The making of N'Golo Kante, by those who witnessed his incredible rise
Almost a year has passed since N’Golo Kante lifted the Premier League trophy with Leicester City. The midfielder's smile – all teeth showing – lit up the King Power Stadium as he got his hands on the silverware and enjoyed a brief moment in the limelight. But he was almost too embarrassed to do it.
That moment perhaps encapsulates Kante best. The Frenchman is a quiet and humble person – awkward and shy, but always kind. On the pitch, he's a monster; a combative midfielder who intercepts loose balls, cuts off passing lanes and presses opponents into submission. When he plays, his team is more likely to win, and the trophy he hoised into the air on May 7 last year was a tangible reward for his efforts.
Kante does the work of a superstar without wanting to be one. There's no added baggage with the 25-year-old, and every one of his youth coaches and team-mates – both current and former – rave about his humility and work ethic.
It wasn't always this way – Kante faced more than his fair share of rejections as a child; from Rennes, Sochaux, Amiens, Lorient and even Clairefontaine.
N’Golo has never wanted to be a superstar and even today I know he isn’t bothered by fame
Eric Vandenabeele, a former team-mate at Boulogne, once told Kante while they were watching the Europa League together: "That’s going to be you one day, playing in that competition on the TV." The response? A laugh. "No chance!" N'Golo grinned.
There was sincerity in his surprise – it's the same expression of disbelief seen on Kante’s face when he won Leicester players' Player of the Year award in 2016. He's elite at what he does, but that’s blossomed from his work ethic. He doesn't feel entitled to attention, nor does he ask for it; rather he receives it because there are very few players on the planet who can do what he does.
"N’Golo has never wanted to be a superstar and even today I know he isn’t bothered by fame," said Vandenabeele. "He just wants to be the best he can be."
As well as being humble, Kante is calm and quiet. His former team-mate at Boulogne, Cedric Fabien, confirms as much during a chat with FourFourTwo. "I spoke to him every day," Fabien says. "I'd ask him: 'How are you?' His response was always subdued: ‘I’m fine,’ he’d say. He’s very, very calm, a great guy, and doesn’t speak a lot – it’s a good mentality."
You could say, then, that Chelsea's midfield whippet is no party animal.
"Ha!" Fabien replies at the thought. "But it’s normal. I think it’s in his family culture. It’s normal [for him] not to go to the disco."
Scooter or sportscar
At Caen, Kante arrived at training on a scooter while his colleagues drove Ferraris
Kante instead spent his spare time chasing academic and professional goals, seeing little reward in the noise that nightlife brings. At Boulogne, he attained a diploma in accountancy while also playing through his amateur contract. "He didn't socialize much," Vandanebeele recalled. "He liked to keep himself to himself and never went to parties."
Tomasz Bzymek, Kante’s former youth coach at FC Suresnes, told Sport.pl: "After training, Kante just goes back home and rests. No clubbing, no party lifestyle or sightseeing."
Kante came from the humblest of beginnings – one of nine children, he lost his father aged 11 and grew up in the grey Parisian district of Géraniums in Rueil-Malmaison. The attitude his upbringing engendered hasn't left him. You might say he's the Warren Buffett of footballers – playing for the joy of the game, with little attachment to the materialism that comes with it.
At Caen, the club he spent two seasons at before joining Leicester, Kante arrived at training on a scooter while his colleagues drove Ferraris. According to a former youth coach, Piotr Wojtyna, the midfielder only bought a car – a second-hand Renault, of course – when his mother gave him an earful.
He had no left foot to speak of, but when this was pointed out to him by Wojtyna, he set about improving the flaw immediately
While Kante’s positive attitude and down-to-earth nature remain a constant, his contributions on the pitch are evolving. "He's gotten stronger," Fabien says of his ex-teammate, thoroughly impressed with how much he's improved since leaving Boulogne.
At the age of 10, though, Kante had weaknesses in his game. He had no left foot to speak of, but when this was pointed out to him by Wojtyna, he set about improving the flaw immediately. Within two months, he could juggle the ball 100 times on his weak side.
There was more to work on. Kante was short – two heads shorter than many of the boys he was playing with – and not overly strong. But even now, still only 5ft 6in, he's rarely outdone physically.
"He's so intelligent – like Iniesta," says Fabien. "He's so young, yet calm and intelligent. N'Golo is very important to the team because he’s very good at pressing and making the simple pass. He brings so much intelligence to the field."
— Iain Rodger (@IainRodger1) December 18, 2016