father received a call from someone at Real Madrid, inviting me to come to Spain for a training session over the holiday break. It was a shock, because they actually told my father, “Zidane would like to see your son.” At the time, Zizou was the sporting director. Of course, I was over the moon. I was desperate to go.
But it was not so simple, actually, because scouts were starting to come to our matches, and I was getting some attention from the media. When you’re 13 years old, you don’t know how to handle it. There was a lot of pressure, and my family wanted to protect me.
But it was actually my 14th birthday that week, and what I didn’t know is that my parents were organizing everything with the club so that they could take me to Madrid as a present.
Quite a surprise for me! 😉
And believe it or not, we didn’t tell anyone where we were going. I didn’t even tell my closest friends, because I was too nervous. If things didn’t go well, I didn’t want to come back to my neighborhood and disappoint them.
I will never forget the moment that we arrived at the training center from the airport. Zidane met us in the parking lot by his car, and it was a really nice car, of course. We said hello, and then he offered to drive me over to the field for training. He was pointing at the front seat, like, “Go on, get in.”
But I just froze and I asked,“Should I take off my shoes?”
Hahaha! I don’t know why I said that. But it was Zizou’s car!
He thought that was really funny. He said, “Of course not, come on, get in.”
He drove me to the training pitch, and I was just thinking to myself, I am in Zizou’s car. I am Kylian from Bondy. This is not real. I must still be sleeping on the airplane.
Sometimes, even when you are really living something, it feels like a dream.
It was the same feeling at the World Cup in Russia.
FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images
You see, you do not experience the World Cup as a person. You experience it as a child.
Of all the memories, the one I will never forget is when we were standing in the tunnel before the first match against Australia, waiting to walk out. This is when it hit me, what I was living. I looked over at Ousmane Dembélé and we were just smiling and shaking our heads.
I said, “Look at us. The boy from Évreux. And the boy from Bondy. We are playing at the World Cup.”
He said, “I swear, it’s unbelievable.”
We walked out onto the pitch and felt 65 million people behind us. When I heard La Marseillaise, I could have cried.
It’s interesting to me that so many of us who held the World Cup in our hands that summer grew up in the suburbs. The banlieues. The melting pots. The neighborhoods where you hear a lot of languages walking down the street. The neighborhoods where you shake 15 hands — not 14, not 10, not one.
To the kids in Bondy,
To the kids in Île-de-France,
To the kids in the banlieues,
We are France. You are France.
We are the crazy dreamers. And lucky for us, dreaming doesn’t cost very much.
In fact, it’s free.
Kylian from Bondy