He's sparked Leicester, and Kante can do the same for France, says Neil Humphreys
Leicester's Kante primed to make his mark with Euro 2016 contenders
N'Golo Kante's story is Leicester City's story.
He's the little engine that could. Just 1.69m tall, he once walked with giants. Now he devours them.
The midfielder has conquered English football in a single season. If he sustains his colossal form, he threatens to conquer French football in one tournament.
National coach Didier Deschamps has already seen enough. He's picked Kante to face Holland and Russia in the upcoming friendlies as he shapes a side to do the host nation proud at Euro 2016.
Deschamps was on the right track at the World Cup two years ago, putting together an effective, elegant 4-3-3 formation that hinted at his side's capability. A foundation was built in Brazil, but a fortress could be established on home soil.
And Kante has unknowingly spent a season rehearsing the role of gatekeeper.
He joins defence and attack seamlessly for Leicester. He can now bridge the French gap between potential and end product.
Deschamps has chopped and changed in search of that elusive missing link, experimenting with Morgan Schneiderlin, Yohan Cabaye and Lassana Diarra.
Who knew the answer was quietly going about his business of turning the Foxes into dream keepers across the English Channel?
If Kante's on-field heroics suggest his kit is missing a red cape and a large "S" on his chest, then his off-field antics are equally reminiscent of Clark Kent's alter ego.
There aren't any.
Until this season, Kante's life and career had been played out in a self-imposed fortress of solitude.
He ticked every sociologist's cliche. The son of Malinese immigrants and one of nine siblings, Kante grew up in a rundown Parisian suburb. A council house kid short on money and opportunity, he forged an EPL career on cracked concrete.
Street football was his salvation. With bigger kids, confined spaces, fast passes and snappy tackles, Kante had effectively passed his Premier League audition before puberty.
But he was a passive-aggressive character; aggressive with a ball and passive without it, devoting himself to family, religion and the immediate community.
He didn't hound down the agent with the loudest megaphone in a bid to hunt down fame and fortune. He waited for them to find him.
With a wry grin, Deschamps admitted this week that Kante had previously slipped beneath the radar in France, turning out for Boulogne and Caen and making headway without making headlines.
The move to Leicester seemed a suitable fit for the 24-year-old's modest talents.
But Kante and his ferocious Foxes soon spun the EPL off its axis.
Until then, managers like Deschamps thought they had it all figured out. Midfielders such as Schneiderlin played for Manchester United; a branded club and a branded name suitable for a branded nation going places. Such archaic thinking now sounds silly.
Deschamps conceded as much this week, suggesting that he already knew Schneiderlin's qualities. It was time for new blood.
In other words, United and Schneiderlin have veered between average and awful, ridiculing the assumption that the traditional elite must be the incubators for national managers.
Kante might have been identified earlier, if the dizzying names of Paul Pogba, Cabaye and Schneiderlin hadn't blindsided selectors.
It's still increasingly hard to fathom how Kante was never capped at youth or Under-21 levels. But it's the quiet ones you've got to watch.
Slight in stature, but ferocious in the tackle, Kante has reduced seasoned campaigners at Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United to bowling pins.
He performs every duty expected of a combative midfielder. As Claudio Ranieri remarked after Leicester's win over Chelsea: "(Kante) is amazing. He recovers all the balls, in this stadium, the other stadiums, everywhere."
Of course, Kante's central midfield qualities were not absent from France's World Cup campaign.
Blaise Matuidi and Pogba are no less productive, but Deschamps' habit of playing a less authoritative figure in the middle of his midfield trio, with Matuidi and Pogba often on opposing flanks, has left the central role unsettled.
The French core remains remarkably solid, with Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Matuidi, Pogba, Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzama underlying their Euro 2016 credentials.
But Kante could be the ace in a hole that Deschamps has struggled to fill.
He has two games to stake his claim for automatic selection.
In the most surreal of seasons, there's still time to write a double fantasy for both club and country.
He might not be very tall, but he’s very useful. Kante wins balls, has great transition play, can be found everywhere, and always has solutions... I’m excited to see what he does at the national team.
— France coach Didier Deschamps on Leicester City midfielder N’Golo Kante, who is only 1.69m tall
FRANCE'S FRIENDLIES (SINGAPORE TIME)
- v Holland (Amsterdam Arena)
- v Russia (Stade de France)
No fear of playing at Stade de France
WIN OR BUST: France coach Didier Deschamps (above) has declared that anything less than a third European Championship title this summer would be a disappointment.
France coach Didier Deschamps insisted on Monday there will be no fear among his team as they play at the Stade de France for the first time since it was targeted by suicide bombers last November.
The French rugby team have played Italy, Ireland and England there in the meantime, but their friendly game against Russia next Wednesday morning (Singapore time) is the first football international since the France-Germany game on that fated night of Nov 13 last year.
That night, 130 people were killed in a series of attacks across the French capital, with suicide bombers detonating explosives outside the Stade de France.
One person was killed and dozens injured outside the stadium.
DON'T BE BEATEN
"No one will ever forget what happened, but we should not go there with fear and uncertainty," said Deschamps.
"We went through some horrible moments, really dramatic. But the Stade de France is our stadium," said Deschamps, who himself lifted the 1998 World Cup trophy at the venue as captain of France.
"Let's make this a beautiful party," he added. "It was challenging emotionally, but we have to get on with things now."
Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives at the Stade de France, the first having been turned away at the gate when a security guard discovered his jacket.
Earlier, Deschamps also played down speculation about French forward Franck Ribery coming out of international retirement for Euro 2016.
Last week, Ribery, who called time on his France career in 2014, fuelled talk of a possible return, having regained full fitness after an injury-plagued last few seasons at Bayern Munich.
However, Deschamps said there were no plans to recall the 32-year-old. "For me, the Ribery question isn't on the agenda, we must not get ahead of ourselves," he said in an interview with German magazine Kicker published on Monday.
"I'm happy that Franck is smiling again and enjoying playing again. But he's played in only two or three matches where's he played more than 80 minutes, and a bit more against Juventus."
"His comments pleased a number of people in France. In my case, it made me smile a little. He just said: 'We must see'," added Deschamps, recalling Ribery's response to a possible return to the France squad.
Deschamps also said that anything less than a third European Championship title this summer would be a disappointment for the hosts. "It will be a successful tournament if we win it. If we're knocked out before, we would have failed." - AFP.
It will be a successful tournament if we win it. If we’re knocked out before, we would have failed.
— France coach Didier Deschamps, on their target to win Euro 2016