Kylian Mbappe and Achraf Hakimi: a very special kind of bromance

When Kylian Mbappe had a day off at the World Cup last week, there was one obvious place to go.

Chedi Katara Hotel & Resort is around a 20-minute drive from Al Mesilla, the central Doha hotel where the France squad are staying, and is as opulent as you would expect for a five-star establishment occupying a prime position on the bay.

Mbappe, however, was not seeking R&R from his short trip north. Rather, he was visiting Achraf Hakimi, the Morocco defender who has emerged as one of the stars of this World Cup and is among the French striker’s closest friends in football.

The pair posed by the hotel’s entrance, with Mbappe tweeting a picture along with – among other things – an emoji of the Moroccan flag. The pair spent the day with other mutual friends including the French-Moroccan actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze.

For Mbappe, it was a brief moment of respite from the intensity of this particularly compressed World Cup, and it was no surprise that he chose to enjoy it with Hakimi. 

Mbappe’s social media feeds are pockmarked with pictures of him with the great and good – from Paris Saint-Germain colleagues Neymar and Lionel Messi, to former France international Thierry Henry to Spider-Man actor Tom Holland – but nobody features as often as Hakimi in his feeds.

Born within six weeks of each other in 1998, the pair have formed a close bond over their 18 months together at PSG, but their friendship has significance well beyond their own worlds.

It was a factor in Mbappe deciding last summer whether to sign a new contract or leave for Real Madrid, one of Hakimi’s former clubs, and has also been beneficial for their ultimate employers, the Qatari government, which owns the French champions and is also running this World Cup.

Now, these two allies have been pitted against each other, as Morocco – the first African team to make the last four of the World Cup – face defending champions France on Wednesday for a place in Sunday’s final. It is an occasion that will test their relationship but few expect events at the Al Bayt Stadium to leave lasting wounds: Mbappe and Hakimi seem too close for that.  

There is no shortage of common ground for these two young footballers who now find themselves pitched against each other on the grandest stage of all.

Both grew up on the periphery of a huge European capital – Hakimi in Getafe, outside Madrid, and Mbappe in Bondy, close to Paris. They shared parental links to Africa, with Hakimi’s parents Hassan and Saida moving from Morocco before he was born, while Mbappe’s father Wilfried is from Cameroon and his mother Fayza Lamari has an Algerian background.

Each had also enjoyed startling success by their late teens, as they adhered to carefully mapped-out career paths. In 2018, Mbappe – who had already moved from Monaco to PSG, initially on loan – won a World Cup with France; Hakimi, meanwhile, picked up Champions League and Club World Cup winner’s medals with Madrid, the club he played for throughout his youth before he was loaned to Borussia Dortmund and then sold to Inter Milan in 2020.

So when Hakimi joined Mbappe at PSG in July last year, moving from Inter for €60million (£51.5m, $63.8m), the Parisian quickly recognised a kindred spirit. He made an immediate effort to help Hakimi settle in, enjoying practising the excellent Spanish he had learned as a teenager, and they were soon seen as inseparable by their team-mates. The club even gave the new arrival the locker bedside that of his new friend.

The pair had a shared interest in music and fashion, while Hakimi’s wife Hiba Abouk, a Tunisian-Spanish actor, was connected to a media world which Mbappe is very interested in.

“It has all been spontaneous,” Hakimi told Telefoot in April 2022. “From the day I arrived, when you meet someone like him, the same age, the same personality, the same character. We are two kids. It all just flows naturally.”

Hakimi may have found an ally in Mbappe, and scored twice on his Ligue 1 debut against Metz, but in others respects his early career at PSG was bumpy.

Having played as an attack-minded wing-back at Inter, he was being asked by then-PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino to assume more defensive duties in a back four. In October he was sent off in a 0-0 against Marseille for a professional foul, having been caught as the last man against a counter-attack.

Pochettino felt that Hakimi had to work more on the defensive side of his game, as did some of his team-mates. There was also a feeling among some staff and older colleagues that his reaction to advice, or criticism, betrayed a certain immaturity.

There were clashes with other players, too.

