Ngolo Kante won his first cap for France against Russia on 29 March 2016. Two years and 25 caps later, he is making his FIFA World Cup debut as an indispensable part of Les Bleus line-up. And he has achieved that status by doing what he has always done, wherever he has played: by winning and recovering possession, all without saying a word.
Kante came in through the door, shook hands, and took a seat, a typically discreet smile on his face. Describing his first taste of the World Cup, the 27-year-old midfielder told FIFA: “Arriving in Russia was special. It’s taken a lot of work and effort to get here and I feel very proud.”
When it comes to work, Kante, who hails from Paris’ tenth arrondissement, is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in, especially when it comes to dispatching his midfield duties. An example of that came in the 2014/15 season. Still at Caen at the time, he racked up an average of 5.3 tackles per match during the French league campaign, more than any other player in Europe’s five major championships. If ball-winning were an art form, Kante would be a museum piece.
The English Premier League’s Player of the Season for 2016/17 was at his ball-winning best against Australia, regaining possession 14 times in all, though he was quick to play down that statistic.
“What matters to me is winning. It was vital for us to come away with three points,” he said, before heaping praise on one of his team-mates: “Sometimes there are vital defensive situations that can change the outcome of a match. And on Saturday, without Hugo Lloris, we’d have gone 1-0 down in the 20th minute. We were all grateful to him.”
Speaking in a low voice and almost apologetic tone, the Chelsea player continued to deflect attention away from himself: “I’m just a defensive player. It’s the lowest position. I’ve got the ball-carriers in front of me, and it’s our job as midfielders to link up with the defence and pick out the forwards so we can create chances.” Described by Frank Lampard as the best midfielder in the world, Kante is reluctant to say any more about his art.
Up next for France is Peru this afternoon in Ekateringurg, a side he has been keeping an eye on: “They play with a lot of intensity and commitment and give it all they’ve got.” That match will give Kante another opportunity to win possession time and again, and all without a word out of place or any visible signs of irritation.
Calmly rising to his feet, he shook hands once more and left through the door he came in, having left us none the wiser as to who he really is. Modest Kante is a man who keeps himself to himself and his secrets firmly under wraps.