Messi vs. Mbappe: Who Was the Greater Soccer Teenage Phenom?
The passing of the torch happens in every sport. It's when one generation's superstar gives way to another. Never is this done more gracefully than in the world's most popular sport, soccer, where there's a long tradition of older stars embracing the success of younger stars.
Today, one of the game's all-time greats, Lionel Messi, is wrapping up his career while Kylian Mbappe continues to grab the spotlight with his outstanding play. But which player won the teenage years?
Here's how Messi and Mbappe navigated those crucial times as young soccer prodigies. Before they became legends.
Messi Came From Humble Beginnings in Rosario, Argentina
Lionel Messi was born in Rosario, Argentina, on June 24, 1987, the third child of Jorge Messi and Celia Cuccittini, blue-collar factory workers in a city with an estimated population of 1.3 million — about the size of Dallas.
Messi's early life was all about soccer. With Jorge as his coach, the young Messi competed daily against older brothers Rodrigo and Matias, as well as cousins Maximiliano and Emmanuel Biancucchi, who both became professional soccer players like Lionel.
By 4 years old, Messi was playing for local club Grandoli and being shepherded to practices and matches by his beloved grandmother, Celia.
Mbappe Began as a Boy From Bondy, France
Kylian Mbappe was born on Dec. 27, 1998, in Paris, to Wilfried Mbappe and Fayza Lamari. His father is from Cameroon and his mother is from Algeria, and the couple already had settled in Bondy, a suburb northeast of Paris.
Kylian was born into a sporting family. His father was a longtime youth soccer coach for the local club AS Bondy, and his mother was a professional handball player. Former AS Bondy players remember Kylian at 2 and 3 years old, warming up on the field and listening intently to his father's pregame speeches.
By the time Kylian was 6 years old, he was on the pitch for AS Bondy playing against the older boys.
'Machine of '87' Produces a Phenom
At 6 years old, Lionel Messi went to play for popular local club Newell's Old Boys, teaming up with the other players his own age to form the "Machine of '87" — named for the year they were all born — a virtually unbeatable youth team.
While Messi scored over 500 goals for Newell's in six years, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency when he was 10 years old. This medical issue threatened to not only destroy his dreams of playing professional soccer, but also keep him from leading a normal life and possibly bankrupt his family with the cost of treatments.
A Young Soccer Prodigy From the Suburbs
It wasn't long before Kylian Mbappe's prodigious soccer talents began to attract attention, with a big influence from his father, AS Bondy youth soccer coach Wilfried, and older brother Jires Kembo Ekoko, who also went on to become a professional soccer player.
By 13 years old, Kylian, who idolized Cristiano Ronaldo, was training at France's prestigious Clairefontaine Academy. There, he excelled against junior-level teams from Europe's best clubs and earned a tryout from Chelsea at 11 years old.
Antonio Riccardi, one of Kylian's early coaches, told the BBC in 2018 that it was evident early on he was a "crack" — which means the best of the best.
Barcelona Rolls the Dice on Messi
His father's insurance policy covered two years of treatment for Lionel Messi's growth hormone deficiency — about $1,000 per month.
Messi's club, Newell's Old Boys, initially agreed to take on the payments for Messi for the last two years of treatment, but reneged after an economic collapse in Argentina.
Looking for clubs willing to pay the cost of treatments, the Messis needed somewhere willing to take a chance on a 13-year-old player when the accepted age of signing foreign players was 14.
With family in Catalonia, they focused on FC Barcelona, which cut a deal with the young star.
Monaco Wins Mbappe Sweepstakes
Every elite club in Europe wanted the young Kylian Mbappe to join their ranks, but it was French club Monaco that ultimately signed him at just 14 years old. Kylian picked Monaco over his favorite club, Real Madrid, because he didn't want to leave France at such a young age.
Right away, the comparisons started between Kylian and legendary French soccer star Thierry Henry, considered by many to be the greatest striker of all time and another Monaco product.
Mbappe's play generated buzz immediately. "We knew quickly that (Mbappe) was a phenomenon," Monaco president Vasim Vasilyev told CNN in 2018.
Messi Struggles Away From Home
Lionel Messi's first year outside of his native Argentina was anything but a smooth transition.
Still not fully emotionally recovered from the death of his beloved grandmother, Cecilia, two years earlier, Messi continued to undergo treatments for his hormone deficiency. To cap it all off, his mother, two brothers and younger sister decided to leave Spain and move back to Rosario.
