N’Golo Kante was playing in France’s ninth tier six years ago… now he’s heading towards his second Premier League title
At Suresnes football club in the Parisian suburbs, just across the River Seine from Bois de Boulogne, they still remember N’Golo Kante arriving as a nine-year-old.
Jeunesse Sportive de Suresnes is only an amateur club. Indeed Pierre Ville, club secretary and coach, and Francois Missana, a first-team coach, have to spend some time counting through the different leagues above them before eventually deciding that they now play in the ninth tier of French football.
And yet remarkably this is the club at which the man now touted as the best player in the Premier League played until just six years ago.
Soon votes will be cast for Football Writers’ and PFA Player of the Year awards. Kante will feature highly in each. By the time those awards are handed out, it it likely he will have won successive Premier League titles at two clubs, the first man to do so since Eric Cantona in 1993.
And yet his beginnings were even more unassuming than most. ‘When he first came to us, he was half the size of the others, he was really small,’ says Ville, who has seen generations of youngsters come through the club.
‘He was small but when he started to play, he outclassed them all. He played in teams alongside players who were older than him. He was half the size, he was half the weight, but he played in all these different-aged teams.’
At the club they have a picture of a young team celebrating raucously with a trophy. The youths are energetic teenagers on the cusp of manhood. Next to them stands a little boy, looking on.
It is Kante and the trophy is his. He has just won it for being player of the tournament. In the excitement of the moment, his team-mates seems to have forgotten it was his.
The photo fits the player perfectly. Cantona was the man who once dismissed team-mate Didier Deschamps as a ‘water carrier’. And Kante is a water carrier par excellence, a vital cog in any team. His manner may be selfless but he is proving invaluable.
Ville says: ‘I would say to N’Golo: “Imagine you have a chemical solution that’s just inert. You add something into it, and it changes colour and transforms. It’s the same with your work. You put yourself into the group and those around you, they check themselves, because there are certainly some egos out there among them”.
‘He is so extraordinary, he has a very balancing effect. He doesn’t speak out, he’s polite but the dressing room gathers around him. He isn’t timid, he just doesn’t speak much. He is very discreet.
‘There is a correlation between his playing style and his innate intelligence. He sees things quickly. It is necessary to be very smart, very focused: to be able to analyse a situation and find space. He takes possession back and 99 times out of 100 he makes the right choice; a great pass and very quickly.’
Kante’s parents arrived in Paris from Mali in 1980 and N’Golo grew up a mile away from the JS Suresnes football ground, in the next-door district of Rueil Malmasion on a modern housing block on Rue des Geraniums. It is a small flat where his family still live and it is hard to imagine eight siblings occupying it.
A half-sister plays in the JS Suresnes youth teams. A younger brother, aged 19, is on their books. The Kante family is immersed in the community.
Suresnes is a modest but pleasant community, with commuter homes and the odd housing block. An American cemetery from the two world wars is located here and the hill on which it is situated offers splendid views across to the Eiffel Tower.
For Kante, it wasn’t just his diminutive stature which initially concerned his coaches.
There was also his quiet, unassuming personality. Even now he is hugely reluctant to do interviews; but then it was hard to get any words from him.
‘We never knew whether he was listening or whether he even understood us, because he said nothing,’ says Ville.
‘We spoke with him: the trainer or fitness coach would say something to him, give him some advice and he would look at us and we never knew if he had even listened, if he had understood. However, over the course of the following weeks, we could see that he had taken on board all the advice.’
His youth team coach Piotr Wojtyna remembers a remark he made at the end of one season before the summer holidays.
‘I said, “you have two months free, N’Golo, and you should try to do 50 keepie-ups on the left foot, 50 on the right and 50 on your head”. And two months later, he could do it.’
But they would soon find that the excitement at JS Suresnes over their protege wasn’t shared by the outside world. At Parc des Princes, home of Paris Saint-Germain, they weren’t impressed by the player now among the world’s best.
‘But it’s not just Paris Saint-Germain,’ says Ville. ‘He was assessed several times up to the age of 14 or 15. I took him there and other people took him to other clubs. There was Lorient, Rennes, clubs in the first division, Sochaux and others. And they said: “Well, we have others as good as him, too.”
‘He was still really small, and in France, we always look for power, strength, when observing young players at assessment, at age 12 or 13. He wasn’t taken on, because they said he wasn’t ready, and he just said: “Well, OK, if I am not at that level, it’s normal not to be taken on.”
The scouts hadn’t been able to see his true qualities, as he wasn’t a stand-out player, he just went about his usual play. He didn’t shine.’
If it bothered him, he didn’t let it show. But Georges Tournay, who was his manager at Boulogne, thinks it helped to make him the player he is. ‘He was rejected several times,’ Tournay told France Football.
‘And I think that he forged an iron will because he kept hanging on in. I’m sure he did suffer even though he never spoke to me about it. But he was a truly determined player.’
The move to Boulogne at the age of 19 only really came about because JS Suresnes club president Jean Pierre Perrinel had a son who had played there and arranged trials. He was taken on as an amateur, the club arranging for him to finish his studies.
It was hardly the big time. He was a young squad player in the reserves of a second division club who were on their way to the third division. And it was only in the third division that he finally gained a first-team place.
Perhaps it is his mode of transport which best mirrors the lack of ego he shows on the pitch. At Boulogne, he used to go to training on an adult version of a child’s scooter.
‘When I saw him coming on the scooter to training I could see he was a bit embarrassed but he never said anything.’ said Tournay.
‘When his team-mates saw that he came on foot or by scooter, they said: “N’Golo, we can take you. Where do you live?” Then they organised a rota and would pick him up.’
His effectiveness at Boulogne in the third division saw him win a move to Caen in the French second division. And clearly a scooter was no longer appropriate. ‘His dream was to have a Renault Clio,’ says Ville.
‘And Philippe Flavier said to him: “If you are going to be to travelling back and forth to see your parents at home, you don’t want a Clio. Why not get something better?”
So he got himself a second-hand Megane. Caen won promotion to Ligue 1 and Kante was beginning to attract attention. Not that he got carried away.
‘He doesn’t get it,’ said Ville.
‘When the press came to Caen to write their first articles about him and the TV media crews made their first interviews with him, he said: “Why? What’s this for?”. He refused, saying, “I haven’t done anything yet. Why don’t they come back in six months when I have done something?”’
Now he is on the cusp of a second consecutive title and might be judged the best player in the Premier League, he would now surely accept that he has ‘done something’?
‘If you tell him that he will just say: “I’m not the best, there are always better players. Pierre, Paul, Jacques, they are better than me. Why do I do to deserve that?”’ says Ville. ‘He has a modesty about him that no other professional in his sport and at his level has.’
At Chelsea, he has at least upgraded his vehicle — to a white Mini Cooper. Ville laughs at the incongruity of it. ‘And what do his team-mates drive, with their 500,000 euros per week? What do they have? Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royce.’
Football doesn’t usually do reluctant heroes. It tends to cast its leading characters in much broader, brasher strokes than Kante.
Prospective players of the year might have PR representatives working to ensure the award is won and maximise earnings. Kante has none of that.
Yet if he does end up player of the year, few would demur.
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