As hard as it might be to imagine in an age of aging but imperishable superathletes like Roger Federer, Tom Brady, and LeBron James––eventually time will force the world’s biggest sports stars to stop playing. Someday, neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will be scoring goals for professional soccer teams anymore.
That time will come too late for the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Eden Hazard, and Harry Kane. Too much of their careers, even the 26-year-old Kane’s, have already happened in the massive shadow of the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly. The other three footballers are all stars, but when people regard this time and whatever comes next, they won’t be the stars. Even Neymar, long tipped as the heir-apparent, seems destined to go down as an interstitial footnote. When the time comes to replace Messi and Ronaldo as the faces of the global game, kingmakers will instead look toward the youth. That youth will be on full display Tuesday, Feb. 18, as Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé meets Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland in the Champions League.
Mbappé has been on the horizon ever since his breakout season with Monaco in 2016–2017, but he rocketed to superstardom as the 19-year-old danger man in France’s World Cup–winning side the next year. He scored 33 goals in the French league last season without the benefit of being his team’s main penalty taker. When he gets the ball on his feet in space he looks like a stunt from the new Top Gun movie performed live.
This year Haaland, a 6-foot-4 Norwegian 19-year-old, has risen to meet Mbappé, like a kaiju emerging from the water on the edge of some unsuspecting metropolis. Haaland began the year with Red Bull Salzburg, scored 16 goals in 14 games in the Austrian Bundesliga this fall, a hat trick in his Champions League debut, and goals against the likes of Liverpool and Napoli in that tournament. He moved to Dortmund during the January transfer window and promptly scored seven times in his first three games, two of which he didn’t even start.
The effect of seeing him line up across from your favorite team must be terrifying; his giant Nordic blond profile is less Thor than it is Ivan Drago, Roy Batty, and every bad guy Kiefer Sutherland played in the ’80s stacked atop one another’s shoulders. “He looks frightening,” former Manchester United midfielder Lee Sharpe told Talksport, putting the finest possible point on it. “He would be the sort of player United would embrace.”
Which is what seemed destined to happen in January. United, desperate both for firepower and star power, pursued Haaland hard leading up to the midseason transfer window. Haaland played for United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Molde in Norway. The young striker’s father, Alf-Inge Haaland, played professionally in England for a decade. It made too much sense. United was going to pay whatever it took to get him, and he was going to become the blond beast of the Premier League for the next 15 years.
Except it didn’t happen. Solskjaer will be canned sometime either before or shortly after the end of the season. Haaland’s father’s career in England is defined largely by his feud with former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane; the elder Haaland was once quoted as saying, “I really dislike United and I can’t stand their players.” And United maybe loves its money more than it loves winning. The club blamed the demands of Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola for its failure to sign him. Haaland says he preferred Dortmund’s sales pitch.
It’s not hard to see why. Dortmund is European soccer’s premier finishing school. There Haaland plays with the best young English player, the best young Moroccan player, and a slew of talented German prospects, all tutored by some German and Belgian veterans. Its alums include Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Christian Pulisic, and countless other recognizable faces who have made the move to bigger clubs. Haaland’s rise has been quick, but he’s hitting every rung on the ladder. His move to Dortmund is in some ways an acknowledgement that he’s not a finished product, a rare-in-European-soccer sign of humility.
Nor does he look like some indomitable goal-scoring robot as he chases after the ball. He hunches as he runs so that his head and his knees always appear to be in front of the rest of him. His long arms fly out in all directions as he sprints and turns and shoots; it often looks as though his upper and lower bodies are attempting to carry out two different tasks. His balance is other-worldly but improvisational. He’s always teetering on the edge of off-kilter, like a Boston Dynamics blooper reel.
But the results are unimpeachable. He’s tied for third in the weighted rankings for the European Golden Boot. He’s dominating the German Bundesliga as if he were the protagonist of a Matt Christopher book, winning its January Player of the Month award despite only playing for 60 minutes. When he failed to score Feb. 8 against Bayer Leverkusen it was the first time all season he’s played 90 minutes in a game and not scored. Against Eintracht Frankfurt on Friday, he scored in the 54th minute to notch his eighth goal in his first five games, a Bundesliga record.
He scores wonderfully silly instinctive goals, such as glancing a set piece delivery off the back of his skull while spinning. He’s got the bottom corners of the net on permalock, like a FIFA video game player who knows just how far to tilt the stick to hit his spot. More impressive than how Haaland uses his massive frame to box out defenders is how early he does it, a testament to his anticipation. Guys get sealed off before they even recognize there’s danger. He reaches his full baby gazelle sprint while the defender is still accelerating.
At Dortmund, he has teammates who can get him the ball where he needs it. That aforementioned best young English player is assist wizard and fellow 19-year-old Jadon Sancho. Achraf Hakimi, the 21-year-old Moroccan, has six assists this season. Thorgan Hazard, Eden’s brother, has nine already. Haaland won’t lack for service, which at this point in his career he needs. He’s not as versatile a player as Messi or Ronaldo were at his age; we tend to think of the biggest offensive stars of the modern era as those who can dribble past or pass around defenders and then score the goals. In this regard, Sancho is a more complete player than Haaland, and will likely command a larger transfer fee when the two move on from Dortmund.
Mbappé too is more in this mode. He plays as if he was reared in a lab by Nike brand executives on a diet of Thierry Henry highlights and that one World Cup commercial where they play three vs. three in a cage. Mbappé scores goals, but he also dribbles past defenders and plays passes that generate chances for his teammates. (He could probably try a little harder on defense, but who among us couldn’t?) The biggest thing holding his career back now—other than the still-looming shadows of Messi and Ronaldo—is how frictionless it’s been playing for PSG in France. He coasts to the Ligue 1 title every year but also slams into a roadblock in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. This year that barrier could be Sancho, Haaland, and Dortmund.
Haaland is only 19. There’s plenty of time for him to expand his game into something more well-rounded, to better learn how to use his size to hold the ball up and set up chances for his teammates and his long stride to press opposing defenders. If he doesn’t, then the only way his reputation will keep pace with his more versatile peers is to keep putting the ball in the net at a ridiculous rate. He’s on eight goals in six games in the Champions League thus far. Would you bet against him Tuesday?