PARIS (AP) — Four years ago, midfielder N’Golo Kante was hoping to make the leap from amateur football into France’s third division. Watching the 2012 European Championship on his television, playing for the national team would have seemed a faraway dream.
Now he is a Premier League champion after helping Leicester to an improbable title, and has established himself as a crucial part of France’s midfield at Euro 2016.
It’s a meteoric rise for the 25-year-old Kante, who only made his France debut in March. Yet despite just six appearances for his country, he plays with the assurance of a seasoned international. Not since Claude Makelele — part of the side that reached the 2006 World Cup final — has France had a defensive midfielder who covers so much ground so effortlessly.
Being diminutive in stature — he is 1.69-meters, nearly the same as Makelele — and playing football without much flair is not the easiest way to get spotted in the third division. But Caen signed him from Boulogne in the summer of 2013 and he helped the Normandy side gain promotion to Ligue 1.
Just one season in the top flight was enough to persuade Leicester to buy him, and he was one of coach Claudio Ranieri’s three best players in the title-winning campaign, along with England striker Jamie Vardy and Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez.
“When I think back to where I was four years ago, I was playing … with Boulogne and I was watching the Euro on TV with my family,” Kante said. “Playing in the Euro for France is a pleasure and privilege.”
The consistency with which Kante plays, allied to seemingly endless reserves of energy, relentless tackling and a selfless attitude, have propelled him into the spotlight.
Rather than worrying about whether he can make it as a pro, he is being linked with a move to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. He was recently lavishly praised by Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger and has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain.
“It’s not a case of getting my revenge. It’s just the way my career has panned out,” Kante said. “Things didn’t always work out well for me, and I think that helped me to grow as a person. I kept on going after my setbacks.”
A rare goal against Russia on his second France appearance helped him settle, while a knee injury to Marseille midfielder Lassana Diarra on the eve of the tournament opened the door even wider.
Coach Didier Deschamps would have had a difficult time anyway choosing between Kante and the more experienced Diarra — formerly of Real Madrid — but Diarra’s injury resolved a difficult issue.
While Dimitri Payet grabbed the headlines for France with spectacular goals in the 2-1 win against Romania and the 2-0 victory against Albania on Wednesday, Kante has been the team’s other best player.
“He wins the ball back really well and he’s always in the right position,” Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud said. “It’s a pleasure to play alongside him.”
Being unfailingly modest, however, Kante is the last person to talk himself up.
“I don’t think I have a particular standing in the team,” he said. “I’m just very serious in training and it means that I’m psychologically ready for the game.”
Kante’s versatility is precious, because he has adapted equally well to the 4-3-3 formation that Deschamps used against Romania and the 4-2-3-1 deployed against Albania.
“I have Blaise (Matuidi) next to me in a 4-2-3-1, whereas in a 4-3-3 I’m responsible for bringing the ball out,” Kante said. “I’m more used to playing in a 4-2-3-1, because it’s how I play for Leicester. But the system isn’t the most important thing — it’s what you do with it.”
Kante could link up with Matuidi next season at PSG.
“For the time being I am with Leicester,” Kante said. “I’m not really paying any attention to what’s being said.”
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