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On the pitch in Moscow back in 2018, N’Golo Kanté famously waited to hold the World Cup trophy until France teammate Steven Nzonzi finally grabbed it and thrust it into his hands. Kanté, as the story went, was too shy to ask for the trophy he played a central role in winning.
“I was waiting my turn,” the Chelsea midfielder confirmed later that year.
Three years later, it may be Kanté's turn to have yet another trophy thrust in his arms.
The Ballon d’Or as world player of the year.
Typically reserved for superstars with big egos and larger-than-life personalities, Kanté would arrive at the award ceremony as the anti-superstar. The multi-millionaire was once filmed leaving Stamford Bridge in a Mini Cooper. Another time, he missed his train from London to visit family in Paris following a match, so he decided to go to a nearby mosque. There, he was approached by someone who invited him over for dinner, where Kanté casually spent a couple hours beating a local group of friends at FIFA, watching highlights and eating chicken curry after having played 90 minutes earlier in the day.
For club and country, he acts as a ball-winning midfielder — a role that offers little glamor and rarely features in highlight packages. Standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighing 154 pounds, he profiles more as a scrawny high school sophomore than a world-class central midfielder.
He doesn’t score often, either. In fact, he didn’t tally a single goal in nearly 50 appearances during the 2020-21 campaign. That didn't stop him from winning man of the match honors in both Champions League semifinal legs against Real Madrid and Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and Casemiro, arguably the greatest midfield setup in the competition's history.
To follow up those showcases, Kanté bossed a Manchester City team built on a bottomless budget and took home man of the match honors in the Champions League final. That came a month after helping Chelsea knock quadruple-chasing City out of the FA Cup semifinals, too.
Now with France entering Euro 2020 as the favorite and opening a difficult Group F against Germany on Tuesday, Kanté is legitimately in line to win the Ballon d’Or.
At 30, Kanté's ubiquity in the middle of the park and his determination to win the ball are being valued far more now than when he won the Premier League with Leicester City in 2016, or with Chelsea the following year. And so, the Paris-born son of Malian immigrants could be well on his way to putting together a calendar year like few before him.
France has won the World Cup and European Championship consecutively before, back in 1998 and 2000 with Zinedine Zidane leading the midfield. Zidane is also the last Frenchman to win the Ballon d’Or, having done so in 1998, and his scoring, dribbling, first touch and passing are all superior to Kanté's.
But in terms of disrupting the opposition’s midfield and instantly transforming sides into title-winners, Kanté is one of the greatest the game has ever seen. His late-blooming journey has also disrupted the trajectory of the sport over the past half-dozen years.
Were it not for Kanté, Arsenal likely would have won the Premier League in 2016, while Tottenham was in line to win it in 2017. Leicester City and Chelsea both benefited from Kanté leading the league with 302 total tackles over that two-year span. The next closest player had more than 10 percent fewer tackles.
Without Kanté, France probably doesn’t win the World Cup in 2018, because Paul Pogba never fits into his role without the Energizer bunny doing the work of three men around him. Kanté makes everyone else’s life easier, provided you’re on his team. The opposite is true if you’re not — exponentially so if you’re in the midfield.
He’s the least intimidating player to look at but the most intimidating player to face. He may not clatter his opponents and collect red cards like they’re Pokemon, but he intimidates by cleanly taking the ball off the best players in the world, repeatedly, for 90 minutes at a time. He intercepts passes to such a degree that even teams that pride themselves on possession football are forced to run back and defend constantly.
When one player can entirely disrupt, dominate and beat the best sides money can buy without scoring a goal or providing the assist, the sport has to take pause and revaluate what is valuable.
If France continues to win this summer, Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappé and Pogba will feature on the post-match highlight packages and prominently in the newspapers. But the not-so-well-kept secret is that France will only go as far as Kanté's legs take them.
If he runs France to Wembley Stadium in London in July, Kanté will be in line to become the unlikeliest Ballon d’Or winner in history. Then, he won’t need to wait his turn to hold the trophy, because it’ll belong to him and him alone.
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