Les Herbiers (France) (AFP) – When little Les Herbiers come up against Kylian Mbappe and co. in Tuesday’s French Cup final clash with the mighty Paris Saint-Germain, they could be forgiven for freezing on the big stage.
Rarely has a showpiece game appeared such a mismatch as this, which will pit the third-division minnows against one of the most expensively-assembled sides in the history of the game.
With Neymar still not fit, Mbappe will be the costliest player on show, with PSG committing 180 million euros ($215m) to sign the teenage sensation from Monaco.
But not all of the unheralded Les Herbiers players will be star-struck, least of all little Rodrigue Bongongui.
For the 25-year-old is looking forward to a reunion with Mbappe, who is almost six years his junior.
The two crossed paths briefly at AS Bondy, a club from the Paris suburbs, only a short distance from the Stade de France where they will run out in front of as many as 80,000 fans on Tuesday evening.
After Les Herbiers and PSG won through to the final last month, Bondy posted a picture on Instagram showing a smiling Mbappe, still an infant and wearing a red jacket, joining in a photo of Bongongui’s team.
“I remember it. We were preparing for a home game with AS Bondy, the club where I grew up,” Bongongui told AFP of the photo that was taken 15 years ago.
“Before each match we would often watch the young ones play. At that time I think he was with the ‘poussins’ (the youngest age group).
“That day, one of my best friends, who is closer to him, told him to get in the photo with us because he was just part of the family.”
– Watched from afar –
Fate has now brought them back together, albeit in different colours.
After all, the two players are not in the same class, with Mbappe, despite his still tender years, already regarded as one of the finest forwards on the planet.
“We knew he was a future star and he has shown it. It makes us proud but it is not a surprise,” said Bongongui.
Mbappe is still a teenager but he has already won two French Ligue 1 titles, with Monaco last year and now PSG. He has starred in the latter stages of the Champions League and will go to the World Cup with France.
“He was highly coveted from a very young age. His parents deserve to be congratulated for all they have done to help him make the right choices,” added Bongongui.
“Because there are plenty of players who are seen as future talents, but who never make it.”
The considerable age gap means that the two players were never really close to one another.
“We haven’t spoken since. I have followed him sometimes on Instagram, and his achievements at Monaco.
“I have followed it all from a distance, but in any case I knew he would become the great player he is now.”
Bongongui’s own career path has been modest, even if he joined Sedan a short while after the famous photo and went on to become a professional.
He has played in the second division, most recently in the capital with Paris FC, but joined Les Herbiers in the third division last year.
Their season has been split between trying to avoid relegation to the amateur fourth tier and going on a remarkable Cup run.
And now Bongongui can look forward to seeing Mbappe again.
“In general we see him on TV, so now we can’t wait to see what it will be like coming up against him in real life.
“We will see if he remembers me, because he was little, but of course I would like to exchange a few words with him, and maybe swap shirts as well.”