The train doors open and a game of cat and mouse begins in Bondy. Between ticketless teenagers determined to hop the barriers and a horde of security staff daring them to try. The kids triumph this time, outwitting and eventually outrunning the chasing pack.
On Saturday night, 3,000 miles away, another boy from this corner of Paris will resume his own version of Catch Me If You Can.
Kyle Walker is the latest defender tasked with shackling Kylian Mbappe, keeping pace with this bolt of blue when England meet France in the World Cup quarter finals.
‘I wish him good luck,’ laughs Rachid Mekchiche, a coach at AS Bondy, where Mbappe first stretched his legs en route to becoming the world’s most dangerous player.
Even for the banlieues, the maze of high-rise housing and hopelessness, a hotbed of talent surrounding Paris, AS Bondy have made a habit of carving gems from concrete.
Kylian Mbappe, France’s star player, broke through as a boy (above) in Parisian suburb Bondy
Now the Paris Saint-Germain star is set to face England in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final
Arsenal’s William Saliba (left) was also reared at Bondy, coached by Mbappe’s dad Wilfried
William Saliba, the Arsenal defender alongside Mbappe in Didier Deschamps’ squad, was also reared here. Coached by Mbappe’s dad, Wilfried, no less.
And this weekend, the next generation will gather at L’Atelier, a nearby restaurant that has become AS Bondy’s base for France’s title defence.
On Tuesday afternoon the kitchen and curtains were closed, but Mekchiche was among those inside, watching Morocco triumph over Spain.Last week, France’s sports minister – Amelie Oudea-Castera – was here, too, joining the youngsters to see Mbappe’s double against Poland while another coach prepared chocolate waffles with whipped cream. Once the fuel of their favourite son.
Oudea-Castera is among several politicians who have inserted themselves into the winger’s story over the past four years, since a teenage Mbappe accelerated his rise towards a position of financial and political and cultural significance that few footballers have ever held.
‘Of course we are proud,’ Mekchiche says. ‘For the club, for the town, for all the young people who train here. For the volunteers, the coaches, the parents.’
Mbappe has helped alter the tapestry of Bondy, where ‘lots of families are in real difficulty’.
A young Mbappe pictured (far right, bottom row) at the AS Bondy side which has produced fellow France senior internationals like winger Jonathan Ikone and forward Randal Kolo Muani
Last week, youngsters in the Bondy Academie watched Mbappe’s double against Poland in Les Bleus’ last-16 tie at L’Atelier Bondy restaurant in the north-eastern suburb of the capital city
France’s sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera has inserted herself into the winger’s story
No wonder a young boy, wandering along the pavement, shouts his name as he rolls a football between his feet.
No wonder that around here, around this time – as one local report put it – ‘Father Christmas has competition’.
Mbappe, 23, has been branded ‘the atomic bomb’ to lead France to a second successive World Cup.
Or, as one boy confessed during a kickabout in Bondy: ‘Without him, there would be no team.’
Hence why Oudea-Castera joined in chants of ‘Kylian, Kylian’ and pulled on the green and white of AS Bondy.
But perhaps a clearer illustration of Mbappe’s place within France stands a few minutes away: a giant mural painted after he became the first teenager since Pele to score in the World Cup final.
Back in 2018, when still only 19, his face was plastered over Paris. Less so now.
On Wednesday, the artwork draws little attention from cars or passers-by.
Instead, crowds gathered on a nearby bridge as emergency services tended to a body. Fished out of the river, apparently.
The mural, much like Mbappe, is simply part of the furniture now. But in one corner, some new words have appeared: a death threat. Grim but symbolic nevertheless of how Mbappe’s image has been tarnished in recent years.
To some, this boy wonder who donated his World Cup earnings to charity, who played with a fearlessness of youth and spoke with charm in different tongues, now embodies football’s grubbier side. Greed, petulance, excess. The poster boy of Paris Saint-Germain, a gaudy project of the Qatari state.
