N’Golo Kanté and the Art of Winning

N’Golo Kanté and the Art of Winning

LONDON — For Andrea Pirlo, it was the satisfaction of a free kick, sweetly struck, sweeping “a couple of centimeters over” a defender’s head, beyond the goalkeeper’s despairing reach, whistling into the corner of the goal. There could be, he wrote in his autobiography, “no greater feeling in life.”

Dennis Bergkamp felt the same way about the perfect touch. He did not remember his most iconic moments — for the Netherlands against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, his masterpieces against Leicester City and Newcastle for Arsenal — as goals, he said, but because of what happened a beat before, when he had cast a spell over the ball.

The goal was the consequence; the touch was the cause. In Bergkamp’s mind, that was what should be celebrated. That was what he remembered.

It is the sort of question that tends to be asked only of creative players, those who have not just excelled at the business of soccer — scoring goals and winning games — but have mastered the craft of it, elevated it into an art form: What is it that brings you most pleasure? Transient success, or something higher?

N’Golo Kanté is not the sort of player who is routinely asked those sorts of questions. His job, after all, is not art: He is soccer’s ultimate artisan. He is what Eric Cantona once dismissed as a water-carrier: a player who does the running and the fetching and the retrieving. He does it all better than anyone else in the sport, but still: They are just the hard yards. The real magic is in the invention. Poets are allowed a process; stenographers are not.

His answer to the questions, though, is intriguing. What brings Kanté, the Chelsea midfielder, the most satisfaction in soccer is not, as you perhaps would expect, the sense of having contributed, the warm glow of helping his teammates, seeing his altruism rewarded. It is not a perfectly-timed tackle, or an astutely-triggered counterattack. It is not even one of those rare moments when he pops up with a goal.

“It is not a special skill,” he said. “My favorite thing is when we lift a trophy. Afterward, we can have a picture of us lifting a trophy. And that picture shows a lot of work, a lot of difficulty and a lot of sacrifice together. That is what it takes, to lift a trophy. From one picture, I can have many memories.”

N’Golo Kanté’s favorite thing about soccer is the part where you win.

There are lots of stories about Kanté. He has heard most of them.

Some of them are true: He does drive a somewhat sedate car, by soccer star standards. Some of them contain what is probably best described as a kernel of truth, like the one Olivier Giroud — his teammate on France’s victorious World Cup team — told on his behalf last year.

In Giroud’s telling, Kanté was too “shy” to ask to hold the famous trophy aloft; instead, as his teammates celebrated on the field in Moscow, his teammate Steven Nzonzi had to ask that Kanté be given his moment for posterity, too. “It wasn’t that,” Kanté says now. “It has been changed a bit. I was just enjoying the moment. I was standing a little bit from the front when Hugo Lloris, the captain, started to lift the trophy. I was just waiting for my time. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to lift it.”

And other stories are, put simply, just not true, like the one that Jamie Vardy, a former teammate at Leicester City, introduced into folklore: that the 28-year-old Kanté, not content with doing extra running work after training sessions, had at one point suggested that he might stop driving his Mini Cooper to training altogether and just run to work instead. “I did not,” Kanté said, “go as far as that.”

The reasons the stories go around, true or not, is because they fit Kanté’s image. He is — if there is such a thing in a sport addled by tribal loyalty — universally popular, the sort of player who can be named in the investigations of the Football Leaks whistle-blowing website and yet come out with his reputation enhanced.

He was a late bloomer, still wondering when he turned 19 and 20 whether he might have a professional career ahead of him, only tasting one of Europe’s major leagues for the first time when he joined Leicester in 2015. That back story lends his rise a feel-good air, the aura of a fairy tale about a boy assumed to be too small to make it proving everyone wrong.

The job he does — selfless, in the shadows, no stage for showmanship — and the way he does it, with boundless industry and a smile on his face, lend themselves to the mythologizing. Kanté’s role is to make others look good, to provide the platform for others to shine. It makes it easy to believe that he is, as public perception has it, the opposite of a superstar.

Watching him at a promotional event a few weeks ago, it is clear it is not an act. Along with his Chelsea teammates Michy Batshuayi and Kepa Arrizabalaga — as well as Everton’s Moise Kean and the former Arsenal striker Ian Wright — he was invited by his shoe sponsor, Adidas, to a hangar in London’s emerging Nine Elms district for the launch of the Uniforia, the company’s ball for next year’s European Championships.

Kanté does not necessarily relish this side of his work. “It is something I have learned to do,” he said. He knows, though, that it is part of the deal. “We need to do them sometimes.”

Batshuayi, Kean and Arrizabalaga all seemed at ease under the bright lights, happily striking poses for the assembled photographers and Instagram influencers. Kanté, the most high-profile player present, looked less comfortable.

As the centerpiece of the presentation, he was given the job of holding the new ball aloft. He had the broad, fixed smile of someone who knew he was being photographed. He held the ball at an arm’s length in front of him. He stood stock still, looking very much like a man focusing intently on doing a simple job well.

Perhaps the best description of Kanté came from Steve Walsh, the veteran scout and coach responsible for plucking him from the French team Caen and bringing him to Leicester City. That Leicester team, Walsh joked, the one that produced the most extraordinary Premier League title imaginable, played with three in midfield: Danny Drinkwater holding, with Kanté on either side.

That is how it feels to watch him play: As another joke during his first season in England had it, if 70 percent of the earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by Kanté. At times, he feels like a one-man midfield: scurrying left and right, front and back to extinguish danger, far stronger than his 5-foot-6-inch stature would suggest, easing opponents off the ball, harrying, harassing.

This is the work — not the art — of soccer; that is, at least, how Kanté sees it. “I am not a superstar or an ego,” he said. “I am just the same as I always was: Someone who plays football.”

That is not to say he does not enjoy it. He is keen to point out that his shyness should not be mistaken for a lack of self-confidence. “I have always been discreet in my life,” he said. “But it has never been a problem playing. At first, I was playing in front of 10 people in a park, then 1,000, then 10,000, then 80,000 and you are on television. I have done it step by step, so it is not a problem. There is no lack of confidence to be on the field, in front of many, many people.”

He takes great “satisfaction in recovering a ball, in protecting my team from an opponent’s attack.” He likes the sense of collective effort; he likes being part of a team. But most of all, he likes winning. Kanté may be self-effacing. He may deserve his reputation as one of the sport’s good guys. He may be willing to sacrifice himself for the team. He may do the selfless work, laboring in the background so that others can shine.

But he does not do it out of the goodness of his heart. It may not be immediately apparent behind the smile, and it may not fit the image we have constructed of him, but what makes Kanté such a force of nature, what drives soccer’s foremost artisan, is a ruthless competitive streak.

He is no less a master of his craft than Pirlo or Bergkamp; his craft just takes a different form. His inspiration is not the pursuit of beauty or some quixotic search for perfection. It is the collection of memories: the two Premier League titles, the Europa League, the World Cup. It is the photos afterward that remind him that all the toil and struggle, all the fetching and retrieving, was worth it. “The biggest satisfaction of all,” he said, “is to win.”

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