KING OF HEARTS
Why everybody loves N'Golo Kante
“I said to him ‘It’s a great story, but you have to be careful in future. You’re not just anyone so you can’t go somewhere with just anyone.’
“He laughed at me and responded: ‘No, but it is just a normal thing for me to do. There is no problem.’
“I told him, ‘What is normal for you may not be normal for everyone else.’
“He smiled and said: ‘It is a small thing, a simple thing. It made me happy and it made them happy. That is what life should be about.’”
It is a Wednesday afternoon in Paris - the city coloured in grayscale - and as light showers morph into a more menacing prospect, Miloud Kotbi unsuccessfully tries to shield himself from the rain with his left hand.
The 28-year-old’s right palm, meanwhile, is stretched over his face as he relates a conversation involving his long-time friend N’Golo Kante.
Kotbi had travelled to London in October to spend time with the Chelsea midfielder, who described the sequence of events that saw him miss his Eurostar train from St Pancras to the French capital a month earlier, prompting him to visit a mosque in Kings Cross, before accepting an impromptu invite to an Arsenal fan’s house.
“Curry, tea, FIFA and watching Match of the Day with strangers like he has known them all his life,” Kotbi comments on Kante going to Badlur Rahman Jalil’s residence, adding: “that is typical ‘NG’ - an easy guy with big talent, but even bigger humanity.
“He treats each person the same, regardless of what they do or what they have. He sees the good in everyone.”
Kotbi, who is the editor of PSG Community, has known the World Cup winner for over a decade.
The pair grew up five minutes away from each other in Geraniums, a district in the western commune of Rueil-Malmaison, and spent three years together at JS Suresnes in the 15-18 age bracket.
The player he sees today - pivotal to Premier League title wins for Leicester City and Chelsea, before functioning as a key component in Les Bleus’ victory at Russia 2018 - is largely unchanged from the teenager that said little, but delivered in spades for Suresnes in the ninth division.
Before his 16th birthday, Kante caught the eye as more than 100 boys trialled in an annual September recruitment drive. He was catapulted to join their under-18s - a decision that sliced through the norm.
“It was obvious he was special from the very beginning; he could do things others couldn’t and he would always be picked in a higher age level even though he was small,” Kotbi, who used to play on either defensive flank, reveals.
“He was so quiet and shy, he could be sort of invisible off the pitch, but he was very visible on the pitch - you couldn’t miss him.
“When I saw him in October, I told him: ‘My friend, you are the same as a person and as a player - now only more technical.’
“The way he tackles and intercepts, he could always do that. He would never stop running. We’d be getting tired at the end of games, but he would still be as fresh as he was at the start.
“Our coach Piotr [Wojtyna] always knew N’Golo was destined for the top. Many clubs looked at him but maybe felt he was too small, they couldn’t see what we did all the time.
“He played as a defensive midfielder, but also on the left and right, doing a lot of box-to-box work because his engine never switched off.
“And his game has always been very simple: win the ball, pass it quickly, turning defence into attack.”
For all the conviction those at Suresnes had in Kante, rejection became as familiar to him as transitional play.
Rennes, Sochaux, Amiens, Lorient, AS Beauvais Oise and Clairefontaine had looked past the short, slender, silent operator before Boulogne were smart enough to recruit him when he was 19.
“N’Golo loved playing and even though he was quiet, he was very ambitious with football,” Kotbi stresses.
“It was not easy that so many clubs didn’t think he was good enough, but he just kept going and would reach new levels.
“When he went to Boulogne and then Caen [in 2013], he didn’t have the feeling that he had made it or that he could relax. From there to Leicester  and Chelsea , it has been exactly the same mentality from him.
“In fact, I called him two days after the national team celebrated the World Cup win with the open-top bus parade down Champs Elysees. I asked him, ‘How does it feel to be a champion, to have won the biggest prize in football?’
“He calmly responded: ‘I’m happy we could give this joy to the people, but the victory is gone now. I’m already preparing for the next challenge.’
“A lot of players say things like that for the sake of it, but that is really N’Golo. He feels lucky to be a footballer and he gives it everything he has.
“In our area, he is an inspiration and a hero, but he never acts big or better - that’s why people love him so much: He is a simple guy doing amazing things but he hasn’t let that change him one bit.”
At Leicester the story circulates of Kante believing he didn’t need a car to get to training as he thought he could undertake a daily run from his house to the Belvoir Drive complex and vice versa.
He was strongly advised against the idea and, while most at the club couldn’t believe the tale, his former employers Caen were all too familiar with such reticence to drive.
Kante, one of nine children in a family of four boys and girls, had used a push-along scooter while in Normandy until his mother intervened, forcing him to get his driving licence and a car. He begrudgingly gave in and settled on a second-hand Renault Megane.
The combative midfielder upgraded to a used Mini Cooper S at Leicester - which he still drives at Chelsea despite crashing it on King’s Road while making his way to Stamford Bridge for the Carabao Cup fixture against Arsenal in January.
Kante happily drove the battered vehicle to Cobham, having DIYed his wing mirror back in place with gaffer tape.
His course of action, while sparking hilarity, surprised no-one.
“He does everything with minimal fuss,” a Chelsea staffer says of the player, who may have a retiring personality but is exceptionally competitive and has even been crowned champion of the club’s pool competition.
“He comes in, does his job and goes home. But he’s a lovely guy - reserved and humble - who will do anything for anyone, hence why all the players love him and want to so badly involve him in celebrations and such.
