Kylian Mbappé’s eyes were so narrowed, you wondered if he could even see. He’d seen enough.

The rest of us though couldn’t believe our eyes. This World Cup’s most cracking contest, a quarter-final for the ages, had been ultimately decided not by France’s No.10, although he had enough of a say in things. It was England’s No.9 who had decided it by making all of the wrong decisions. 

When Harry Kane, given the chance to level the game for a second time just six minutes from the end, skied his penalty high into the stands of this tented arena, the canopy fell in on England. And as the camera cut to Mbappé, he laughed so wildly that his juvenile cheekbones squeezed his eyes closed. His mouth though was wide open, screaming joy. That’s what getting off the hook looks like. 

Mbappé had played his part in helping scorch France into an early lead but didn’t find as much joy in Al Bayt Stadium as he had on the other fields of Qatar. A contest that ebbed, flowed but mostly dripped with quality and tension had many central characters — Kane, French goalscorers Aurelien Tchouameni and Olivier Giroud, Bukayo Saka a livewire til he was removed too early by Gareth Southgate and Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio, who frustrated everyone but especially the English. 

And yet at the end of it all, Mbappé’s joy will be one of the defining images. It surely wasn’t sparked at Kane’s expense but instead at France’s fortune. They arguably have another huge slice as they face Morocco in Wednesday’s second semi-final back here in Al Khor. The first African side to make it this far have lost some key bodies along the way. Mbappé suddenly finds himself an eminently winnable game away from a shot at a second World Cup at just 23.

Mbappé suddenly finds himself an eminently winnable game away from a shot at a second World Cup at just 23

As Qatar 2022 divides the sport into the then and the now, it does so on the field too. And more and more it is his to dominate. 

Saturday’s front page of L’Equipe captured this generational sliding doors moment so well it could and should be put in a time capsule. A tuxedoed Mbappé looked down upon the main headline, ‘Perdre peut attendre’ or ‘No time to lose’, mirroring the font of Daniel Craig’s Bond finale in No Time to Die. Above, the World Cup’s most frantic Friday which only finished on Saturday local time was summed up in four words: 'Neymar pleure, Messi Respire’…‘Neymar cries, Messi breathes’. For good measure, there was a blurb in the corner for their monthly glossy football magazine which features Erling Haaland on its cover. 

As we step more forcefully into the new epoch now, the Manchester City man-machine shapes to shadow Mbappé in the same way Ronaldo did Messi these past two decades. But Norway’s long major tournament absence, going on 24 years, means that for now at least it is only Mbappé that truly can climb into the pantheon. 

The Herald: Mbappe lets loose after Kane's missed penaltyMbappe lets loose after Kane's missed penalty (Image: Getty)

The striking thing when you take a moment and stand back is that he’s almost there. He’s just made it look so damn easy. Mbappé’s more than halfway across the lake without leaving a ripple. He glided across the green grasses of Russia four years ago en route to winning a World Cup before he was out of his teens. Back on the biggest stage, he’s again made light work of the rest of the world. Four stunning goals and two assists have been accrued on four faultless Mbappé match nights here. 

Meanwhile, across all eight of the venues dotted across Doha and its suburbs, his PSG teammates have had to dig deep into the trenches to drag their teams forward. Messi’s tournament has been packed with tension and strife and peril. Nonetheless, he persists. Neymar, in so many ways the poster boy for Qatar’s obscene assault on the sport, could drag Brazil no further on Friday and so the tears flowed. 

Prior to kickoff here at the tournament’s northern outpost there were more tears back in town, Ronaldo showing his human (but still narcissistic) side for the first time in about 20 years. A cup full of CR7Up. All of which left Morocco, magical and historic yes but rapidly running out of fit bodies, waiting for the winners here. 

France began like they understood the implications of it all. Didier Deschamps and his side are trying to do something that hasn’t been done for 60 years in bringing the trophy back to a World Cup and leaving with it again. They got busy as early as they could and within the first seven minutes their No.10 was threatening. 

Mbappé was gliding again, like a hypersped Roomba just cruising in and out without you noticing. Maybe just vacuuming spaces but maybe plotting your downfall too. Kyle Walker was doing his best to notice. While Southgate had stuck with his back four, it was more of a three when in possession, the right back tucking in to close off those Mbappé lanes but a seventh-minute jink and pass did prove he could still find skinnier avenues. 

Mbappé was gliding again, like a hypersped Roomba just cruising in and out without you noticing. Maybe just vacuuming spaces but maybe plotting your downfall too

So much of the build-up had centred on this battle, breathless previews looking at how Mbappé’s top speed is a full 1.5km/h faster than Walker. Ground speed is but one measure however. Brain speed is another. What about the speed with which Mbappé can brake and the speed with which he flicks it inside or outside you and crosses your eyes before your heart? But there was respect for his counterpart. “He is like a tank that gains speed once launched,” Mbappé had said of Walker last year. 

Just 17 minutes in the tank misfired for the first time. Walker was caught upfield as Saka was dispossessed and France broke. When Mbappé picked up the ball he seared in field, skipped past a pathetic attempted foul by Declan Rice and stretched the midfield in the process. When the ball came back in, Tchouameni had enough of a vacuum of his own to laser in a gorgeous opener. 

The Herald: Olivier Giroud scores the winner for FranceOlivier Giroud scores the winner for France (Image: Getty)

Walker was getting help but they could only help so much. Jordan Henderson tried to pitch in on 38 minutes but could only give away a cheap free-kick. The midfielder nodded to Sampaio’s decision like a man who’s been told he doesn’t have the requisite funds for the transaction. On the floor, Mbappé played a little bit of keepie-uppies with himself.

It was all fun until it wasn’t. Kane equalised from the spot shortly after the break and the engrossing affair now threatened to go England’s way. As they piled on the pressure, Mbappé helped break it with his most scorching break shortly before the hour, blurring beyond Walker but unable to find Giroud in the box. 

After that he drifted out of things a little but his supporting cast in attack is so strong it can drift in and make up for even him. Antoine Griezmann’s devilish delivery 12 minutes from time was met by Giroud with a little held from Harry Maguire’s shoulder and there was another Bleus crush in the corner. They were marching on. 

But Kane could have stalled it, if not completely turned the tide. Instead new England found the same old ghosts — again. And Mbappé found it all a bit funny. The audacity of joy. 

Even on his quieter days you can’t take your eyes off him.