Why you should care

Because next-gen super scorer Kylian Mbappé is poised to dominate soccer.

Led by game-changing forward Mbappé, who has three goals in the tournament so far, France faces Belgium in the World Cup semifinals on Tuesday.

The first round of World Cup knockout games featured a changing of the guard.

There were exits for Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the two outstanding talents of their generation, now both in their thirties. Instead, the round of 16 was ignited by a player at the other end of his career: France’s Kylian Mbappé. The 19-year-old tore through an aged Argentine defense to score twice and win a penalty for Les Bleus in a thrilling 4–3 win.

Just how good is Mbappé? To find out, we analyzed the goal-scoring performances of teenage players in top competitions going back three decades. This includes the “big five” European leagues of Spain, Germany, England, Italy and France; the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament; and competitive senior internationals.

Here’s how we rate the Paris Saint-Germain striker:

Kylian Mbappé is the best teenage goal scorer of all time, averaging 0.69 goals per game.

He’s notched those goals in 1,657 top-level minutes in his short career to date; the goals-per-game statistic does not include penalties.

Among players who also managed more than 1,000 minutes of elite soccer during their teenage years are Messi (0.54 goals per game), Spain’s Raúl (0.5) and England’s Wayne Rooney (0.4). Ronaldo comes in at 0.3, though it is worth noting he was converted from a winger to an out-and-out striker over time.

However, young stars often begin their soccer careers outside Europe’s biggest leagues, gaining experience in lesser competitions before transferring to one of the continent’s major club teams where standards are higher.

To take this into account, we broadened the analysis to include top-tier games in other leagues, such as the Dutch Eredivisie, Portugal’s Primeira Liga and top divisions across South America. Under this measure, Mbappé slips behind the Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who managed a scoring rate of 0.84 during his two seasons at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, before going on to star for Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, and leading Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002.

This broader analysis features an eclectic mix of players who tend to fall into two categories. The first group, such as France’s Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema, Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Sergio Agüero, continued on their trajectory toward elite status. The second group features cautionary tales of relatively unfulfilled potential, such as Spain’s Bojan Krkic and Brazil’s Alexandre Pato.

Mbappé is a greater star than almost all that have come before. The question is whether he will continue to shine brightly or fade quickly.

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By Murad Ahmed and John Burn-Murdoch

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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