Paris (AFP) – From rejection for being too small and too timid, N’Golo Kante has become a hot property who is one of the most-watched players at Euro 2016.
The 25-year-old only stands 1.69 metres (5 feet 7 inches) and weighs just 68 kilograms (150 pounds).
But his non-stop running, pinpoint passing and refusal to acknowledge defeat fitted perfectly in Leicester City’s stunning English Premier League title success.
Kante even surprised Leicester coach Claudio Ranieri with his energy after the unfancied side paid a reported 5.6 million pounds ($8.1 million/ 7.8 million euros) for him.
Kante now has a 25-million-pound price on his head. Arsenal, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus have all been linked to a possible close-season bid.
A host of small clubs in France will be wondering how they let Kante slip through their fingers as he lines up for France at Euro 2016.
“He was so discreet and so good-natured that the scouts clearly did not see how exceptional he was,” Pierre Ville, a former head of JS Suresnes, a team in the Paris suburbs, told AFP.
Kante, born in Paris, played at Suresnes throughout his teenage years and was still with them in the ninth division of French football at the age of 19.
Ville showed photos of Kante watching Suresnes teammates holding a trophy he had won for being player of a tournament in the under-14 team.
But for a long time, Kante’s talent could not get him a foothold in professional football.
Sochaux, Amiens, Rennes, Lorient and even France’s Clairefontaine national centre said he would not make the grade — no matter how much he ran.
“Often people would say to us, ‘we already have 20 players like him’,” recalled JS Suresnes senior coach Tomasz Bzymek.
“Maybe the people who supervised him did not take enough time with him. His main handicap was his size. But for me, on the contrary, that was an advantage,” added Piotr Wojtyna, who coached Kante in regional teams.
So Kante became stuck at Suresnes, showing up players years older. A former teammate, Francois Lemoine, remembered Kante’s debut in the senior side at the age of 17.
– Batteries in shorts –
“He came on as a left back with 10 minutes to play and we were being easily beaten. He put everyone to shame. I said to the others ‘Look at him, he is younger than us but he plays his match and he does not give in’. It was a lesson in humility.”
Jean-Pierre Perrinelle, a 400 metres runner at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics and a Suresnes president, who died in 2014, took Kante to a trial at Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Boulogne, who produced Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, were then in Ligue 1 and Perrinelle’s son Damien was a defender there. Kante spent three years at the Channel club passing an accountancy certificate and going to training on his kids’ scooter.
He played in the reserves until 2012-2013 when he was the star of a Boulogne side that had been relagated to the third division.
Former Boulogne teammate Cedric Fabien said: “Off the field he was quiet, but on the pitch he turned into a monster. I have never seen anyone run, run and run like he did.”
Caen signed him for next to nothing. Kante swapped his scooter for a second-hand Renault Megane. He became a key player as Caen rose from the second division to Ligue 1.
“He has always adapted to the level he has been pitched into,” said Alain Caveglia, Caen’s sporting director. “We always wondered how far he would go.”
Marseille’s coach at the time, Marcelo Bielsa, wanted Kante because of his passing.
But Leicester won. Ranieri wondered how to control Kante, but he appears to have given in.
“This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts. He never stopped running in training,” Ranieri said.
“I had to tell him, ‘Hey, N’Golo, slow down. Slow down. Don’t run after the ball every time, OK?’
“He says to me, ‘Yes, boss. Yes. OK.’ Ten seconds later, I look over and he’s running again.”
His role in Leicester’s fairytale story earned him a call-up to the French side this year.
He made his France debut in a 3-2 win over the Netherlands in March and four days later scored his first international goal in a 4-2 win over Russia on his 25th birthday.
Leicester must now be wondering and worrying that Kante will become too hot to handle.
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