Barriers to success as a professional footballer are numerous and unpredictable. Extreme competitiveness, a lack of regular first team opportunities, injuries, the whims of coaches and sheer bad luck are all difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, even in France where chances for youth products are typically more forthcoming, for N’Golo Kanté the meandering path from potential as a teenager to signing a professional contract to the World Cup final has been far steeper and more pot-holed than almost all of his France team-mates.
Eight years ago as Raymond Domenech’s France squad revolted, went on strike and hid in the team bus as Les Bleus imploded in South Africa, a 19-year-old N’Golo Kanté had just completed the season in French football’s 9th tier. JS Suresnes, Kanté’s tiny club from the suburbs of Paris, played in the Promotion Honour (PH) division, the 4th level of the Ile-de-France regional league, one of 13 parallel divisions at that level. Kanté had grown up in Paris as one of nine siblings, his parents having moved from Mali in 1980, his father sadly passing away when N’Golo was just 11. Having only started playing football as late as 10 years old, a teenage Kanté had struggled find a professional club. PSG, Sochaux, Rennes, Lorient and the prestigious academy Clairefontaine all rejected him, largely due to Kanté being ‘too small’.
Despite the rejection, and now crucial to France’s World Cup hopes, Kanté remains philosophical on this period of his development. “In Paris a lot of people play football and there are some I knew then who are footballers now, but not at the professional level,” Kanté told Chelsea’s website. “At Suresnes I learned a lot. I had good coaching and it was like playing with friends. Sometimes people may say I was a little small when I tried to go to other clubs but I think maybe, when I was this age, I did not have the quality to go to them.”
Pierre Ville, Suresnes’ club secretary, would drive Kanté to trials with professional clubs in the region or to the train station for trips to those further afield. No interest was shown as Kanté failed to make a single regional representative side. “We’d just say, ‘It’s not the moment yet,’” Ville told the Bleacher Report last April. “Of course he was sad. But we didn’t say, ‘That’s it, it’s finished.’ We said: ‘It’s not the right moment. It will come.” “Nobody ever asked me how N’Golo was doing,” an amazed Piotr Wojtyna added, one of Kanté’s first coaches, “N’Golo jumped out at me straight away with his mobility and his ability to take the ball from other players. He never stopped running, he was always moving. I put him in the middle of the pitch straight away and he was impeccable.”
In the summer of 2012, Kanté finally found a move. A successful week’s trial at US Boulogne, newly relegated from Ligue 1, earned him a place with their reserve team and a jump to France’s sixth tier. Not the step forward Kanté would have hoped for but it was here he started to believe he could make it. “The professional world makes a lot of young amateurs dream,” Kanté explained to SFR Sport last year, “When I heard stories of Didier Drogba and Adil Rami, who went from being amateurs to becoming professional, it was a source of strength and told me that it was possible, even if you start from a long way off.”
However, as then Boulogne teammate Maxime Colin described to ESPN in 2017, Kanté’s potential was still yet to be fully realised. “At the time the gaffer wanted him to play right-back,” Colin, now of Brentford, explained. “I was the first choice right-back and he was the second one. It wasn’t at all his position. He never played – the gaffer didn’t really believe in him.” By Christmas the ‘gaffer’, Michel Estevan, was sacked as Boulogne struggled in Ligue 2 and by the start of the 2012-13 season the northern club had been relegated again to France’s third division, National. Kanté’s fortunes however, were about to change.
Tasked with returning Boulogne to Ligue 2, new coach Georges Tournay recognised Kanté’s worth immediately. “When I arrived, I tested many young players from the training centre, including him.” Tournay explained to Le Figaro, “N’Golo immediately exploded in my eyes. His movement, technique, his simplicity, his stamina. I wondered what he was doing there, I immediately signed him as a pro.” That season in National proved pivotal in Kanté’s career, his only year in Boulogne’s senior side.
40 appearances later, despite a disappointing 13th place finish, the eye of Patrice Garande’s Ligue 2 Caen had been caught. With the new midfield engine central to their success, third earned Caen automatic promotion back to Ligue 1 for the 2014-15 season. Naturally, the step up in quality failed to faze Kanté.
Then 23, only 4 years on from playing ninth tier football, the man once described as ‘too small’ began to quietly dominate games in the top flight. Kanté however, remained characteristically humble. Usually arriving at training on a scooter, while his teammates drove Ferraris, Kanté only bought a car, remembers Wojtyna, (a second-hand Renault) at the behest of his mother.
A sole season in Ligue 1 was all it took for Kante’s career to truly blossom. The three years since have been marked by a close to vertical upward curve and unprecedented success. Instrumental in Leicester City’s surprise English title win in 2016 and PFA Player of the Year for Chelsea’s Premier League winners the following campaign, Kanté now sits on the verge of a World Cup final with, should Les Bleus be triumphant, a chance of even winning the Golden Ball as France’s outstanding player in Russia this summer.
While the barriers to Kanté’s success may have been irksome, adding frustrating delays to his inevitable explosion, the player again takes a more considered view.
“Looking back, those failures helped me consider football differently – consider the professional world differently. Perhaps I would have been different otherwise, I would have left my home earlier, my family, my friends. I grew up just as my friends did until 19 before leaving home, and it’s because of that I’m who I am now.”
Now, despite the delays, N’Golo Kanté incredibly has just one barrier in world football left to overcome, rejection a distant memory.