Chelsea’s French midfielder N’Golo Kante (C) celebrates with Chelsea’s Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta afer scoring during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge in London on December 8, 2018. Ian KINGTON / AFP
He may shy away from the limelight, but there were few more popular members of France’s 2018 World Cup-winning side than N’Golo Kante, who on Saturday will aim to get his hands on one of the few trophies that has so far evaded him when Chelsea face Manchester City in the Champions League final.
France supporters came up with a song for Kante during that triumphant summer in Russia, to the tune of the 1969 hit “Les Champs-Elysees” by Joe Dassin. As the song goes, “he is small, he is kind, he stopped Leo Messi”.
It does take a ruthless streak to get to the very top in football as Kante has, winning two Premier League titles, the Europa League and the FA Cup as well as the World Cup.
Despite that, everyone who has encountered Kante since the start of his career in the Paris suburbs seems to agree there is no other player quite like the 30-year-old.
“Every time he comes back to Paris he comes to see us,” Karim El-Moudkhil, Kante’s former coach, tells AFP.
“But he doesn’t just stop by, he stays to eat with us, he agrees to have his photo taken with everyone, to play with the kids.”
Kante, whose parents are of Malian origin, grew up in a large family on a quiet estate in Rueil-Malmaison, to the west of the French capital.
El-Moudkhil has endless anecdotes to tell as well as recent videos of Kante playing football with children in the neigbourhood who, not surprisingly, idolise him.
“In the summer, everyone comes out to play wearing the shirts of the teams he has played for: Caen, Leicester, Chelsea, France,” says the coach.
Kante is widely liked and respected for his warmth and modesty, and as a player he has forged a reputation for being generous and discrete, with his on-pitch persona matching his personality off it.
“He has never become big-headed, he has never changed,” says El-Moudkhil. “His brothers are the same. I would like to know how they have done it.”
When you ask his former coach if he can recall Kante getting angry during a game or showing any negative emotions, the question is met with an almost sorry response.
“I am trying to think of something but I honestly can’t remember any. I have never seen him get angry as long as I have known him.
“And yet if anyone could have got angry it was him given the amount of times he used to get kicked while playing at Suresnes.”
It was there, in a pleasant suburb by the Seine River, that Kante played as a youngster.
Unlike most modern-day superstars, Kante was never picked up by the youth academy of a professional club. He had talent, but his size and personality seemed to work against him.
“N’Golo is not somebody who tends to stand out, so at a trial he just wasn’t visible,” Pierre Ville, a director at Suresnes, told AFP in 2018.
His career did gradually take off as he moved to France’s far north to sign for Boulogne-sur-Mer aged 19.
Soon he was playing for their first team in the third division, and he then joined Caen in 2013, helping them win promotion to Ligue 1.
After just one season in the French elite, Kante moved to Leicester aged 24 in 2015 and was one of the stars of their surge to the Premier League title in 2015/16.
He then left for Chelsea where he has continued to star, right up to being the man of the match in both legs of the Champions League semi-final win over Real Madrid.
“As soon as he signed for Boulogne-sur-Mer I knew his career was taking off,” says El-Moudkhil.
There, on France’s Channel coast, Kante left behind nothing but good memories.
“What was really striking was his desire to keep progressing. He was like a sponge, absorbing all the advice he got from his coaches,” remembers Christophe Raymond, who coached Kante in the club’s reserve team between 2010 and 2012.
“We sensed he had potential but it would be lying to say we thought he could go as far as he has.”
It is a view shared by his old coach back in Rueil.
“He has come on so much. Over the last few years he has taken more and more risks, he gets forward more, and he is now one of the best players in the world.”