DOHA, Qatar -- Four years is a long time in football, yet the players will tell you that time flew between Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. For some, it may have felt even quicker.
Since winning the World Cup four years ago, Kylian Mbappe's life has been a whirlwind of emotion and success. In no particular order: There was the decision to stay at Paris Saint-Germain and snub Real Madrid last May; missing the decisive penalty in France's round-of-16 shootout defeat to Switzerland at Euro 2020; the 2020 Champions League final loss to Bayern Munich after missing a big chance when the score was still 0-0. There's the three Ligue 1 titles won, the 193 goals scored, the 93 assists registered, the formation of the partnership with Neymar and Lionel Messi and the 2021 UEFA Nations League triumph.
Most important, though, is Mbappe is obviously not the same player that he was four years ago.
"Kylian in 2018 was not the same player. He didn't have the same personality," France teammate Antoine Griezmann said. "We see him much more in the group now and at training. He talks a lot and puts a lot of joie de vivre into the everyday life of the team."
Let's not forget that the Mbappe of 2018 was a prodigy, still only 19 years old, considered "up-and-coming" and still unproven to a certain extent. However, the Mbappe of 2022 is on another planet. He is 23, the best player in this World Cup, the best player in the world, and truly a global superstar in his own right.
His evolution on the field, in the way he plays, the way he scores, the way he behaves, is pretty obvious. "He has taken his game to the next level," striker Olivier Giroud said. "He has improved in every level. He is stronger, smarter, quicker, a better finisher."
The Mbappe of 2018 was very driven, but he had not yet found his voice. He wanted to be the best in the world, but at that stage, he still had to improve and learn. The Mbappe of 2022 is not far from the finished article. He excels in every department, especially in front of goal, where he has become even more clinical: 50% of his shots are on target this season compared to 45% last season.
Of course, there's still room for improvement. Sometimes he dribbles too much, and he could be better in the air. There is also some progress to be made when he plays on his own up front, receiving the ball with his back to goal.
Overall though, the Mbappe of 2022 walks all over the Mbappe of 2018. He is more of a leader now, and it's so obvious in this competition.
Like Griezmann acknowledged, Mbappe is one of the bosses of the France dressing room. In 2018, he was still keeping a low profile, eating his pasta and salmon, relaxing with his PlayStation and getting on with it at training. In 2022, he is far more vocal: He teases people to keep the mood light and takes it upon himself to guide the group, especially the younger generation. He clashed with the French FA over image rights in the name of the squad, all of whom were fully behind him. He will wear the captain's armband (currently with veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris) sooner rather than later, there is no doubt, and that will perhaps see his next evolution.
"He knows he is important for us and that every move will be watched by the fans, the journalists, his teammates," Griezmann said. "He is irreproachable."
Thanks to his exploits on the pitch, Mbappe has become a global superstar. His social media following is huge (9.39 million followers on Twitter, 75.8m on Instagram), his sponsorship deals are massive (he's No. 35 on the Forbes list of the highest-paid athletes) and he has the potential to enter pop culture conversation in a way players like David Beckham have before him.
One of Mbappe's most famous quotes is something he said to his friend Antoine Le Roy for a documentary on French broadcaster Canal+ in May 2018: "Don't talk to me about age. If you are good enough, you are on the pitch, period. There is no 'you have the age, or you don't have the age.'" He was right, even if he still had a long way to go despite all his incredible talent.
Four years on, he must be happy with where he is and how far he's come. And in four years' time, how much more will the Mbappe of 2026 have grown? There's no reason to suggest he won't continue to get better and better.