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The Biggest Key to France’s World Cup Run Was Their Smallest, Most Unassuming Player

In praise of the beloved, humble midfield dynamo who is omnipresent on the pitch but nearly invisible off of it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Though 2018 World Cup winners France have a frightening arsenal of attacking weapons—highlighted by playmaking forward Antoine Griezmann and the blistering one-man counter Kylian Mbappé—the team was defined by its defensive fortitude. To watch Les Bleus stifle more creatively inclined opposition wasn’t captivating or particularly flashy in a traditional sense, but it’s this workmanlike efficiency that made us marvel at the team’s understated MVP.

N’Golo Kanté doesn’t jump off the screen in the same way as his teammates—neither for France nor for his club team Chelsea. His diminutive stature (he’s listed at a generous 5-foot-6) compared with the majority of the players surrounding him on the pitch is often jarring, like a fourth grader playing streetball with a bunch of grown men. He is naturally shy, quiet, and unassuming—the “OK” meme guy in the form of a world-class player.

Kanté’s presence on the pitch is itself a paradox: The 27-year-old defensive midfielder is self-effacing to the point of anonymity, but also omnipresent; a common refrain is that he’s got a secret twin, because there’s no way one single player can cover that much ground. The dude does not stop hustling, and I wouldn’t bat an eye if his pregame warm-up was secretly a half-marathon.

Kanté’s brilliance, while perhaps going unnoticed by casual soccer fans and those who only check match scores, is not lost on his teammates. You need only to see the way Kanté’s French compatriots sang his praises—literally—following their 4-2 win in the final over Croatia to understand how integral, and absolutely beloved, the midfielder is.

The Kanté-specific celebrations continued on the French team bus, with a chant breaking out that praised his ability to shut down Lionel Messi, arguably the best player on the planet, in the round of 16 (“He’s short, he’s nice, he’s the one that stopped Leo Messi,” the Kanté ode goes, translated from French).

This is the purest shit I’ve seen all year, and it couldn’t be happening to a more deserving player. Kanté didn’t have a prototypical journey to soccer stardom. As recently as 2014, he was playing in the second tier of French club football for Caen. Kanté’s ascent began in 2015, when he was purchased by Leicester City, where he helped lead the Foxes to a Premier League title in one of the most shocking moments in recent sports history.

While forwards Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy contributed to Leicester’s explosive counterattacks, Kanté was the anchor of their midfield, intercepting balls and completing more tackles than any other player in the EPL that season. As Leicester legend Gary Lineker aptly tweeted during the season, “If planet Earth was ever under threat from an asteroid, I’m pretty sure that Kanté would intercept it.”

Kanté was purchased by Chelsea for the 2016-17 season, which was his second consecutive title-winning season. He was also awarded PFA Player of the Year at the end of that season, becoming only the second non-attacking player to win the award since 2000. His on-stage interview after accepting the trophy from David Beckham can be described only as Humble AF—take a shot every time he attributes his enormous success to hard work and training.

The best athletes in professional sports often carry some sort of ego (see: Cristiano Ronaldo), if only as a form of self-motivation in an environment that breeds fierce competition and hostility. It is exceedingly rare to see players go about their business so unassumingly and with such humility. As former Chelsea coach Antonio Conte said of Kanté amid their title-winning season: “He’s a humble man, a humble player. I like him. I like these type of players who put the team before themselves.” For Kanté, I used to think the best NBA comparison was Kawhi Leonard … and we all know how that’s going. (Suffice to say, it is virtually impossible to picture N’Golo Kanté holding Chelsea hostage to move to another club.)

It’s why it makes sense for Kanté’s French teammates to dole out so much praise. Kanté isn’t one to do it for himself, so they might as well become his chorus of hype. In the World Cup, he had 52 recoveries, which led all players and was the most by a Frenchman since 1966, and was also tied for the tournament lead with 20 interceptions. Put simply, Kanté was as integral to France’s World Cup success as Griezmann, Mbappé, and Paul Pogba—and his teammates know it.

After France won Sunday—a game in which Kanté underperformed and was subbed early in the second half, though it was later reported he tried to play through a stomach bug—Kanté was reportedly too shy to ask his teammates to hold the World Cup trophy, so Steven N’Zonzi had to ask them on his behalf. (My heart!) Every aspect of Kanté’s life is just one wholesome meme. Former teammates in France said he’s not interested in nightlife, preferring to go home and rest before more training and matches. He looks happy—even when he’s waiting at an airport. Since moving to England, the undersized midfielder has been driving a Mini Cooper. You can’t make this stuff up.

Kanté’s likability notwithstanding, the World Cup was a fitting exclamation point on his dizzying three-year journey. Two EPL titles, an FA Cup, and a World Cup trophy have helped boost the résumé of the tireless talisman. Hopefully, with Les Bleus turning the Kanté chant into a nationwide rallying cry, the casual soccer fans of the world will get to know the world’s best defensive midfielder. Lord knows he’s too humble to reach out himself.