At halftime, the 974 Stadium DJ changed his tracks from soft rock to heavy metal. The stadium suddenly reverberated with Iron Maiden’s Trooper and Judas Priest’s Breaking The Law. Kylian Mbappe, the sweat on his face glistening in the bright spotlight, waved his hands, flexed his biceps and urged the audience to sing along. The DJ turned up the volume and the stadium turned into the raucous setting of a heavy metal band concert, with fans headbanging and jumping from their seats, causing frightened faces among the security men prowling the gallery.
The match had gone more like a soft rock number in the scoreless first half. It would soon take on a heavy metal dimension, with Mbappé pulling the strings in one of his most exciting World Cup performances. His brace made the decisive difference in France’s round of 16, securing a 2-1 victory over a resilient Denmark, who could lament being denied a point by a footballer who leapt to sporting immortality with every passing match.
It was a game in which not only did Mbappé’s superior skills stand out, but his ruthlessness and desire reigned above all other gifts. The second goal captured Mbappé’s essence. The moment he saw Antoine Griezmann take the ball just outside the box, he knew he was in business. Even if Griezmann had other intentions, it was worth running for. So Mbappe slipped past Rasmus Kristensen and bullied and bulldozed into the heart of the sixteen. The anticipation of a goal sniffer, or intuition or footballing divinity.
The ball was not centimeter-perfect, rather a bit clumsy; he couldn’t poke head or toe, so he jumped and shot the ball into the air from six yards past a stunned Kasper Schmeichel, whose reflexes were too slow and his hands too weak to thwart the force of the ball.
Mbappé jumped over the billboard to the edge of the stands screaming and screeching and signaled to the crowd to celebrate. Then he kissed the French badge – how foolish seemed the doubts that his heart was no longer with the country. Frowning at the camera, he flexed his biceps again and jumped back to the ground, basking in rock star admiration, his face twinkling in the light amid the rolling of drums and waves of French flags.
It was Kylian Mbappé’s concert.
It wasn’t the best goal he’s ever scored; it wouldn’t be the greatest goal he would ever score. But it was probably the goal that unleashed his pent-up emotions. The first goal was even more beautiful and classic.
When Mbappé received the ball midfield in his half and sprinted through the inner left channel, Theo Hernandez had already begun his overlapping sprint. The Danish shirts tore off frantically to deny the immutable fate. Without even looking sideways, he stroked the ball to Hernandez whose expectation was telepathic and drifted in. Hernandez swerved away and then cut back like a drunken car, twisting into the edge of the box and serving a well-weighted, no-look ball. towards Mbappe, which closed lush and lashed a low diagonal past Schmeichel. It was simple, direct football, but it was devastatingly beautiful.
The game immediately hit high attacking notes and resulted in an equalizer for Denmark just seven minutes later. It was a goal that epitomized the Danes’ iron will, as well as their hunger and determination, as Andreas Christensen surged above the French defenders and thundered a header past Hugo Lloris, en route a nice flick-on from Joachim Andersen from Christian Eriksen’s turning corner.
A goal was the only thing that did not come true for the French. France’s build-up game was exciting, no one was unwieldy with the ball, everyone kept form, filled in spaces and worked their way through the intricate defenses that Denmark had knotted. The explosive speed with which they whipped exaggerated the lethargy of the Danish resistance. In particular Ousmane Dembele, who grabbed the ball from his own half in the sixth minute and tore it in, sprinted three-quarters of the length of the field like a prize horse, was too quick for everything and everyone, he pulled off a wonderful pass towards Adrien Rabiot on the left, who fielded Mbappé instead, who hit the ball from Dembele. The final product was weak, but the sequence demonstrated the unnerving speed of body and thought that the French possess.
Denmark had no choice but to launch a defiant rear, anchored by Andreas Christensen, who even risked a potential red card when he fell Mbappé to the ground. He escaped with yellow. The only question, however, was how long they could hold off the relentless onslaught of the French, amplified by the ‘ale le le’ chants of the blue-bleached stands. The specific statistic recorded their first half: 11 tries, but only two were on target, unfortunately for the French. The scoreless first half owed much to the steadfastness of the Danish defense. They used similar tactics as in the Nation League victory over the world champions, defending midfield third in a 5-4-1 strangling midfield. The flaw is that they leave space on the wings, which the marauding French wingers could use with destruction. The first goal was a classic example.
The key to stopping the French, they realized, was to trap Antoine Griezmann, content in his playmaking role behind the attacking trident. Against Australia, several of France’s moves sprang from Griezmann’s vision and imagination. The Danes kept him on a leash, choked him for space and pushed him outside. But none of it mattered in the heavy metal music Mbappe whipped up.