The relationship with Angel Di Maria – the man who played immediately ahead of him up the right wing – was rocky and there was also a training ground clash with midfielder Leandro Paredes, a dispute which saw Mbappe back up his friend. The two Argentines were firmly within the South American clique at PSG which also now included Messi and Neymar, who had built a strong friendship themselves during their time together at Barcelona.

Mbappe had never become part of this Spanish-speaking group. Despite being fluent in the language, he was significantly younger than those players, and there seemed almost a generational gap that was difficult to bridge.

Hakimi was much more on his wavelength, and became a key part of his inner social circle, along with close friend and hairdresser Brice Tchaga and Debbouze, who is a PSG fan. Mbappe even became his unofficial cheerleader during the Africa Cup of Nations in January, tweeting this tribute when Hakimi hammered in a 30-yard free kick to beat Malawi and put Morocco into the quarter-finals.

Hakimi’s clear talent and ability meant he overcame tactical questions to become an important player for Pochettino.

He finished the season with six assists, four of which were on Mbappe goals. His friend also returned the favour, setting him up to score in a league game against Strasbourg in April.

These collaborations allowed for the development of shared goal celebrations which incorporated their shared interests in music and computer games and made their close relationship clear to fans.

Mbappe and Hakimi both had points to prove when PSG visited the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for a Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid in February.

Mbappe had underlined his status as the French team’s outstanding player in the first leg, scoring a superb late goal to give PSG a 1-0 win and ‘half-time’ advantage, and the Bernabeu crowd cheered him during the return as they attempted to play their part in securing his anticipated summer transfer.

Hakimi was also welcomed back as a former player, and while the stadium was quietened when Mbappe made it 2-0 on aggregate, PSG’s late capitulation to yet another Madrid ‘remontada’ comeback was enough to dash the striker’s Champions League ambitions once again. 

It all seemed likely to boost the chances of Mbappe choosing to move to Madrid when his PSG contract ended a few months later, but no final decision had been made. And this is where Hakimi came in. The Moroccan was an ally and confidante of Mbappe as he and his camp considered what to do, and often found himself the target of reporters’ enquiries about his friend’s future. 

“Mbappe is one of the best players in the world, and my friend,” Hakimi said in April. “I want him to stay here (at PSG), he knows that. He will decide what he believes is best for his career. And I will support him.”

It then seemed especially meaningful when Mbappe and Hakimi took a trip back to Madrid in May. They had lunch at the fashionable Lena restaurante run by celebrity chef Dani Garcia, just a few kilometres from the Bernabeu, via the city’s long, leafy Castellana boulevard. 

That visit was made with a deal to join Madrid already agreed in principle, but PSG were still trying to persuade Mbappe to stay. The club’s Qatari owners offered more and more in terms of both money and influence in decision-making – including, reportedly, power over which players, coaches and directors were or weren’t retained in the summer.

When Mbappe finally decided to sign a new deal at PSG, Hakimi was the first team-mate he told — a few days before the rest of the squad found out and half an hour before the news was made public by PSG. Even Pochettino learnt of the decision well after Mbappe’s best friend had been told.

Hakimi joked about this situation on Spanish TV show La Resistencia on May 27, recalling Gerard Pique’s infamous “se queda” (“he’s staying”) tweet about Neymar, before the Brazilian left Barcelona for PSG in summer 2017. “I should have taken a selfie like Pique,” Hakimi smiled.

While Hakimi was struggling to show his best form in the PSG team, there had also been a possibility that he might look to leave in the summer — especially if Mbappe was going. Instead they both stayed, and saw their positions within the club strengthened, initially at least. Pochettino left, as did sporting director Leonardo, while the South American clique was broken up with Paredes and Di Maria both moving to Juventus.

Sure enough, a few days after Mbappe’s new contract was confirmed in May, the two friends were together at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hakimi and his wife posed for the cameras on the red carpet. They were also VIP guests at the Marrakech du Rire comedy festival, founded by Debbouze, in June.

Achraf Hakimi and Hiba Abouk at the Cannes film festival (Photo: Joe Maher/Getty Images)

Both Hakimi and Mbappe are aware of their status as social, as well as sporting, icons. 

Abouk told Vogue Arabia in October – when she and her husband were its cover stars – that “we represent something in the Arab world”, and that understanding has been obvious in Hakimi’s displays during this World Cup in Qatar, where Morocco have gathered mass support across Arabia and Africa.

