When N'Golo Kante walked into the France national team camp in Nice on Tuesday alongside Olivier Giroud and Kurt Zouma, his Chelsea teammates, he was greeted by huge cheers and applause. On Saturday evening, the French squad and manager Didier Deschamps and his staff watched the Champions League final together, once again in total awe of their No. 13's performance.
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Even after all these years -- 45 national team caps and counting since 2016 -- Kante still manages to surprise even his closest friends and teammates with the performances he turns in from week to week.
When Kante arrived, completing Les Bleus' 26-man squad for the Euros, some of the squad welcomed him with the Ballon d'Or treatment. It was half-joking, half-serious, but some teammates told him he was on the golden path to get the golden ball. Others wondered if he'd run the entire way from London to southern France ahead of their friendly with Wales (which the world champions won 3-0) while Deschamps, as always, had choice banter. But deep down, the coach and this team know how lucky they are to have such a player in his squad. As Olivier Giroud told ESPN: "N'Golo is just extraordinary. It's not just the running and the effort, or the balls recovered. It is everything he does. You really feel that you are playing with 12 players when he is there on the pitch."
The Chelsea striker thinks, like a lot of people, that Kante could and should win the Ballon d'Or at the end of the year. The feeling within the French football world is that if Les Bleus have a really good Euros, the former Caen and Leicester man will be right at the top of the list.
Robert Lewandowski will also be a contender after he won Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich, setting a domestic record for most goals in a season (41) along the way; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are always in the mix, domestic disappointments with Barcelona and Juventus aside, as well as Kylian Mbappe or Karim Benzema if they also perform this summer. But Kante, who turned 30 at the end of March, has to be the favourite.
Since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge at the end of January, Kante has taken his game to the next level. The German manager has always been a big fan of Kante's skills and tried to recruit him at PSG. Together at Chelsea, they've worked a lot on the Frenchman's positioning, his ball retention and his ball progression; Tuchel also gave him the confidence and the freedom to allow him to roam and play like he did against Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester City and other elite opponents.
Like the Chelsea boss said to RMC Sport after their 1-0 win at Anfield back in March: "[Kante] is a gift. With my staff, we can't believe what he does. We get his data after his games and even after his training sessions and we can't believe his figures. He really is a gift."
Paul Pogba has been a close friend of Kante for years, but he too is flabbergasted. He told French TV two weeks ago: "Kante's got everything. He's good technically, with a good passing quality, and he's everywhere on the pitch. He runs for 11 players. I even say he appears out of the ground! You don't see him, and 'poof,' he's there! He gets the ball, he can finish. He's everywhere. To have a player like that by your side, what more can you ask for?"
There's another thing that appeals when it comes to Kante, and that's how he would represent victory for "regular" players with a Ballon d'Or instead of the typical superstars. He has helped redefine how we watch football; it's not just about strikers and goal scorers, but more about the players who fight for the team and sacrifice themselves for the greater mission. Kante also represents those who had to fight for everything: after all, he only made his professional debut at 22 years of age, and in France's third division. He would be a perfect post-pandemic winner, a refreshing winner, a humble and modest winner. He would be a very popular winner, too.
Looking through the archives, no real defensive midfielder has ever won the Ballon d'Or. Just one defensive player, Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, has claimed the prize in the modern era; the closest to Kante's position and profile would maybe be Lothar Matthaus, who won it in 1990, but the Germany great had a very different style as a deep-lying playmaker or "sweeper."
Luka Modric, winner in 2018, was more of a playmaker too. But if he got it in the World Cup year -- he guided Croatia to the final, where they lost to Les Bleus, and won his fourth Champions League title with Real Madrid in 2018 -- there is no reason why Kante would not got it this year if France do well at the Euros. Other comparisons for Kante, Franz Beckenbauer and Mathias Sammer, played as the "No. 6" at times in their careers, but both men won the Ballon d'Or after dominant seasons as converted centre-backs.
As much as Kante would love to win the most prestigious individual award in world football, he would probably hate it too. He seems to shy away from anything that makes him the centre of attention.
When France won the 2018 World Cup and celebrated a few weeks later with the fans at the Stade de France, he was asking Benjamin Mendy to not sing the Kante song too much. When he was made man of the match after Chelsea's Champions League semifinal, second leg against Real Madrid (he claimed the award in three of Chelsea's six knockout games on the road to the title, and in the final itself) he said to a pitchside reporter that he didn't feel comfortable doing an interview because it was a team's win, not just his. And then he drove out of Stamford Bridge in his Mini...
That's Kante for you. He's so shy that you never hear him speak on the pitch, or very rarely. With a huge smile, Riyad Mahrez remembers one of the rare times he did: "When we were at Leicester together, I knew I didn't have to defend because Kante was behind me and he would defend for two. And you know how shy he is so he didn't use to say anything. But one day, during a game, I heard his little voice saying 'hey Riyad, do you mind just defending a little bit, please?'"
Off the field, it's quite different though, as Pogba explains: "He cheats a lot. A lot. At card games, board games. Honestly, I'm telling the truth. He cheats. He says he doesn't cheat, but he does. He uses cunning. He's a smart kid, N'Golo. But it's OK. You have to love him. He's the most beloved player in the history of football. You've got to love him; you cannot hate him, it is not possible. He is humble, kind, professional. He will never complain. He will work."
Trying to win a card game at all costs should not prevent you from winning the Ballon d'Or. So far, 2021 belongs to Kante, and if the second part of the year is like the first, it will be impossible not to give him the trophy.