The intervention of French President Emmanuel Macron (left) to try to keep Mbappe at PSG when he was thinking of leaving this summer shows how the player’s importance has grown
Few in France are blind to his significance – to their World Cup hopes and to the country at large. President Emmanuel Macron did his bit to keep Mbappe here during PSG’s transfer tussle with Real Madrid, after all.
‘He is in a different dimension,’ says Allan Momege, who played with the winger as a youngster. ‘I don’t know if he likes it.’
And what is more muddied? Where Mbappe sits in French hearts. Particularly now. When plenty are grappling with supporting France and struggling with this World Cup. Some are conflicted, too, over the winger and the toll of the past four years. His attitude, the money of PSG, it jars.
‘As someone put it to Sportsmail: ‘If Le Petit Prince wants to become a king, he knows what to do – win the World Cup again.’
Those familiar with Mbappe can see how this picture of arrogance and pretention has developed.
‘French culture is more modest’ than say, in America, claims Guillaume Peria, another former team-mate. But it doesn’t marry with the Kylian they knew at Clairefontaine. As a teenager, he spent a couple of years at France’s national football centre. Life was simpler back then.
His peers remember a ‘prankster’ happy to ‘clown’ around. They would laugh at how he ran and take on the crossbar challenge for a can of Oasis.
At night they would play clandestine games of 5-a-side. Or one-on-one in their rooms, gambling their snacks.
Mbappe has been back — once to present the World Cup, flanked by security agents and police — and again, more recently, to hand out his comic book, entitled Je m’appelle Kylian
But a death threat scrawled on a Paris mural of the forward shows how the city has a love-hate relationship, some feeling he embodies football’s grubbier side of greed, petulance and excess
‘Mbebe’ or ‘Peanut’, as he was christened, was invariably locked in petty squabbles – this rapper vs that, this player vs that. ‘Always laughing, always in silly debates,’ Momege says.
They would head to the IT rooms to fire up footage of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo.
‘My best years,’ says Peria. ‘It’s funny, it’s 10 years since Clairefontaine… no one could have predicted where Kylian would be today.’
He adds: ‘The importance, the president… it’s another world.’
Mbappe wasn’t the best player. But even then he was being moulded for this life. The progress of his ‘Generation ’98’ was documented by newspaper Le Monde.
He gifted classmates brand new boots after agreeing a sponsorship deal.
At the trials, he stood out because he had the latest trainers, Peria recalls. He was already sponsored and building an entourage. His father was a coach, his mother Fayza a former handball player. His adopted brother, Jires Kembo Ekoko, is a former youth international.
‘He was well prepared mentally and morally,’ Mekchiche says. ‘Well managed,’ Peria adds. His tight-knit circle provided stability and protection from football’s bad actors.
‘That was crucial because there are lots of young, talented players who fail because of that,’ Momege says.
A former team-mate says England’s Harry Maguire had better glue themselves to Mbappe
Peria adds: ‘I compare him to me, for example… maybe the choices I made weren’t the right ones and maybe if I had taken more time to choose another club, my life would look completely different.’
These days, he works as an architect in Paris, limited to the work 5-a-side team.
A few miles away, on the artificial pitches of AS Bondy, the churn continues.
‘They all dream,’ Mekchiche says. ‘Every young player in France identifies with Kylian.’
Mbappe has been back – once to present the World Cup, flanked by security agents and police.
More recently, he told only the coaches before returning to hand out his comic book ‘Je m’appelle Kylian’.
His parents are around more regularly. Together they have created, in the mind of those who knew him, almost two Kylian Mbappes – the confident winger who backs himself in any duel. And in private? A joker who is ‘more relaxed than he portrays’. Perhaps that is why Mekchiche recommends Gareth Southgate puts two defenders on him. ‘That’s the minimum you need.’
At Clairefontaine, they knew how to cope. They learned his tricks and tells.
‘What I see today is the same thing but version x2000!’ Peria jokes before digging out a video from their second year.
‘There are certain things he does which are the same as now… and the defenders were still as lost.’
His advice sounds simple enough: don’t give Mbappe the time and space to pick up speed.’I’m sorry, not for Walker – he’s okay. But for (Harry) Maguire and the others? They better glue themselves to him.’
Or else? ‘He is a killer.’