“His acrobatic art draws multitudes, Sunday after Sunday, from victory to victory, ovation to ovation. The ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him. She rests and rocks on the top of his foot. He caresses her and makes her speak, and in that tête-à-tête millions of mutes converse.”
Thus wrote Eduardo Galeano in Soccer in Sun and Shadow about the quintessential idol player, who plays in the midfield, who attacks with the strikers and who defends with the full backs. Galeano could well be writing about N’Golo Kante.
Kante who? You might ask. Even if you happen to be a follower of the English Premier League (EPL), there is a good chance that you may not have noticed him. He currently plays for Chelsea, who now tops the EPL table with a handy eight-point lead. The Blues are on their way to win the premier league crown. Well, you know that and the roles played by Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in Chelsea’s sparkling rise in the premier league.
But what has N’Golo Kante do with it? Very much. He has been the midfield engine of the team – very much like the role he played in Leicester City last year, for their title-winning run. Now you got the connection? EPL crown goes to where Kante plays. It has come to that. It is not about mere good luck charm or being at the right place at the right time. It is all about his amazing work ethic and extra-ordinary skill.
For those who do not know who Kante is, here is a brief profile.
Claude Makelele Version 2.0
He has come to England as the poor man’s Claude Mekelele. Mekelele was the French midfielder of the previous decade who played a decisive part in Chelsea’s title wins in the last decade. He was a tireless runner, great passer and a good finisher. He was efficient in tackling and intercepting too. Kante, when he arrived in England, did not have the fanfare surrounding his illustrious compatriot. He had played variously for Caen, an unremarkable French Ligue One club, and Boulogne, a lower division club in France. He joined Leicester in 2015 for a reported fee of 5.6 million pounds. Mekelele, on the other hand, had come to England for a fee of 16.8 million pounds. And that was in 2003. In one year with Leicester, Kante grew from being a potential Mekelele imposter to an improved version of the French player. His box to box game was the backbone on which Leicester’s strategies were built. It allowed the attackers to flourish and offered defenders more time to deal with the opposition attackers. He provided the operating system through which the other players thrived and showed off their skills. When Leicester won the title, he did not get much credit. His game was not so visible to the untrained eyes.
There were people who were keeping an eye on him, however. Chelsea bought him at the start of this season for a whopping 32.5 million pounds. Leicester bagged a profit of close to 27 million pounds out of this deal. And he was the only regular player they sold after the title win. It not only helped Kante to earn more but also helped others to realize how valuable he was for the team. While Leicester nosedived into the bottom of the EPL points table, Kante was helping Chelsea to regain their verve and confidence.
He was a key man in Chelsea’s 14-match winning spree. He is everywhere on the pitch. He provides thrust to the attack by hunting outside the opposition’s penalty box. When the rivals launch counter attacks, he quickly runs back to provide cover for his own defence. Attackers feel empowered with him behind their back, while defenders feel well-protected with him in their front. If he goes at the same rate and speed, the day is not far when he gets past Mekelele in terms of popularity and usefulness.
From an Emigrant Child to a Midfield General
Kante was born in Paris on 29 March 1991. Both his parents were emigrants from Mali. He started playing football at a young age. In 2000, he joined a local club called JS Suresnes, where he learnt the basic skills and tactics. He was never a child prodigy. What set him apart were his indefatigable stamina and near-perfect ball interception and tackling. It is no wonder that none of the talent scouts in Europe and elsewhere did not come calling at his doorsteps. It does not mean that he was not that good during his teenage. He was deceptively good – so deceptive that it even deceived the otherwise well-trained eyes of the talent scouts. The effectiveness of his game is hard to understand even now. It is really hard to break down his performance into the usual tangible measures of excellence, like goals scored, passes made and tackles won. He does everything with an uncanny game awareness. He makes interceptions at crucial moments and turns it into a counter-attacking advantage. This facet of the game is what distinguishes from the other box-to-box players plying their trade in the various leagues in Europe.
Coming back to Kante’s early life, he spent 11 years with that obscure club called JS Suresnes. This is an unusually long period for a future superstar. In 2011, he got a lucky break: he got selected into Boulogne, who were playing in the second division at that time. The team were miserable at that season and got relegated to the third division at the end of the season. Kante had no choice but to hang on. Once he got a chance to play for the club, he started showing his worth. His performances got noticed and soon he was drafted into a better team: Caen.
Caen were playing at the second division when Kante joined. He produced a superlative performance at the midfield for the club, which helped them finish third in the division and earn a promotion to the French Ligue One. There he was, playing at France’s top division at the age of 23. His fitness and stamina were evident even at that time. He never missed a game because of injury in the Ligue One. The only instance he missed a match was because of suspension.
Kante’s sterling display in the Ligue One caught the attention of Steve Walsh, the star talent scout of Leicester City, who also spotted the liked of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. He joined seamlessly to a well-oiled, hard-pressing Leicester team. It appeared that a player like Kante was the only missing link in the otherwise perfect soccer jigsaw called Liecester. They created history by winning the EPL crown. However, they made a mistake by selling off Kante to Chelsea, succumbing to a big money offer.
Leicester’s loss was Chelsea’ gain. The Blues are poised to win the title this time around. Barring a minor miracle, Kante will lift his second consecutive EPL crown at the end of this season. Then everybody will remember what Galeano wrote, concluding his description of the idol player: “When he plays, the team has 12 players: ‘Twelve? It has fifteen! Twenty!’”
May be even more if Kante plays like he does these days.