N’Golo Kanté He never appears close to the spotlight, but he has always been key to his teams shining and pursuing milestones. He is of few words, even marked by shyness, when he is outside the fields, but dressed as a footballer, he is noted for his dedication, for his ability to remove and deliver and even, from time to time, score important goals.
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He was already world champion with France, the country in which he first saw the light (he was born in Paris 30 years ago). He also won the Premier League twice, once as part of a miracle called Leicester City and the other with a team more used to winning in recent times, such as the Chelsea, with which he also won a Europa League. This Saturday, it was vital for his team to win the Champions League and the European Championship to complete a brilliant record.
But to get to the top, lift the World Cup (he hardly does it, as we will tell later), Kanté did not have an easy path. His family came to France from Mali looking for better horizons, in 1980. N’Golo is the oldest of five brothers who, from a very young age, knew the importance of working hard to survive.
The history of the name seemed to mark his destiny. N’Golo was the name of a king of Mali. “We can equate it with what has happened to me in football. This story is very beautiful, it’s true ”, he once said.
But in the beginning he didn’t exactly live like a king. Money was tight and his father died when N’Golo was a child. He had to start working to help his mother, who cleaned houses to survive. Meanwhile, he was walking the streets of Paris looking for material to recycle.
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It was precisely that job collecting garbage that ended up getting him into football. The World Cup in France was coming and Kanté went to the surroundings of the city’s stadiums and to the places where the fans gathered to look for material there. And France won its first world title that year.
The little boy began to get acquainted with the names of the players, especially those who, like him, were descendants of immigrants who came to France looking for a better future, such as Zinedine Zidane (from an Algerian family), Patrick Vieira (world champion with the bleus , but originally from Dakar, Senegal) and Lilian Thuram (born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe). And he began to get excited about looking for a better future.
At age 10 he started playing for his first club, JS Suresnes, which was an amateur. Although he also had flirtations with rugby, where scouts saw him talent. However, he preferred round to oval.
“I didn’t choose my size. When I play I don’t think I’m smaller than others. I do my best. I adapt and fight with what I have.”
Then he tried to try his luck in other more renowned teams, such as Rennes, Sochaux and Lorient, but in all of them he was rejected for the same reason, his stature. It is barely 1.69 meters tall. “I did not choose my size. When I play I don’t think I’m smaller than others. I do the best I can. I adapt and fight with what I have ”, he declared.
For this reason, it was difficult for Kanté to reach the first division and also for the youth teams in France. Some of his contemporaries, such as Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette, were in Colombia at the 2011 U-20 World Cup.
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N’Golo was not yet on the radar. At that time he had just arrived at Boulogne, second division, who signed him a contract as an amateur player. In addition to his ability to run and take off, he had just scored 15 goals for Suresnes, which gave him good prospects.
Those were times when Kanté exuded humility, something he continues to do today. He took the opportunity to study and graduate as an accounting technician while trying to make his way into soccer, and every day he went and returned to training on a skateboard, a trip of a kilometer one way and one kilometer back home.
From the skateboard to the Mini
In 2013 he signed with Caen, who were in the second division, and in his first season, the team achieved promotion to first division. By then he was able to exchange the skateboard for a second-hand Renault Megane, which he kept in his possession for a long time.
Claudio Ranieri saw him play and requested it for Leicester City, where he arrived in 2015, in exchange for 8 million euros and a four-year contract. But at the beginning he did not impact either his figure or his size. Such was the ignorance of his abilities that one day, just arrived in England, he stopped in front of the club’s training center, looking for how to get home. A minor divisions coach found him and asked him if his parents were coming to pick him up.
Already able to buy a better vehicle, Kanté bought the one that he believed best suited his thinking and needs.
I was never that kind of person who loves big cars. When I was young I never had ambition to have one
“I was never that kind of person who loves big cars. When I was young I never had ambition to have one. I drive a Mini. It was the car I bought when I was in Leicester City, my first vehicle in England. A person told me about this brand, I tried it, I liked it and I bought it ”, said Kanté in an interview with the BBC.
