In the town of Bondy in Paris’s northern suburbs, where Kylian Mbappé grew up and trained, Ismail Gencel was preparing his bar and pizzeria for the crowds who would come to watch Saturday’s France-England World Cup match.
“Mbappé is our idol, our heritage, he’s put Bondy on the map,” said the 53-year-old, who once provided an upstairs room for Mbappé’s seventh birthday party – “a very active, smiling child,” he recalled, “who I now wish I’d taken a photo with”.
“The football is bringing some cheer to France,” Gencel added. “With Covid, the war in Ukraine and rising inflation, morale has been low. The World Cup is getting people out again, putting a smile on their face.”
Amid the cost of living crisis, wholesale prices of eggs and boxes for takeaway pizzas have more than doubled, and Gencel is reluctant to increase his own prices for customers, so margins are shrinking at an alarming rate. “Football is there to lift the mood,” he said.
France, which won the World Cup four years ago, is in a football frenzy, hoping to become the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962. TV viewing figures for France’s matches in Qatar have been higher than for the 2018 tournament. On top of this, Morocco’s historic success in reaching the quarter-final this Saturday has enthralled the large numbers of French people of Moroccan heritage. If Morocco and France win their matches on Saturday, Paris is expecting an outpouring of celebration on the Champs-Elysées.
Mbappé, hailed on the front page of France’s top-selling sports paper, L’Équipe, under the headline “God save our king”, has cemented his status as a national treasure. He has also once again shone a spotlight on young talent in Bondy and the low-income, ethnically diverse suburbs north of Paris where young people have often been unfairly stigmatised and discriminated against. Mbappé was born in 1998, the year that France’s World Cup-winning team starring Zinedine Zidane was mythologised as “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black-White-Arab) and presented by politicians as able to solve France’s deep-seated identity issues through their triumph.
Mbappé has spent the last four years since his first World Cup win at the age of 19 working to dismantle the stereotypes too often applied to Paris’s banlieue, which is now a centre not just for football talent but for young entrepreneurship and business. Bondy has a population of about 53,000, extending either side of a motorway linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport. It is part of the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is the poorest area in France, with the youngest population. Mbappé is not the only Bondy player in the World Cup squad – the defender William Saliba started at the local club, AS Bondy.
Mbappé, who regularly returns to meet children in Bondy, has gone beyond funding youth charities, donating match winnings and creating a new pitch for the area. His father, Wilfried, who has Cameroonian roots, was a local football player and a respected coach and youth worker in Bondy. His mother, Fayza, of Algerian origin, was a professional handball player and youth worker, and the family are well known.
In a heartfelt open letter to the “kids in Bondy” and the “kids in the banlieue” in 2020, Mbappé wrote: “Our neighbourhood 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 … When I was a kid I used to watch some of the toughest guys in the neighbourhood 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.”
Mbappé told Sports Illustrated last month that he had learned “values” and “respect” in the banlieue, saying that he once spotted José Mourinho in a group of people at an awards ceremony and went up and shook not only Mourinho’s hand but everyone else’s, saying it was a form of politeness he learned in Bondy.
Aya, a Bondy teenager, walks to high school each day past a giant mural of Mbappé that dominates the side of a block of flats. She wants to study law and sees Mbappé as an inspiration. “He’s shown that if you work hard, you don’t have to come from a rich neighbourhood to succeed,” she said. She would watch Saturday’s match with her parents, who work as a security guard and a supermarket cashier, and she was looking forward to Mbappé’s promised visit to her school after the tournament.
Omar Bouakline, a youth worker and sports coach, said: “There is a great atmosphere here ahead of the France-England match, Mbappé is an example to so many children.” Bouakline, 32, was coached by Mbappé’s father, as was his younger brother Mohamed Achi, who at 20 is one of Bondy’s rising young stars, playing for Nantes. “Wilfried Mbappé was frankly one of the best youth workers I’ve ever met, extremely human off the pitch. He taught us to work hard at school and respect others. Mbappé’s mother was the same. That’s why their son is so well brought up.”
Jean-Pierre, 57, a groundskeeper who looks after the pitches at AS Bondy, Mbappé’s childhood club, said: “The match is all everyone is talking about.”
His one concern if France win the World Cup was politics. “The only dampener is that Emmanuel Macron could put himself at the centre of a win and that would spoil the party. There’s a lot of tension right now, over salaries, strikes, protecting pensions and social rights that our grandparents fought for,” he said. He felt that Macron – who could see his second World Cup win as president – might use the mood of festivity to push his plans to roll back the pension age.
Macron, who accurately predicted the result and scorers of the France-Poland match, told a French radio station he “didn’t really have a doubt” that France would beat England, but has not yet forecast an exact score.
At Harry’s cafe, near Bondy’s Mbappé mural, Assia, a staff member, was gearing up for Saturday. “People always stop to take photos of the mural,” she said. “It symbolises our town and it symbolises France.”
This article was produced in collaboration with Bondy Blog.