That N’Golo Kante’s rise to the top has been rapid is illustrated very clearly by the fact that only four years ago he had not even started playing first team professional football regularly.
At that stage in his career the midfielder was in the second XI side at Boulogne, contesting the sixth tier of French league football. He was though on the cusp of a major move forward in both the level of competition and his inner belief at what he was capable of achieving.
Born in Paris and like so many hooked on football by playing in the streets with his brothers and friends as well as playing at school, Kante joined local amateur club Suresnes in a suburb of the French capital just across the River Seine from the Bois de Boulogne, and not far from the Parc des Princes, the home of Paris St-Germain. He says he took an interest in the city’s major team but not enough to attend games. Instead it was playing the sport that was his main passion.
‘I started football at the age of 10,’ Kante tells the official Chelsea website. ‘In Paris a lot of people play football and there are some I knew who are footballers now, but not at the professional level.
‘At Suresnes I learned a lot. I had good coaching at this club and it was like playing with friends.’
Kante began to go for trials at professional clubs but was not taken on. You might guess a lack of height was a factor in his talent initially slipping through the various nets, but he thinks it not so straightforward.
‘Sometimes people maybe say I was a little small when I tried to go to these clubs but I think maybe when I was this age I did not have the quality of football for going to them. So I stayed at Suresnes until I was 19.
‘Then I did a one-week test at Boulogne and that was very good. They told me I can come and play for their second team, not for their first team.’
Having made the move from the Bois de Boulogne to Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Channel coast, Kante played for the second team for two seasons, turning 20 during that time and helping the side move up to the fifth division. He had by now impressed enough to be given his place in a professional senior team for the first time, and was experiencing that vital boost to his confidence.
‘At Boulogne I learned a lot of the technical and the tactic and this made me improve a lot. I wasn’t thinking to play in the Premier League or something like that at that stage, but when I went to Boulogne I had the ambition to become a professional football player and my ambition was to get in the first team. When I went into the first team it was a pleasure.’
When I saw Eden Hazard here at Chelsea I said to him you maybe do not know but everyone thanks you.
Kante’s next move was across Normandy to Caen, the first professional club of former Chelsea defender William Gallas who grew up in a nearby part of Paris to our newest signing, albeit a decade or so earlier. Caen’s reputation in France for developing young players is strong.
‘But when I go there I was 22, and the reputation of Caen is to be a very good academy for becoming professionals,’ he points out.
‘Why I go there is because it was a step forward for me because they were in the second division and I was in the third division and they go into Ligue 1 often. I knew it was a good club and for me it was a good opportunity to improve and maybe go to the first division, and that happened. I did one season in the second division, we were promoted, and it was a very good moment.’
Kante does not know exactly how long Leicester were monitoring his appearances in Ligue 1, but when he first spoke to Claudio Ranieri and their then head of recruitment Steve Walsh about a possible transfer, he says they already knew him very well.
‘When I joined Leicester one week before the start of the season, my feeling at the training was that we had a good team but I did not know the Premier League. When we start the season we did not lose a lot and the manager made us believe we can do very good things. We were still playing well in November, December, January, still at the top.’
Everyone knows the rest of this particular story, especially the final chapter.
‘I was with the team at Jamie Vardy’s house and when we saw Chelsea losing 2-0 at half-time against Tottenham, we said now we have to be ready for the Everton game, but at the end this was a very good night.
‘When I saw Eden Hazard here at Chelsea I said to him you maybe do not know but everyone thanks you.
‘The performance of Leicester helped me to go in the Euros with France and we were unlucky,’ Kante adds. ‘We lost in the final but it was a good experience, if a little sad at the end.’
It was very close to being a remarkably perfect 2015/16 season for the 25-year-old. Having started the early games for the host nation in the European Championships, he missed their big win over Iceland due to suspension and consequently was on the bench for the semi-final and final.
But then this was a player who had never played for France at any junior level and only made his senior international debut in March. It has been a rapid rise to the top indeed.