On the pitch, because of a transfer dispute with Messi's former club, he was only allowed to play in friendlies or Catalan League games.
'He Sleeps and Breathes Football'
The early reviews on Kylian Mbappe after joining Monaco were best described by club president Vasim Vasilyev: "[Mbappe] sleeps and breathes football."
Mbappe didn't back down from the comparisons to French star Thierry Henry, but even early on, he began to make a point of saying he wanted to cut his own swath and also began to earn a reputation for being a tireless worker — and tireless at protecting his craft.
This is the period in which the legends began to crow about Mbappe's skills at finishing and dribbling, along with the early, intensive work on his strength and speed as he grew to 5-foot-10.
The Legend of the Mask
With four years of hormone treatment behind him and the issues with his transfer from his Argentinian club settled, Lionel Messi went on a tear for FC Barcelona's junior-level, Cadetes A squad. Teamed with future stars Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, 15-year-old Messi led the "Baby Dream Team" with 36 goals in 30 games on the way to league, Spanish Cup and Catalan Cup titles.
In the Catalan Cup final, Messi started the match against Espanyol with a mask to protect his broken cheekbone. He quickly discarded the mask, which hampered his vision, then scored two goals in 10 minutes before he was pulled in a 4-1 win.
Setting Records from the Start
On Dec. 2, 2015, Kylian Mbappe became the youngest player in Monaco's club history to play a match with the "A" level team, making his Ligue 1 debut at 16 years and 347 days old.
It was the first of two, 21-year-old Monaco club records held by Thierry Henry that Mbappe broke right off the bat.
The second was becoming the youngest player in club history to score a goal in Ligue 1 play when he scored in a 3-1 win over Troyes on Feb. 20, 2016, at 17 years and 62 days old.
Messi's Star on the Rise
During the 2003-04 season, Lionel Messi moved quickly up the ranks — from Juveniles B to Juveniles A to an emergency injury addition to the FC Barcelona senior team's roster for a friendly match against Porto on Nov. 16, 2003.
Messi was barely 16 years old and impressed the coaches by getting two shots on goal in just a few minutes of playing time. He spent the season playing for five different teams and training against the senior team.
The stretch was impressive enough that Barcelona signed him to an eight-year contract with a buyout clause of $88.1 million.
Milestones Come Mbappe's Way
In March 2016, Monaco signed Kylian Mbappe to his first professional contract, a three-year deal tying him to the ballclub through 2019 and, once again, keeping the behemoth European clubs at bay.
Mbappe had a breakout season for Monaco in 2016-17, notching his first hat trick in Copa de Ligue play in December 2016 and becoming the youngest player in Ligue 1 play to record a hat trick in 12 years against Metz on Feb. 11, 2017.
He scored 26 goals that season, leading Monaco to the Ligue 1 title.
Messi Finds the Perfect Mentor
Much like Lionel Messi would do years later with up-and-coming star Neymar, and Neymar would do with Kylian Mbappe years after that, legendary soccer player Ronaldhino played the role of mentor for Messi when he ascended to FC Barcelona's senior team.
Messi became the youngest player to take the field for Barcelona in a league competition on Oct. 16, 2004, against Espanyol, at 17 years, three months and 22 days old.
He also was the youngest player to score a goal for Barcelona on May 1, 2005, against Albacete — on an assist from Ronaldhino.
Mbappe's Transfer to PSG Sets Record
When it finally came time for Kylian Mbappe to transfer to one of the world's elite clubs, he once again chose to stay in France.
Mbappe's transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in early 2018 after a brief loan for the club went through for approximately $221.6 million — a record amount for a teenager and the second-highest transfer in professional soccer history, trailing PSG teammate Neymar's $244 million transfer in 2017.
At 18 years old, Mbappe was now one of the highest-paid soccer players, bringing in a reported $21.5 million per year. And that's not including endorsements.
Messi's Value Becomes Impossible to Ignore
Lionel Messi signed his first senior team contract with Barcelona on his 18th birthday, June 24, 2005, taking two years off his deal but upping his buyout clause from $80 million to $150 million.
With Ronaldhino on the left wing, Messi's natural position, the team moved him to the right flank to take advantage of his dominant, left scoring foot, and expectations began to soar for the club ahead of his presumed addition to the starting lineup.
