The error resonated through generations, even with Pele tweeting at Kylian Mbappé words of encouragement after his penalty that eliminated France from Euro 2020 in the round of 16. It was Mbappé’s first sporting trauma on the international stage and the first time we saw his previously undefined talent reach the limit. From that perspective, Mbappé’s failure was almost inevitable, as we have been conditioned to expect our firm’s athletes to fail in some way on a grand occasion before their eventual redemption. Didier Deschamps added that the forward was “very affected” by the foul, with Mbappé tweeting an apology later.
“Tomorrow is the first day of a new trip,” added Pele.
It was not just the missed penalty, as Mbappé did not score in the entire tournament and recorded only one assist. The advanced stats were more forgiving, with Mbappé currently in fourth place in expected goals and second behind Cristiano Ronaldo in expected goals without penalty plus expected assists. (Interestingly, only Álvaro Morata and Pablo Sarabia’s Spain made it to the quarterfinals outside of the top 10.) Their lack of production invited a general referendum on Mbappé’s current status. Former PSG striker Jerome Rothen said Mbappé’s ego had turned “problematicAnd uncontrollable for Deschamps.
“Are you aware that you don’t have the class of some in the group on set pieces?” Rothen asked. It was not the first time that someone suggested that Mbappé thought better than he really was. Former World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit accused Mbappé of being too “Neymarizado” at the beginning of the season, saying that Mbappé “wants to do what Neymar does in the field when he does not have the qualities of Neymar at all”. Not to mention the public fight he got into with Olivier Giroud on the eve of his tournament, and Giroud suggested that no one passes the ball to him in their careers.
And yet Mbappé still produced 27 goals and seven assists in 31 Ligue 1 games this season. Those stats lack context, but there were glimpses of quality across the euro. He showed his game between the lines in the loss to Switzerland, first in this pass which led to the touch of Karim Benzema in the style of Dennis Bergkamp, then minutes later with a heel that freed Antoine Griezmann inside the area. The skills showed the true secret of Mbappé’s game in his footwork, control and imagination in tight areas outside of his obvious pace. Of course, we didn’t see enough of this Mbappé. But the unfulfilled potential cursed the entire team, with Deschamps’ side content of sitting down and winning matches in streaks and moments thanks to his superior individual quality.
However, going through penalty penalty trauma in front of the world is part of a soccer hero’s journey. Cristiano Ronaldo had to miss out on the 2008 Champions League final (despite Manchester United eventually winning the title) to close the circle and seal the European trophy with the decisive penalty against Atlético de Madrid in the 2016 final. Lionel Messi briefly retired from the national team after his missed penalty against Chile in the 2016 Copa América final, with Sergio Agüero saying After the game, “it was the worst I’ve seen him in the locker room.” (We still await the redemption of his grief).
The tension is in the inevitability of a penalty. There are only 12 yards between the penalty spot and a goal, with only one goalkeeper at the mercy of the shooter. In a game of clean sheets and 0-0 draws, scoring is the default setting on penalties. Research puts a penalty somewhere about 71% -80% success rate depending on the context. There are debates about what the perfect penalty entails, where to target the lower corners, the upper corners, or the middle, as well as how. Do you choose a place before the penalty or play with the goalkeeper’s movement? That doesn’t add to the external pressure of knockout competitions with legacies waiting to be written. These factors elevate this simple act to the realm of game theory and psychology, all in front of hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
Therefore, a missed penalty is not a lack of skill. It becomes something deeper around the worthlessness that reveals one’s inner character, that we know something about their psychology and nature. The most extreme example is Roberto Baggio’s failure in the 1994 World Cup final, an association that follows almost 30 years later. (As one headline says, forget about the lady, it was a divine.) So when Ronaldo told Zinedine Zidane in 2016 to “put me as the last to receive,” the confident knowledge elevated him beyond the ordinary. He was some distance from his mistake in 2008, when he was afraid it would be “The worst day of my life. ”)
But there is also a different kind of tension that is based on the unrealism of perfection, especially within the current age of social media that encourages venerability. Mbappé’s daily and direct apology was a personality tool that Ronaldo did not have access to in 2008 (could that also have humanized Baggio’s failure?) If all we knew about Mbappé were the scandalous goals and abilities of the networks social every weekend due to the lack of coverage of Ligue 1 in the United States, we now know that it is actually fallible, for the better.
The cycle happens to all phenomena, and it will happen to Erling Haaland on occasion. But the stain isn’t necessarily a negative thing to avoid, just a part of how we’ve experienced stories since the days of myths. After all, how can we be rooted for perfection? Missing a penalty at age 22 is not an end, but a new beginning.
Mbappé’s act of redemption could include his signing for Real Madrid. Somehow the missed penalty adds an additional incentive to join Madrid as we could get used to seeing Mbappé every weekend in La Liga rather than just seeing him in the Champions League as it is currently structured. By staying on the front pages of Spanish newspapers, there is an opportunity to redirect the dialogue towards the everyday challenges of playing for the most successful European club in the world. He could use Madrid’s aura and history as a tool to transcend something as frivolous as penalties.
A new Mbappé signals space for new stories. He already has a career’s worth of achievement in his first five seasons, including winning and scoring in a World Cup final. But we’ve also heard more from Mbappé than we’ve actually seen him play, making his greatness easy to take for granted without close inspection. Did Mbappé score another wonder? That’s just the quality of Ligue 1. Another assist for Neymar? Well that should be the baseline. There were no nuanced layers. We always knew that Mbappé was world class, but now he has a family narrative that invites us to join him.