Euro 2020 was supposed to be the next step on Kylian Mbappe’s path to greatness and France’s golden chance to become world and European champions, only for their campaign to end with a painful failure in a penalty shoot-out.
A defeat on penalties by Switzerland, with Mbappe having the decisive spot-kick saved, after a remarkable 3-3 draw in the last 16 saw France become the first World Cup holders to fail to reach the Euro quarter-finals since Italy did not qualify for the tournament in 1984.
The recall of the exiled Karim Benzema had appeared to further strengthen the team who lifted football’s biggest prize three years ago, but Didier Deschamps’ men never managed to hit those heights again.
Questions will be asked in France of why a team boasting a plethora of attacking talent were unable to beat Hungary and Switzerland, with Deschamps’ tactics, Mbappe’s lack of goals and a shaky defence sure to be under the microscope.
“It’s very difficult to move on from this,” Mbappe said on social media. “There’s an immense sadness after this elimination.”
But France and Mbappe will have to quickly forget their defeat and ensure the mistakes which cost them in Bucharest are not repeated at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The pre-tournament favourites at Euro 2020 can claim they were still unbeaten, barring penalties, and their World Cup title defence is just 17 months away.
Mbappe burst onto the international scene in Russia in 2018, scoring four goals and becoming the first teenager to net in the World Cup final since Pele 60 years earlier.
But he endured a frustrating European championship, starting with a disallowed goal and ending with Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s save from what proved to be France’s last kick.
“I’m sorry for the penalty. I wanted to help the team but I failed,” said the 22-year-old.
“It will be difficult to find sleep tonight but unfortunately those are the risks of this sport that I love so much.”
Despite going four games without a goal, Mbappe was a threat throughout the tournament, only to be let down by his finishing, usually so deadly.
A failure to stay onside denied him a brilliant individual goal in the opening 1-0 group phase win over Germany, before he missed two big chances in extra time against the Swiss.