Barcelona star Ronaldhino — who called Messi "little brother" — told the press he thought the youngster eventually would become a better player than him.
Neymar Becomes Mbappe's Mentor
Any worries about Kylian Mbappe and fellow PSG superstar Neymar not being able to play together were quickly put aside by Mbappe, who is six years younger than Neymar.
Reportedly, at the first practice together, Mbappe approached Neymar and said, "I'm not going to step on your toes, what do you need me to do?"
And Neymar, so moved by the gesture, decided to become a mentor to the young star, much like the role superstar Lionel Messi took on with Neymar when he joined Barcelona's club in 2013.
Messi's Loyalty Lies With Barca
Arsenal approached FC Barcelona about obtaining Lionel Messi after his first full season, in 2002-03, but the young star decided to stay in Spain.
After Messi's play in the 2005 Joan Gamper Trophy game against Juventus, and months after he signed a contract with Barcelona through 2005, Juventus manager Fabio Capello offered to take Messi on loan for the season before Inter Milan came through with an even better offer — they were willing to pay Messi's entire $150 million buyout.
It would be the closest Messi ever came to leaving Barca, but he decided to stay with the club who initially put its faith in him.
Mbappe Carves Out Unique Role at PSG
Kylian Mbappe's impact with PSG was immediate. He scored in his debut and became the youngest player in club history to score 10 goals at just 18 years and 11 days old.
Before the 2018 season, Mbappe took jersey No. 7, quickly sparking the hashtag "K7LIAN" which spread like wildfire on social media.
In his first full season with PSG, Mbappe became the first player in 45 years to score four goals in one game (against Lyon), won the Kopa Trophy as France's best young player and led PSG to the Ligue 1 title.
Eerie Similarities With Maradona
It was inevitable comparisons would come between Lionel Messi and fellow Argentinian Diego Maradona — the country's two greatest soccer players of all time. Messi underlined these similarities with a pair of goals right before his 20th birthday while playing for Barcelona.
The first was in a Copa del Rey semifinal. Messi gathered the ball at midfield and beat five Getafe defenders for a goal, similar to Maradona's "Goal of the Century" in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals.
Three weeks later, Messi's hand-aided goal against Espanyol drew comparisons to Maradona's "Hand of God" goal in the same World Cup match.
Champions League Gets Put on Notice
After earning Ligue 1 Player of the Year in his first season with Paris Saint-German, Kylian Mbappe began the 2019-20 season on a tear.
He won the Trophee des Champions, then followed that up with a "perfect hat trick" on Oct. 22, 2019, against Club Brugge — which means a goal with the right foot, left and the head.
Mbappe's teenage years came to an end in December 2019 — in his 20th year, Mbappe became the youngest player in history to score 15 goals in Champions League play.
Messi's Decision: Argentina or Spain?
Lionel Messi had options when it came to what his international career would be, because of his mother's Spanish roots and his residency in Spain playing for FC Barcelona's youth teams since 13 years old.
Messi remained loyal to Argentina's national team, making his first appearance for the U-20 national team in June 2004, just days after his 17th birthday.
He played a total of 18 games for the U-20 team, leading them to third place in his first tournament (the U-20 South American Championship), then taking first place at the U-20 World Cup in 2005 and bringing home Golden Ball honors as the tournament's best player.
Mbappe Answers the Call for France
It seemed like a given that Kylian Mbappe would become part of France's beloved national team — Les Bleus — early in his career. He made his first two appearances for France's U-17 team in 2014, when he was 15 years old.
Following his first full pro season for Monaco in 2016, he almost singlehandedly led France to the UEFA European U-19 Championship by scoring seven goals in 11 appearances. In the final, France set a record for margin of victory with a 4-0 win over Italy.
Seven months later, in March 2017, Mbappe made his first appearance for France's senior team.
Ascension to 'La Albiceleste'
Lionel Messi's performance in a pair of tournaments for Argentina's U-20 national team convinced senior team manager Jose Pekerman that the young star was ready to be called up.
At 18 years old, Messi made his debut for the senior national team on Aug. 17, 2005, against Hungary, and he was ejected two minutes into the match.
He became the youngest player in Argentina's history to play in the World Cup in 2006, at 18 years old, and Pekerman faced widespread criticism for not playing Messi in a quarterfinal loss to Germany.
What the World Cup Means to France
The biggest sporting event in the world is not the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series or Stanley Cup. It's the World Cup, and it's not even close.
