Kylian Mbappe celebrates a goal against Poland. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
It should not be surprising that Kylian Mbappe leads all World Cup scorers with five goals.
He’s just getting into his prime at the age of 23 and in many respects the French star is following in the footsteps of previous World Cup goal-getters.
We don’t know if Mbappe will wind up leading everyone in Qatar as the Golden Boot winner. Of course, the longer France stays alive in the competition – it meets England in the quarterfinals on Saturday – he will get many more opportunities.
Entering Friday’s quarterfinals, eight players were tied with three goals apiece. The age range went from a pair of 21-year-olds – England’s Bukayo Saka and Portugal’s Goncalo Ramos – to a pair of over-30 star – Argentina’s Lionel Messi (35) and France’s Olivier Giroud (36).
In case you were wondering, the average age of the eight runner-up goal-scorers is 26.3.
If we look at the history of the World Cup’s top scorers, an intriguing trend has emerged.
It seems that 25 is the magic number in many instances.
Why? That is the average age of the World Cup scoring champion.
0Well, it’s actually 24., but the number was rounded up to the nearest whole digit.
“This is a young man’s tournament,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said during the 2002 World Cup. “This isn’t for wise old veterans.”
Size might not matter in the World Cup, but age certainly does, especially when it comes to putting the ball into the back of the net. The younger a midfielder or forward is, the better chance he will score a goal or score many goals.
This has been documented by extensive research.
The research was broken into two categories: World Cup scoring champions and players scoring goals under and over the age of 30. From 1954 to 1994, a span of 11 World Cups, the tournament’s leading scorer was either 24 or 25 years old.
That impressive list included France’s Just Fontaine (24), who connected for a Cup record 13 goals in 1958, Portugal’s Eusebio (24), who scored nine goals in 1966, Germany’s Gerd Mueller (24), who found the back of the net 10 times in 1970, Italy’s Paolo Rossi (25), the hero of the 1982 World Cup with six goals, England’s Gary Lineker (25), who collected six goals in 1986, and most recently, Ronaldo (25), who struck for a tournament-best eight goals in 2002.
We think goal-scorers are grizzled veterans. That usually has not been the case.
Of course, there are no absolutes.
The oldest scoring champion was Croatian striker Davor Suker, who connected for six goals at France ’98 at the age of 30. Until Suker performed that feat, Italy’s Angelo Schiavio (28) was the oldest player to lead the World Cup in scoring, in 1934.
It should be noted that Uruguay’s Diego Forlan was 31 when he tied Germany’s Thomas Mueller (21), the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder (26) and Spain’s David Villa (288) for the 2010 scoring lead, but Mueller was awarded the Golden Ball due to FIFA’s tie-breaking procedure.
Recent Golden Boot winners include Germany’s Miroslav Klose (28) in 2006, Colombia’s James Rodriguez (27) and England’s Harry Kane (24).
In another telling statistic, it was discovered that 75.1 percent of the goals scored through the 2002 tournament have been tallied by players 29-years-old or less. Since (and including when) Lucien Laurent found the back of the net for France in the very first World Cup match in 1930, 1916 goals had been scored through 2002.
According to this research (again, through 2002), 1,264 of 1,681 goals scored were by players who were 29 or under. A total of 235 goals could not be verified because of age discrepancies. Regardless, there definitely is a trend here.
The average age of goal-scorers was 27.1 for the 2002 competition.
It even goes beyond scoring goals. Players such as Diego Maradona (25 when he led Argentina to the 1986 title), Daniel Passarella (25 when he captained Argentina to the 1978 crown), Bobby Moore (25 when he captained England to the 1966 championship) and Carlos Alberto (26 when he captained Brazil in 1970) were all in their prime at the time.
As for the great Pele, he was 17 and 21 when Brazil won in 1958 and 1962, respectively, and 29 when the South Americans emerged victorious in 1970. He was on the other side of 30.
“In this particular area of the game, you need a striker who has strength, power and speed, which you tend to lose a little with time,” said Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who directed Brazil to the USA ’94 title.
“In defenders and goalkeepers you see players who are 34, 35 even 37. They need more experience. They don’t have to run that much to accelerate that much. But in the box, now way (for) players over 32, unless they play like Romario, just standing there.”
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Cameroon’s Roger Milla scored four key goals in the 1990 World Cup as a sprite 38-year-old, but that was as a second-half super sub, not as a starter.
Peru legend Nene Cubillas knows a thing of two about scoring goals. He was the first player to score five goals in two separate World Cups, performing the feat as a 21-year-old in 1970 and a 29-year-old in 1978. He was blanked in three games at Spain ’82, when he was 33.
“When you are younger, you come with all your power,” Cubillas said. “You try hard, you work for 90 minutes. Older players, they are more experienced. They don’t try to run that much. They try to keep … their position. But the young go and back and forth and back and forth.”
Roger Lemerre, who directed France to the European Championship in 2000 and who guided the French to their disastrous first-round elimination in Korea in 2002, felt experience was an important ingredient in the equation.
“As you get older, obviously you are not going to be as strong as when you are younger,” he said. “But as you get older obviously you are a smarter player. So the young players might not have the savvy of an older player, but that’s compensated by their speed. It’s a balance.
“There is a saying in France: ‘The strong takes over the weak ones.’ The speed takes over strength. But intelligence takes over everybody. You cannot disassociate one from another. But once in a while you have a younger player who is very talent, very smart.”
While players might be in fabulous shape and in their physical prime in their teen years, Aime Jacquet, who guided France to the World Cup crown in 1998, said that players in their mid-twenties excel for several reasons.
“That’s normal because in that age group under 30 they are very confident,” he said. “They also have a lot of years of playing under their belt as they have a better feeling for the game, compared to a 17- or 18-year-old player. They’re more mature players and have a better feel for the game at 28-years-old than a 17-year-old.”
Some coaches, however, learned the hard way. Take the case of what happened to Argentina in 2002. Coach Marcelo Bielsa, considered a master tactician (he guided the Argentines to the 2004 Olympic gold medal prior to resigning) decided to start 33-year-old Gabriel Batitusta instead of 26-year-old Hernan Crespo, who was in his prime. Batitusta, revered in his homeland, had several chances and scored in a 1-0 victory over Nigeria, but was not much of a factor in the two remaining first-round matches. Crespo was relegated to a reserve role and Argentina was relegated to an embarrassing first-round elimination.