The funny thing is that, six years later, he still has it! He kept it despite the fact that, already integrated to Chelsea, he suffered a small accident against a truck. It should be noted that last year he acquired a Mercedes-Benz, although not a sports or convertible model, but a c-class, which is a family sedan.
It is clear that Kanté does not like to run around the streets a lot at the wheel. But he does do it on the pitch: with Leicester City he was key to claiming the only Premier League title in the club’s history, in a tournament where Ranieri sometimes had to stop him.
When Leicester was about to be champion, Ranieri wrote a letter in which he motivated his players, and in which Kanté took a lot of very special lines.
“(Kanté) He was running so much that I thought he must have a complete battery pack hidden in his pants. He never stopped running in training. I had to tell him, ‘Hey, N’Golo, loosen up. Loosen up. Don’t run after every ball, okay? ‘ He replied, ‘Yes, boss. Yes. Okay. ‘ Ten seconds later, I looked again and was running again. I said, ‘One day, I’ll see you cross the ball and shoot it yourself.’ And maybe it was the only thing he needed to do on that team …
People think we play with two in the middle and I say no. Drinkwater plays in the middle and Kanté everywhere
“People think we play with two in the middle and I say no. Drinkwater plays in the middle and Kanté everywhere, ”added one of his teammates at Leicester, Steve Walsh.
Kanté began to dazzle and ask for a clue for the national team. And not just that of France. The Polish Henri Kasperczak tried to convince him to play for Mali, the country of origin of his parents, and his successor, the French Alain Giresse (another footballer of short stature and enormous talent, who shone with the bleus in the World Cup in Spain-82 ), came to speak to his employer. In both cases, the player said he didn’t feel ready to take that step. In the end, life would reward him for that patience.
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Its price grew like foam. Of the 8 million euros that Leicester paid for him, it rose to 38 million, the figure that Chelsea paid for him in 2016. Today, the Transfermarkt portal quotes him at 55 million. And his salary, 325,000 euros a week, is the highest for a Chelsea player in history.
Before arriving at Chelsea, Kanté played his first European Championship with the French national team. And although he was a little shorter (five centimeters), many came to compare him with another player who shone in his position on that team, Claude Makelele. “I see myself reflected in him when he plays, of course. But Kanté is Kanté and he must make his way, ”Makelele said.
Glory in Russia
But where he became a fundamental piece of the national team was at the World Cup in Russia. He was the second player with the most takes and interceptions in that World Cup (11 and 20, respectively). He literally ate the court.
France took the goal to zero in four of the seven games of the tournament, in large part, thanks to their knack for taking off and playing. He was the second player on his team with the most minutes on the court in that tournament (635), behind Raphael Varane (675).
But even as a world champion he did not leave his low profile. He almost left the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow without touching the trophy. In the images of the celebration, it was seen when Steve N’Zonzi had to tell Florian Thauvin to give him the Cup so that Kanté could have it in his hands.
Of course, his teammates were in charge of making very clear their importance for the team in the celebration of the title at the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis. And they did it with a song in which they remembered the moments of concentration, in which Kanté went to the traps to win at the cards.
“N’Golo Kanté, he’s short, he’s nice, he’s managed to stop Messi, but we all know he’s a cheater … N’Golo Kanté!” Read the lyrics, composed by Paul Pogba.
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Kanté continues running like never before, but with much more order; first, with what he did with it Antonio Conte when he arrived at Chelsea, and then, with the work that the German has done Thomas Tuchel.
His last great act, before winning the Champions League against him Manchester City, It was against Real Madrid (a club that has always wanted him), in the semi-final at Stamford Bridge. That day was the great figure. And that day he also showed his humility: he went aboard his Mini Cooper, in the midst of the cheering fans.
In addition to the Champions League, this year Kanté has the dream of the European Championship. And he wants to show that he is whole and ready to help his teams win again. There is a popular phrase in England that defines it from head to toe: “70 percent of the planet is covered by water. The rest, by Kanté ”.
JOSÉ ORLANDO ASCENCIO
Sports Deputy Editor