N’Golo Kanté: The People’s Champion

N’Golo Kanté. The people’s champion. The shy and humble superstar who in three years has gone from a complete nobody to a World Cup winner and a two-time Premier League champion. The man who claims to be human, yet plays like he’s got 100 Fortnite shield potion and other-worldly stamina. The man who, despite being slated for lack of technical ability and footballing brain by the *slower* football fan; will press, pass and tackle your whole team out of the game. Just ask Argentina.

Kanté was born to Malian immigrants on March 29, 1991. His father, who died when N’Golo was 11, was a refuse collector, while his mother was a cleaner. N’Golo was the middle of NINE children (4 brothers, 4 sisters) who all shared a small flat in the Rueil-Malmaison district of Paris. All his siblings were taught by their parents that humility and hard work were the only ways you could and would make it in life, traits that Kanté still carries to this day. Despite being one of the best midfielders–no, players in football–he wouldn’t let you know it until he reached the pitch. As a devout Muslim, Kanté prays regularly, and in England, a nation where Islam is so often vilified, Kanté has shown the beauty of his religion throughout his work.

The Hadith, which ranks second only to the Quran in terms of religious law and moral guidance in the Islamic faith, gives a valuable lesson that Kanté has certainly learned and applied throughout his life. “None shall enter the Fire (of Hell) who has in his heart the weight of a mustard seed of Iman and none shall enter Paradise who has in his heart the weight of a mustard seed of pride.”

Kanté made his professional debut at 21 in 2012 at Ligue 2 side Boulogne. While most players with his current ability and status were touted by all the big clubs in the world and being groomed for starting berths at 18/19, Kanté would take a far more complex route to that long-awaited debut.

With many big teams turned off from him due to his small stature and a style of play that didn’t seem to match up, it was hard for N’Golo to find a club. He had gone through trials at Rennes, Sochaux and Lorient, but to no avail. This is a fact that still befuddles me and most football fans to this day: how a man built like that can run up and down a pitch for 500 minutes if he wanted to, all the while winning possession over and over again. From the age 8 to 18, he was at JS Suresnes, a local Parisian team, and due to many not knowing what they wanted with him, the president of Suresnes had to get him his first opportunity at Boulogne, knowing the talent he had was simply too good for Suresnes. 

After that, his incredible rise was brewing. On August 10, 2012, Kanté scored his first professional goal against Luzenac, in Boulogne’s Stade de la Libération. There, in the Championnat National, France’s third tier, Kanté would begin to prove his value, and in January, he was voted as Boulogne’s best player for the first half of the season. In a torrid Boulogne side that finished 13th, Kanté consistently stood out from the rest, and while certain skeptics dubbed him “brouillon,” or sloppy and unorganized, his performances were good enough to make the move up. Stade Malherbe Caen, who had just finished four points off promotion, sealed him and then-21-year-old midfielder Dennis Appiah as the first signings of their summer window.

On the back of his brilliant performances, Caen won promotion to Ligue 1. Kanté was voted as Ligue 2’s revelation of the season, and was also named in Ligue 2’s team of the season, while also being named the best defensive midfielder in the league. Alongside Mathieu Duhamel, he formed a rock-solid double pivot in the center of the pitch.

“I am not at all surprised by what he’s doing,” said then-Caen manager Patrice Garande in an interview from April 2014. “He has the physical potential and the technique to win.”

Staying true to his character, the timid Kanté remained humble as ever, revealing how he had never expected to be at the level of Ligue 2. “I never thought I would have the ability to play at the professional level,” said Kanté, who had just turned 23 at the time.

In his only season in Ligue 1, he played 37 matches, keeping Caen up and catching the eyes of stat-a-holics and scouts, as he made the most recoveries in Europe’s top 5 leagues. 

He was brought to Leicester City in the summer of 2015 by the now-notorious Steve Walsh, the man who scouted and facilitated the transfers of the other 2 of the Leicester ‘Big 3’, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. As we all know, after that, the rest was history. In the best way a box-to-box midfielder can do it, he Kanté lit up and enchanted the Premier League. He led them to a Premier League title, and then did the same with Chelsea a year later, winning a PFA Player of the Year award and leading all the defensive stats along the way. 

Kanté has been one of the most scrutinised players in the league since his ascension into the limelight. He never seems to be good enough for some, despite being the best midfielder in the league over the past 3 seasons. He’s improved every season exponentially, but it seems the pseudo-intellectual football purists can’t rate him because he is short, black, and runs around a lot.

The summer of 2018 was just another chink in Kanté’s very very shiny armour at this point. He and Paul Pogba, another player who is heavily criticised unfairly for somehow never being good enough (a discussion for another article) formed an impenetrable midfield partnership and together, showed the world just how good they really are. A Twitter agenda can only work so much magic until it’s stopped and retorted by a World Cup triumph.

Now, you would think that this superstar status would mean he would forget where he came from, flaunt (understandably so), and let everyone know that he’s one of the supreme footballers in the world (something his 8th place Ballon D’Or finish confirmed again), but that’s far from the case. N’Golo Kanté still goes to Mosque every Friday, he keeps in contact with his family, he drives a Mini, the same one since Leicester, he doesn’t go clubbing and get into bar fights just because he can. From winning promotion to Ligue 1, to winning the World Cup, Kanté has stayed true to his humble character all along the ride, and he isn’t changing anytime soon.

They said he wouldn’t be good enough for the Premier League; he won two on the trot. They said he wouldn’t be good enough for the Champions League, he dominated against Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. They said he wouldn’t form a balanced partnership with Paul Pogba, they said he’d get exposed at the World Cup; you know the rest.

By: Mustafa Gueye

Photo: Getty