“A good example is after the FA Cup final win - everyone was celebrating, dancing in the dressing room and he was just sat smiling in the corner.
“Antonio Rudiger and a few others tried to get him up dancing, but he didn’t want to so politely declined - still smiling. Everyone made an effort for him though, because he is probably the most liked player in the squad.”
Kante being paramount to triumph, but on the periphery of the scenes which follow it, is standard procedure.
“He was determined to win and when we did, he was very happy for the team and for the coaches but he didn’t want to put on a big show,” Kotbi says.
“He likes to look at a trophy and hold it, but otherwise he feels his job is already done.”
Kante’s eschewing of the spotlight prompts others to ensure he too glitters for his golden contributions.
il est petit,
il est gentil,
il a stoppé Leo Messi,
mais on sait tous
c’est un tricheur, N’Golo Kante
he is small
he is kind
he stopped Leo Messi
but we all know
he is a cheater, N’Golo Kante
Saber Desfarges is a journalist for RMC Sport specialising in tracking the progress of Didier Deschamps’ squad. He shared France’s World Cup experience in Russia, but has long documented their successes and stumbles.
He was in attendance when Les Bleus knocked Argentina out of the tournament in the round of 16, which was topped with Kante’s team-mates chorusing a new chant in his honour.
Desfarges was also present at Stade de France in September, when the song was belted out by a sold-out stadium following their 2-1 homecoming win over Netherlands.
“A member of France’s staff called N’Golo ‘solar’ and this is the perfect description,” he says.
“He always has a smile and the ability to make others smile.
“He is appreciated by everyone: the staff, the players, the press. He never complains and the song is a way of thanking N’Golo for all this.
“He was very important during the World Cup, one of the most regular players at the beginning of the competition, when France needed to keep things tight.
“For some players and members of staff, he was the best French player in Russia.”
At the Luzhniki Stadium after France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final, Kante did not seek out the trophy as the rest of the squad posed for individual portraits.
Having spotted the Chelsea linchpin silently waiting behind a queue of players, Steven N’Zonzi fetched the silverware and handed over to him.
“Making a point of giving him the trophy when everybody was in the midst of euphoria is also a token of affection,” Desfarges notes.
“He is the only No. 6 in the France squad with his stylistic profile. N’Golo is so important that Didier Deschamps selected him in the World Cup final against Croatia even though he was ill.
“The coach appreciates his triple activity, his quality of relaunching and raking. His partnership with Paul Pogba was very complementary in Russia, and when they are at their best, there’s no better international midfield pair in the world.”
Kante, who refused a percentage of his Chelsea earnings to be paid under an offshore tax haven - as reported by Der Spiegel - is not just football’s Mr. Nice Guy, but one of the game’s premier exponents.
Wojtyna, his youth coach at Suresnes, credits unswerving dedication for the 2016-17 PFA Players’ Player of the Year’s “unrepeatable” rise.
The Pole has witnessed more skilful alumni, who were coveted by Paris Saint-Germain and other powerhouses, vanish because they could not align a strong attitude to their aptitude.
Kante’s diligence and his willingness to absorb information was rare.
Wojtyna once detailed how the diminutive talent was made to improve his keepy-uppy skills before the holidays.
Suresnes expected him to be able to complete fifty with each leg and his head.
When Kante returned from the break, he was executing one hundred with his left foot, right foot and his head.
Beyond his dedication, he possessed a masterful blend of stamina, awareness and anticipation, which prompted former Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri to declare: “With N’Golo in the side we had 12 players. We did – the referee never counted correctly how many we had on the field! He was our battery.”
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard shared Ranieri’s tone: “Sometimes, when I'm on the pitch, I think I see him twice. One on the left, one on the right. I think we play with twins.”
Meanwhile Thierry Henry went further after watching a training session at Stamford Bridge: “I went over to him and stood in front of him. And I poked him in the chest. I had to, just to check if he was real!”
Even with a change of responsibilities under Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, who prefers the more technical Jorginho at the base of midfield to act as the team’s metronome, there is confidence at Cobham that Kante will acclimatise to his shuttling role and continue his elevation.
The positional switch has undoubtedly stunted Kante, who is most at home as an elite defensive midfielder, intercepting opposition attacks and igniting them instead for his own team.
Wojtyna, though, has for years believed that the two-time Premier League winner has the tools to sharpen the attacking side of his game, a thought Sarri co-signs and which evidenced itself in the opening goal against Manchester City on Saturday.
Though looking less comfortable and perhaps feeling inhibited, Kante has been involved in more goals this season than in his previous campaigns with Chelsea and insists he is happy with his new position, which he is determined to succeed in.
“If Kante puts his mind to something, he achieves it,” says Kotbi. “It may take some time, but he will make it happen. It has always been his way.”
Can you bet against a player who turned the reason for his multiple rejections - his size - as a strength while winning two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and the World Cup?
A player whose professional career began so late that he was still working towards a Baccalaureate in Accounting aged 21 while at Boulogne?
The answer around Paris is an unequivocal ‘no’. Nothing is beyond their N’Golo Kante.
A man Desfarges wonderfully sums up as “a normal person in the body of the best midfielder in the world,” but who himself insists he has to improve drastically to be part of the conversation, let alone hold that status.
“Everybody here loves N’Golo,” Kotbi says, but there is really no need for that second word.
il est petit,
il est gentil,
il a stoppé Leo Messi,
mais on sait tous
c’est un tricheur, N’Golo Kante