When France play England on Saturday, the loudest cheers for the national team’s superstar Kylian Mbappe will likely come from his home town.
But England beware, the word on the street in Bondy, a melting pot of football talent a stone’s throw from the French capital, is that the northeastern suburb’s “Little Prince” hasn’t yet reached his peak.
A mere 20 minutes overground train ride from the London-to-Paris Eurostar terminus at Gare du Nord, Bondy, with its Soviet-style housing projects and double the national unemployment rate, seems a world away from the wealthy City of Lights.
The town, population 54,500, still sports an old church and a few bourgeois “pavilions” but most of its residents are crammed into fading 1960s apartment blocks, one of which is adorned by a giant mural of Mbappe.
'Kylian has always been a sponge'
The architecture may be drab but the town’s football scene is scintillating.
Its beating heart is AS Bondy, the main sports club where Kylian Mbappe’s French-Congolese father Wilfrid was technical director for the categories from U11 to U17 over two decades. Kylian, who turns 24 later this month, cut his teeth here from the tender age of six.
Even before that, he would listen in on changing room talk with his dad.
“Kylian must have been three or four years old,” said Athmane Airouche, AS Bondy president. “He was the club’s little mascot. You would see him come into the dressing room holding a ball and sit in the corner, in silence, to hear what the manager had to say before the game. I don’t think there can be any other kids in the world who’ve listened to so many conversations.”
“And because Kylian has always been a sponge, someone who learns very quickly, from an early age he assimilated football concepts that others only heard and understood years later.”
At the club’s Leo Lagrange sports complex, eight-year-old Mbappe wannabes kicked footballs around multicoloured traffic cones on astroturf in the cold December sun. Yards beyond and adjacent grass pitch a mural read: “Faster, higher, stronger!”
The slogan could have been coined specially for the child prodigy Mbappe, according to Antonio Riccardo, director at AS Bondy who coached him for three years.
“Even when he was tiny, it was obvious he was in another league,” he told the Telegraph. “Technically, he was very strong, with lots of vivacity in his first steps. His technique and understanding of the game were streets ahead of the rest. Already at eight or nine years old, he could do extraordinary things on the pitch. He was able to take the ball, eliminate three or four players and score goals. But we didn’t know he would go quite this far.”
“What impressed me most was his speed. He’s a big cat. From head to hips, he’s like a cheetah,” said Dey Mampuya, 41, deputy coach of the under-18s women’s team who used to play with Mbappe’s father.
“Even at seven years old in training, we could see he had something. He had already many of the qualities you see today.”
Like many, he saw parallels with Thierry Henry, also the child of a deprived Parisian satellite town and a winger who went from AS Monaco to greatness. But gallingly for England fans, he said he said he thought “there is still room for improvement” in Mbappe’s game.
Yes, Kylian is a virtuoso dribbler, runner and finisher with both feet but “he still needs to work on his head, it’s his only weak spot,” he said. “He could also let the ball go earlier in some cases. But every match when he is not tip-top and comes in for criticism, he works harder and the next game he silences the critics. His two goals in his last game were amazing but for me he has not reach the summit of his art yet.”
As a teenager, Mbappe’s icon was Cristiano Ronaldo, according to Mr Riccardi. “He wallpapered his room with posters of the Portuguese player. He liked him when he was at Manchester United and during his first few years at Madrid, the fast number 7, up and down the wing. He liked his dribbling and would watch him on television and try to repeat it on the pitch.”
He also admired Zinedine Zidane and had his hair cut short to emulate him. Kylian said later that “When you like a player, you want to do everything just like them. Back then, I didn’t know it was baldness!”
In his early teens, Mbappe spent a couple of years in the French national academy, Clairefontaine, where the country's biggest talents go to have their technique refined. By then, the world's leading clubs were already tracking him but he would continue to come and play in Bondy before finally leaving for Monaco aged 16. At 18, he was snapped up by Paris-Saint-Germain for €180m.
Despite its size, Bondy has a village-like quality in that everyone seems to have a tale to tell about Mbappe as they await the quarter-final clash.
Opposite the Leo Lagrange stadium, Brigitte Legrand, 65, stood proudly before a plaque she had made in front of the block of flats where she has been concierge for the past 30 years. It read: “(19)98 was a great year for French football. Kylian was born.”
“Living in Bondy is sometimes hard. I can tell you that the situation has deteriorated and crime is worse. Kylian is the silver lining.
“He is Bondy’s mascot and shines a positive light on this town. I don’t think he’ll forget his roots,” she said, remembering when he last paid a public visit in 2018 after France’s World Cup victory. Mbappe was feted as the youngest French player to score in the tournament, and the second teenager, after Pelé, to score in a World Cup Final.
“It was mad. Riot police blocked off the road. You couldn’t get anywhere near him.”
An unruly student who hated injustice
In the Chêne bistro near the central town hall, Stéphane Bakir, 57, reminisced about four-year-old Kylian causing mayhem in the restaurant. “His family came often to eat in our other bistro over the road. He was a sweet kid but would rush around in and out of the toilets creating havoc. His mum still comes in every now and again.”
Sylvine Thomassin, the former Socialist mayor of Bondy and a close friend of Mbappe’s mother, said he wouldn’t have got reached this far without the staunch support of his parents.