France has been a part of the tournament since its inception in 1930, but didn't play in a final until 1998, when the country hosted the tournament and defeated Brazil for the title. In 2006, France returned to the final and lost to Italy in a shootout — the infamous match where French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane was ejected for headbutting Italy's Marco Materrazi in the chest.
Mbappe had grown up watching his national team and looked forward to his opportunity on the world's biggest soccer stage.
More Praise From Maradona
Lionel Messi's ascension to the Argentina national team and his play with FC Barcelona by the time he was 19 years old drew high praise from those closest to him. Fellow Barcelona star and mentor Ronaldhino remarked, "I'm not even the best player on my team," after winning the Ballon D'Or in 2006.
None of the praise drew more attention than from Argentina soccer legend Diego Maradona, who led his nation to the 1986 World Cup title. "I have seen the player who will succeed me in Argentina football, and his name is Messi," Maradona told the BBC in 2006.
Mbappe Makes Debut for Les Bleus
Kylian Mbappe's debut for France's senior men's national team occurred on March 25, 2017, in a 3-1 win over Luxembourg in 2018 World Cup qualifying play. At just over 18 years old, he became the second-youngest player to ever earn a cap for France.
Mbappe scored his first goal for the senior team in international play against the Netherlands in a World Cup qualifying match in August 2017, then made his final case to be on the World Cup roster with two goals against World Cup host Russia in a friendly in March 2018.
Two months later, he was officially named to France's 2018 World Cup roster.
What Came Next for Messi?
Lionel Messi's teenage years were nowhere near as blessed as Kylian Mbappe's one decade later. Messi faced adversity, from battling through a growth hormone deficiency to a spate of injuries that sidelined him early in his career with FC Barcelona's senior team.
Those challenges made Messi a more determined, resilient player, and he won the first of a record six Ballon d'Or trophies in 2009, at 22 years old.
What he still doesn't have, though, is success for Argentina on the international stage, beyond the U-20 World Cup in 2005 and the Olympic gold medal he helped Argentina win in 2008.
The World Meets Kylian Mbappe
At 19 years old, France's Kylian Mbappe was one of the youngest players in the 2018 World Cup and scored his first World Cup goal in France's 1-0 win over Peru in Group C play, making him the youngest player to score a goal for France in the World Cup.
Mbappe became just the second teenager in World Cup history to score two goals in a match in a 4-3 win over Argentina. The first was Brazil's Pele in 1958.
"It's flattering to be the second one after Pele," Mbappe said after the match. "But let's put things into context — Pele is in another category."
Messi's World Cup Failure Defined
Nothing underlined Lionel Messi's World Cup failures more than Kylian Mbappe's success in his first World Cup, as Mbappe led France to the title and was named the tournament's Best Young Player.
Messi has played in four World Cups — 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 — making the quarterfinals in 2006 and 2010, and the Round of 16 in 2018.
The closest he ever came to World Cup glory was in 2014, when he led Argentina to the World Cup final, where it lost to Germany, but Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as the World Cup's best player.
France's Team for the Ages
On July 15, 2018, France faced Croatia in the World Cup final in front of approximately 78,000 fans at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Kylian Mbappe became the second teenager — again after Brazil legend Pele — to score in a World Cup final, capping off the scoring for France in a 4-2 win watched by an estimated 1.2 billion people.
Mbappe was named the World Cup's Best Young Player, the same award Pele won after leading Brazil to the World Cup title in 1958. Pele congratulated Mbappe with a simple tweet: "welcome to the club."
Who Won Their Teenage Years?
With the World Cup title and two Ligue 1 titles before he turned 20 years old, it seems like Kylian Mbappe was the better player as a teenager when you compare him to Lionel Messi.
Soccer purists will scoff at the notion of even comparing the two as teenagers because so much of a player's career occurs after that and Messi's true highlights don't begin until past his 20th birthday.
Of course, he won his first Ballon d'Or by the time he's 22 years old — something Mbappe may still do at 21 years old.
International Superstar, Big-Time Sponsorships
France's 2018 World Cup title thrust 19-year-old Paris native Kylian Mbappe into the spotlight. His Instagram account alone has almost 41 million followers (Lionel Messi has over 100 million). He said that while his life was "turned upside down" after winning the World Cup, he also made sure to take advantage of the opportunities that came his way.
