Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe: The king, his heir and the changing of the guard

Wearing a lime green hoodie and dark blue denim jeans, a 14-year-old Kylian Mbappe sits on his bed, barefoot, perched up against the wall. He looks down the camera lens for a photoshoot with France Football but it is the posters which adorn his bedroom walls in his family’s apartment in Bondy that catch the eye.

On one wall there are Neymar and Eden Hazard. On another is his adopted brother and former Rennes player Jires Kembo. But framing Mbappe, covering virtually every other inch of plaster in shot, are images of his idol Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mbappe, a childhood Real Madrid fan turned Real Madrid player, has never hidden his admiration for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. But now, over a decade later, a 25-year-old Mbappe has the chance to make his mark and signal the changing of the guard as France face Portugal in the quarter-finals of Euro 2024.

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Mbappe and Ronaldo during the Riyadh Season Cup between the Riyadh All-Stars and Paris Saint-Germain in January 2023 (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Mbappe and Ronaldo have played each other four times in competitive fixtures — twice at club level and twice on the international stage — but the meeting in Hamburg may be the last time they grace the same field given Ronaldo, 39, will not play another European Championship and even the 2026 World Cup might be a tournament too far.

On the eve of the tie Mbappe said it would be an “honour” and a “pleasure” to face his childhood idol, who continues to stay in touch and, when asked, even offer up advice. They will meet as rivals on the pitch but, off it, they have a bond born of respect.

“There’s only one, there will only be one,” Mbappe said. “I want to admire the greatness of the player, a unique player. He has left his mark on the history of football. He inspired generations. He has scored many goals and won many titles. So his CV speaks for itself. He knew how to reinvent himself, so respect to him.

“No matter what happened before or what happens after, he’ll always be a legend of the game. But I hope he won’t be so happy tomorrow.”

Their relationship stems from a child in awe of his hero, but this will be a meeting of the heir apparent and outgoing king, both at the Bernabeu and also on the world stage.

Like all children, Mbappe went through phases with different football role models, cherry-picking their best qualities.

“I grew up with the legend of Zinedine Zidane, then I loved the great Brazilian players: from Pele to Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka,” Mbappe told Gazzetta dello Sport. “Another idol of mine was Cristiano Ronaldo.”

As a present for his ninth birthday, back in December 2009, his parents bought tickets to see the Real Madrid star play against Marseille, then managed by France manager Didier Deschamps, in the Champions League.

So mesmerised was he by Ronaldo’s skill, Mbappe insisted they arrived at the stadium two hours before kick-up to ensure they watched the warm-up. He was not disappointed as Ronaldo went on to score twice, but joy turned to tears when Mbappe was unable to meet the forward after the game.

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Ronaldo celebrates scoring at Marseille (Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images)

However, a chance encounter with recently appointed Marseille president Pape Diouf and former Marseille midfielder Jean-Charles De Bono, who took pity on the distraught child, led him to the mixed zone where media interviews take place. There Mbappe had a photo taken with Ronaldo, got his autograph and even dared to ask for his boots.

Not just yet, young boy.

But if Mbappe could not literally step into his hero’s shoes, he would do so metaphorically. He used to spend hours watching videos of Ronaldo on the internet, according to his father Wilfried, and replicated his trademark moves on the pitch: rabonas, stepovers, flicks and tricks.

As a teenager, Mbappe even imitated Ronald’s ‘Siuuu’ celebration when he scored in the 2016 Under-19 Euros against Portugal.

“I was a child who dreamed of many things, but especially of having the same career as Cristiano Ronaldo,” Mbappe told German outlet Bild in an interview in 2021. “When he plays, he brings joy to everyone who watches, and that has been going on for 15 years. All football fans love Cristiano Ronaldo. I was just a normal child in that respect.

“There are rarely footballers like him, and I learned a lot from watching him.”

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Mbappe after scoring against Portugal at the 2016 Under-19 European Championship (Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images)

After a match at Clairefontaine in November 2012, at the age of 13, the Real Madrid recruitment manager invited Mbappe to the capital in the week of his birthday.

France legend Zidane greeted him and his parents at the airport, addressed Mbappe by his name and offered him a lift to the training ground in his car. Mbappe gawped at the leather upholstery and asked Zidane if he should take his shoes off, much to the amusement of the French legend.

After a tour of the club’s complex, Mbappe was introduced to Ronaldo, who had signed for Madrid in 2009.


The photograph of the two of them shows Ronaldo putting his arm around the teenage boy, dressed in a Real Madrid tracksuit, posing with the peace sign. Back then, Mbappe described it as the best weekend of his life.

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A young Mbappe meets Ronaldo in 2012 (credit unknown; design by Eamonn Dalton)

The Bondy-born star had a clear footballing role model in Ronaldo and his career acted as a guide for the Frenchman; not to be copied, but to be used as a reference point.