Even before AS Bondy, his mum Fayza - whose parents were Algerian and who played for Bondy's women's handball team in the French first division - took him to the mini-pitch next to the Ecole Maternelle Pasteur, where Mrs Thomassin’s husband was headmaster. He went onto to Ecole Primaire Olympe de Gouges.
“Kylian’s parents were proper educators in every sense of the word. They were adamant he wouldn’t just focus on football but must widen his horizons,” said Mrs Thomassin. “So he went to museums and he learned to read music at the local conservatoire and to play the flute with my daughter Jeanne.”
Teachers said he was as quick-witted off the pitch as he was on it. “He wasn’t like the others. He had extraordinary mental speed,” said Nicole Lefebvre, his French teacher at private Catholic secondary school L’Assomption de Bondy.
He was also unruly. To keep him in check, he was the only pupil in his class with his own tracking sheet. “Every hour, he had to have it signed by his teachers, who had to write down how he had behaved: well, very well or badly.”
“He was a class leader, he pulled people up and hated injustice,” said Ms Lefebvre. “He found it hard to express his emotions too. But he was determined. What he wants to do, he does. Already very young, his tenacity impressed me.”
While he passed his baccalaureate, the French A-level equivalent, football was the focus.
“But his mother was on the case in all aspects of his education and taught her kids to remain open to others and humble. That was a key value for her,” said Mrs Thomassin. “Kylian is nearly 24 but when I see the young man, I think he will always remember where he came from. I don’t think that he will get big-headed. He has very strong and healthy foundations.”
Stoking political tensions
Neither Kylian nor his parents live in Bondy (they’d get mobbed, said one trainer). Recently separated, his father remains his football advisor and his mother looks after the advertising contracts, along with his lawyer, and charity work.
While Mbappe appears to inspire only admiration in Bondy, his phenomenal success has stoked political tensions in the town.
His last trip here dates back to November 2021 on the eve of mayoral elections when he paid a surprise visit to his former club to hand out T-shirts and copies of a graphic novel called: “My name is Kylian”.
Close to the family, Mrs Thomassin, the Socialist candidate, was received but her right-wing rival Stephen Hervé was barred entry to the ground, prompting allegations of “political manipulation”.
After Mrs Thomassin lost, relations between AS Bondy and the mayor were initially strained and today anyone wishing to speak to management about Mbappe must receive the family’s green light.
The star’s reported huge earnings of around £650,000 per week at PSG have also raised eyebrows and led to speculation over his contribution to the town. Under French transfer laws, if he leaves for a foreign club, for example, AS Bondy stands to take a cut of around a million euros.
Mbappe famously got Nike to pay to revamp the street football stadium he played in as a kid in 2017 but his entourage says he has contributed far more than that.
“He doesn’t want to make a big thing about it,” said Mrs Thomassin. “I know he is very present via a charity helping sick children at the local Jean Verdier hospital and he regularly helps out local associations. For example, lots of local kids were able to travel to Russian for the last World Cup thanks to his financial support,” she said.
A breeding ground for greatness
The Paris region is one of the world’s most fertile breeding grounds for talent, from Paul Pogba to N'Golo Kante, but AS Bondy holds its own in that heady field.
Alumni include Mbappe’s older adopted brother, Jires Kembo-Ekoko, who most recently played for Bursaspor in Turkey, but also Fiorentina’s Jonathan Ikoné and William Saliba, who attended the same school as Mbappe and now plays for Arsenal and France. His younger brother Ethan plays for PSG’s under-19s side.
Asked why a town nestling in the “93” - the notoriously tough and run-down département of Seine-Saint-Denis northeast of Paris - was such a conveyer belt of French football talent, Mr Riccardi said: “At the bottom of the housing blocks, they play football.”
Bondy is France’s Brazil, chimed in Azzedine Drif, the town’s deputy mayor in charge of sport and a fearsome-looking judo coach.
“Maybe there’s something in the tap water,” said Mr Riccardi. “We have a lot of talent but we work hard. Lots of players from here have gone on to be professionals and we’re proud to have groomed the future best player in the world.”
So Mbappe is not yet the best?
“Messi is still playing and for me the best player in the history of the game, even if Mbappe is on better form right now. We should respect our elders,” he said. “But to score 80 goals per season is already pretty good. I hope that he can go even higher, of course.”
Casting the trainer’s cold eye on the upcoming game, he said: “It’s going to be a complicated match between two nations with roughly the same qualities and faults.”
“Both have offensive strengths. It’s more run-of-the-mill in defence, above all for England in the centre with Stones and Maguire. The French are not extraordinary defensively either compared to 2018. There could be quite a few goals. Naturally, Kylian could make all the difference.”
Coming out of a training session, Loic Sainte Rose, nine, and his dad Richard, 57, thought it could be anything from 4-2 to 2-1 in France’s favour. Most locals quizzed saw Mbappe scoring a double and Giroud a header. England’s Kyle Walker appeared the main threat to their hero but there was general agreement that he hadn’t regained his usual speed after injury.
Like most youth here, Loic said Mbappe was an inspiration and that he hoped one day to “do even better than him”.
Smiling, his dad said diplomatically: “You are setting your sights rather high.”