“He played on the same team as me when I was younger,” Mehdi Salem, a Marseille native, told me on the train from Ekaterinburg to Moscow where we were heading to watch France play their last FIFA World Cup group game against Denmark on June 26. We had all just witnessed one of the games of the tournament -- a 2-2 draw between Japan and Senegal -- and the train was buzzing with positivity.
Salem, and his companions Jean Baptiste and Francois, are among a small band of hard core France supporters who follow the team wherever it goes. Four years ago, they were in Brazil and, they said, four years from now they will be in Qatar. At that point, though, the focus of the conversation was the man holding the key to France’s run in Russia. And the key to how much further le Bleus might go -- N’Golo Kante.
“I was under 18 at the time and he was playing under-14,” Salem added. “Then he moved to another club and we played against them, beating them 2-1, I think. A few years later, suddenly, everyone is talking about this same kid and that Marseille want to sign him. I couldn’t believe it.”
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Salem’s experience underlines the incredulity that comes with any reading of Kante’s story. Eight years ago, during the 2009-10 season, the Paris-born Frenchman was playing in the ninth tier in France. He was 19. At a similar age Eden Hazard -- the Belgian against whom Kante will line up on July 10 and with whom he now plays in the English Premier League for Chelsea -- was well on his way to 100 Ligue 1 appearances and had already played in European competition. Four year later, in the 2014-15 season at Caen, Kante topped the French first division in both interceptions and tackles made. Somehow, in a system that overemphasized size and physicality alone, Kante had spent years flying under the radar.
Despite spending a chunk of his youth career literally on the doorsteps of Paris Saint Germain (PSG), Kante was a relative unknown. Marcelo Bielsa, Marseille’s Argentine coach, wanted to team Kante up with Idrissa Gueye to revitalise his midfield and give them the engine needed to compete with the likes of PSG and Monaco.
We all know, much to Salem’s anguish, how that story turned out. Kante was then not a big enough name to warrant a prudent Marseille splashing the extra cash that would have kept him from joining Leicester City. To say Marseille’s loss was Leicester’s gain is an understatement of the grandest proportions.
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At the midlands club, perhaps tipped for relegation in their first season up in the Premier League, Kante was an essential element in a delightful squad assembled by the wily Claudio Ranieri. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy might have grabbed the headlines, but it was Kante’s role in Leicester’s midfield that their game was built on.
One year later, not even half a decade from ninth-division obscurity, Kante won the Premier League for the second time in a row and also took home both the Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year awards.
At the Euro in 2016, Kante was an integral part of Didier Deschamps’ squad in a run that ended only in the final. Two years on, with Deschamps still at the helm, it seems the core of the team has now reached the level of maturity required to be considered serious contenders for the World Cup.
Following an easy opening round, where they were not really challenged, France had to face an Argentina gunning to bring home the Cup for Lionel Messi. It is not often that a rival midfielder has established that sort of dominance over Messi during the course of 90 minutes.
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Sure, Messi did pick up an assist. But it is also true that for a majority of the game Kante rendered him impotent. Invisible, even. He had played the precise role demanded by the coach -- and a team otherwise lacking solidity around the middle -- to perfection.
Once again, the accolades went to the man scoring the goals. Kylian Mbappe, playing a World Cup at 19 (remember where Kante was?), scored a brace and grabbed the headlines. Kante did not care. With barely a word, as has been standard for the midfielder since his days as a junior, he got on with the job.
The day before the first semi-final, Hazard called Kante the best in the world. “When he is at his best, you have a 95 per cent chance to win the game,” Hazard added. And Kante is rarely below his best.
The brilliance of the likes of Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann has been on display for the world to see. In an increasingly result-oriented football environment, the man scoring the goal receives a disproportionate amount of credit for his role in the team’s eventual performance. Yes, Mbappe’s pace and footwork and Griezmann’s ability to do a hundred different things on the football pitch will always elicit joy and wonderment. But without the complicity of Kante in the middle and his Chelsea teammate Olivier Giroud in front, France will find the going extremely hard against a Belgian side riddled with star players who are aching to make an impact.
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After the drudgery of France’s opening 70 minutes against Australia, Deschamps brought Olivier Giroud on as the target man leading the line. Ever since then -- despite the 0-0 with Denmark -- France have looked a complete side.
Neither Argentina, nor Uruguay in the quarterfinals, could match the French in terms of movement, transition and the ability to create chances. In the battle of flair and function it will be the latter that will make the critical difference. By bringing this solidity to an otherwise flamboyant French team, Kante and Giroud have added what might just be the winning edge.