He parlayed his newfound fame into sponsorship deals with Nike's exclusive Jordan Brand and has his own signature line of soccer shoes. He also inked deals for millions of dollars with EA Sports — he has the highest ranking on the FIFA video game series — and Swiss watchmaker Hublot made him their global brand ambassador.
Sponsorships Brought Messi Untold Riches
In 2018, Forbes reported Lionel Messi made a stunning $156 million with a combination of sponsorships and salary from FC Barrcelona. For comparison, Messi became the first soccer player to have his yearly salary eclipse $40 million in 2013 — a number the NBA wouldn't pass until Golden State's Stephen Curry made just a shade over $40 million for the 2019-20 season.
In 2006, Adidas took Nike to court over the rights to Messi's images, with Nike the official Barcelona sponsor. Since then, Messi has put Adidas on his back and been its leading seller of signature shoes worldwide.
Giving Back Part of Mbappe's Character
Giving back to the less fortunate has always been part of Kylian Mbappe's character — even as a teenager and no doubt rooted in his upbringing in the working-class Paris suburbs.
Mbappe donated all of his winnings from France's 2018 World Cup title, approximately $265,000, to Premiers de Cordee, a foundation for disabled children.
Mbappe seems most passionate about an initiative to grow soccer in Africa, where both of his parents are from, and he's teamed with French president Emmanuel Macron, Liberia president George Weah and FIFA president Gianni Infantino on that front.
Leo's Charity Work Began Early
Lionel Messi started going out of his way to give back at an early age. Messi has been incredibly giving of his money — and time — to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) since he was 17 years old.
He became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2010 after completing a field mission to Haiti following a massive earthquake, where he raised awareness for the plight of the island nation's children due to the devastation.
After visiting a hospital for terminally ill children in Boston in 2007, Messi founded the Leo Messi Foundation, which has supported health care, education and sports for underprivileged children ever since. Bravo, Leo.
Everything Goes Back to Family
Kylian Mbappe's post-goal celebration has become iconic in a short period of time — sliding on his knees, arms across his chest, hands tucked under his armpits. Its inspiration? Kylian's 12-year-old younger brother, Ethan Mbappe, who invented the celebration when he would beat his older brother in FIFA soccer when the two played video games.
Ethan, it turns out, is also very good at actual soccer. He's part of Paris Saint-Germain's youth club and made his PSG debut with their U-12 squad in 2019 at the Mediterranean International Cup, scoring a goal against elite Japanese club Y's Gems.
Messi's Family Brought Him Shame
Lionel Messi's history with his family put him in the international spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, although there is some debate as to his own culpability in the situation by his own account.
In 2013, Messi was accused of tax fraud to the tune of hiding $4.5 million in sponsorship money through various shell companies in Uruguay, Belize and Panama — part of the infamous Panama Papers leak. Messi paid $5.6 million in back taxes and was fined another $1.8 million.
Before the judge, Messi said, "I played football and trusted my father to handle those things."
Mbappe Did It All Before Turning 20
Few players in the history of soccer have accomplished what France's Kylian Mbappe did before he turned 20 years old. Maybe, just one, actually — Brazil's Pele, one of the players in the discussion for the greatest player of all time along with Argentina's Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
As a teenager, Mbappe won a World Cup and two Ligue 1 titles, with both Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. He also brought home the Kopa Trophy as the best player under 21 years old in the world and was named Best Young Player at the World Cup in 2018.
The Bull and the Cougar
This speaks to the uber-popularity of Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi. Both players have had animals named after them at different points in their careers.
A puma born at a zoo in Russia in late 2015, who subsequently became a social media star, was named after Messi.
After France's World Cup title in 2018, a 2,200-pound bull named Mbappe was the first entrant at Argentina's 132nd Livestock, Agriculture and Industry Expo as a tip of the cap to the young superstar.
The message here. You're not the real deal until you get an animal named after you.
What's Next for Mbappe?
Two important milestones will happen for Kylian Mbappe in 2022. That's when his $221 million contract with Paris Saint-Germain runs out and the next World Cup takes place, in Qatar, with France and Mbappe looking to defend their 2018 title.
When Mbappe's transfer does take place or he re-ups with PSG, it will be for one of the largest sums in soccer history.
And there's also more of Pele's records to chase. No country has repeated as World Cup champions since Pele led them to titles in 1958 and 1962.
Both players are beyond impressive, so we expect to be having lots of Messi vs. Mbappe debates in the seasons ahead.