“It’s already late for me to have a career like Messi (at that point Lionel Messi had only ever played for one club, Barcelona), otherwise I should have stayed at Monaco,” Mbappe told Gazzetta dello Sport in 2020. “So, logically and without wanting to take anything away from Messi, I have to be inspired by Ronaldo’s career.”

But there came a time when the only reference point that mattered were the goals Mbappe set for himself.

On New Year’s Eve in 2018, Mbappe posted an edited photo of the famous bedroom shot. Instead of looking up to Ronaldo, the child looks back on a memorable 2018 in which his future self won the World Cup with France, including the tournament’s best young player of the award, and the treble with PSG.

Brazilian Ronaldo and Neymar feature by his side in some shots, but not Cristiano Ronaldo. It was time for him to forge his own path and while Ronaldo was once his muse, his photo caption of “2019…???” posed the question of what the future could bring.

Although their career paths have taken different turns at different clubs, Mbappe has inherited the same insatiable desire to win and break records. Such a mindset is common among elite athletes, but the parallels with Ronaldo cannot be ignored.

“My first obsession is winning,” Mbappe said in the Netflix documentary series Captains of the World, a close iteration to that of Ronaldo in his eponymous 2015 film.

“Winning, that’s the most important to me,” the Portugal captain said. “It’s as simple as that.”

PSG’s sporting director Luis Campos also noted similarities between the two. “They are the same,” he said in a 2017 France Football article. “They are born to be champions, to be stars, to win the most beautiful things.”

“Cristiano has this strength, constantly, every season, to be decisive at every moment,” Deschamps told L’Equipe in 2020. “It is also a strength for Kylian even if he is much younger. This is what places them in the category of world-class players.”

Four years on, Deschamps’ opinion of Ronaldo has not changed.

“He has always been an offensive threat,” the France manager said on the eve of the quarter-final in Hamburg. “He’s got the ability to go beyond motivation, to win, to be decisive, to score goals. He’ll always have that and even though he’s getting older, he’ll always be a great competitor.”

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Deschamps and Ronaldo, who had been substituted through injury, coach from the sidelines at the final of Euro 2016 (VI Images via Getty Images)

As time went on and his own reputation was forged, there were still glimpses of Mbappe’s reverence towards his hero.

Just a few years ago Mbappe said, in an interview with beIN, that Ronaldo’s bicycle kick in Real Madrid’s win over Juventus in a 2018 Champions League quarter-final was the best goal he had ever seen. The French forward wrote on social media the word “idol” along with the crown and goat (‘greatest of all time’) emojis captioning pictures of the duo smiling and chatting during the game.

He used the same emojis to comment on Ronaldo’s post when Morocco knocked Portugal out of the 2022 World Cup.

But when Mbappe confirmed his long-awaited move to Real Madrid in June, following in Ronaldo’s footsteps to the Bernabeu, the tables had turned.

“My turn to (watch),” commented Ronaldo, whose son, a big Mbappe fan, has received shirts from the France captain himself. “Excited to see you light up the Bernabéu #HalaMadrid.”

The comment has received more than six million likes.

Mbappe moves to Spain at 25, a year older than Ronaldo when he moved there in 2009. In his nine years at Madrid, Ronaldo scored 450 goals, becoming the club’s all-time record scorer, and won four Champions Leagues to add to that secured while at Manchester United in 2008.

But Mbappe refuses to believe Friday’s game signals the passing of the baton.

“I just followed my path,” he sais. “I hope I’ll write a great story there (in Madrid), but I’m certainly not going there to write the rest of Cristiano’s story. What he did in Madrid is unique and I hope to do something unique in Madrid too. It will be completely different, but I can only have praise for a player of his calibre.”

Despite the mutual respect, two of Nike’s biggest athletes, who have personalised boots, have never sought to collaborate commercially — unlike luxury watch brand Hublot, for example, which brought together Mbappe’s idol Pele and the young star. When The Athletic approached Nike before their clients’ tete-a-tete in northern Germany, they said they “wish both athletes and teams luck for the upcoming game”.

The last time they set foot on the pitch together for a competitive fixture was three years ago in a 2-2 draw between their respective countries at Euro 2020 (played in 2021 because of COVID-19). Once again Ronaldo shone, netting two penalties that were matched by Karim Benzema’s brace. Mbappe provided an assist.

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The pair swapped shirts after the 2-2 draw in Budapest (Angel Martinez – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

In the 2022 World Cup final when Mbappe confronted Messi, the game’s rising star single-handedly brought France back into the contest when they looked down and out. It ended up being Messi’s moment, of course, but Mbappe cemented his position again as the future heir with a hat-trick on the grandest of stages.

With Messi now playing for Inter Miami in the United States and Ronaldo for Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League, this game against Portugal could be the launching pad for a new era. The Mbappe era.

While one player’s trajectory is on the rise, the other’s is on the wane. As two countries’ captains go head to head, one 14 years older than the other, this could be the moment for the heir apparent to surpass the man who allowed him to dream.

(Top photos: Getty Images; designed by Eamonn Dalton)

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