The photo of Hakimi searching out his mother, wearing a traditional headscarf, to kiss her after Morocco’s games during this World Cup has been one of the viral images of this tournament, and its cultural significance – especially in the Islamic world – has been keenly felt.

Mbappe is also comfortable speaking out about social issues. His foundation helps underprivileged children in Paris, while his production company is working on a project centring on the life of a Syrian refugee. He has also been vocal about the problem of racism in football, even publicly criticising the president of the French football federation for not taking the issue seriously enough. Hakimi has also spoken about experiencing racism while growing up in Madrid.

Qatari-owned PSG have also made use of the pair’s relationship when speaking to fans in the Middle East.

The club marked the Eid Mubarak holiday in May by producing and sharing a video in which Hakimi guides Mbappe through different foods from Arab countries. Hakimi takes it very seriously, showing his knowledge of the different cultures across the region. Mbappe looked more at ease in front of the cameras as he chomped on sweet pastries.

One message from the video is that Mbappe, although six weeks younger, is the ‘older brother’ of the pair. Others who have worked with them also say that the Frenchman is the more mature, even though he is single while Hakimi is married with two children.

Another insight into their relationship came in September, when a video emerged in an Amazon Prime promotion showing Mbappe remonstrating with his friend for not passing him the ball during a game last season. When the full-back apologised, he replied: “It’s not enough to be sorry, just give me the ball.”

This was Mbappe, in his role as PSG’s ultimate team leader and setter of standards, not even going easy on his best pal.

“(Achraf) has to keep up these standards,” Mbappe said around the same time. “I know him intimately and he has returned this year with other intentions, being demanding every day. He had more difficult moments last season, he was adapting.”

That has not had any impact on their friendship.

On November 8, they were together again in Spain, having been invited by PSG team-mate Sergio Ramos to his stud farm near Seville. The long-time Real Madrid and Spain defender is 36 but has been able to connect with his two younger team-mates, sharing their interest in celebrity culture and knowledge of the power of social media. Four days earlier, Mbappe had marked Hakimi’s birthday with another Instagram post.

That came as Mbappe’s club future was again in question, with his relationship with team-mates including Neymar not having resolved to his satisfaction, even after he committed his future to PSG at the end of last season. But he could again count on the support of his best friend.

The biggest moment of Hakimi’s career came 24 hours after Mbappe’s visit to the Morocco team hotel.

His ‘Panenka’ penalty to eliminate Spain, the country where he was born, from the round of 16 was made even more memorable by the penguin-dance celebration afterwards, something which also linked back to his friend.

‘Pinguino’ is a nickname that Hakimi and Ramos use for their team-mate in Paris, and the former signed a ball with just that word when Mbappe scored a hat-trick in a 7-1 Ligue 1 win over Lille in August.

Amid the political hotbed that is the Parc des Princes dressing room, there may have been a secret meaning, for those in on the joke. Reports in France claimed that the ‘Penguin’ Mbappe is supposed to resemble is not the cute animal but the supervillain adversary of Batman, of whom Neymar is a huge fan. This came just after the public disagreement between the pair over penalty-taking duties for PSG.

Whatever the meaning of Hakimi’s celebration, Mbappe enjoyed the moment — and reached for his phone, of course.

When Mbappe played his part as France beat England 2-1 last Saturday to qualify for today’s semi-final, Hakimi was also watching. Obviously.

There almost seemed to be an inevitability to the two players – Mbappe, France’s left-sided attacker, and Hakimi, Morocco’s right-sided defender – facing each other directly on the pitch. 

When PSG were in Doha last January for a training camp during Ligue 1’s winter break, the two players were filmed together at the Education City Stadium — which almost a year later would be the venue for Morocco’s victory over Spain.

During the video, Mbappe predicts that France will win this World Cup, after beating Morocco along the way. “It will break my heart a little bit, but that is football,” he says, while smiling at his friend. “It is what it is — I have to kill him.”

It is clearly a joke, but now Mbappe has the chance to put that scenario to the test.

Whatever happens today, however, do not expect this friendship formed in the white heat of publicity, and played out to millions of social media followers, to be destroyed by the result. 

(Top photo design: Eamonn Dalton)

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