N’Golo Kante is set to take to one of football’s biggest stages at Euro 2016, but there was a time when the Frenchman’s prospects appeared far less glamorous.
Kante’s story is in many ways as unlikely as that of Leicester City’s title triumph, with the midfielder – diminutive in stature but not short on character – overlooked by talent scouts when finding his feet as a youngster at JS Suresnes in his homeland.
He is now a Premier League champion, reportedly on the radar of some of Europe’s leading clubs and in line to represent France at the European Championship.
Pierre Ville coached the young Kante and has watched his rise – via Boulogne and Caen – with interest, believing the best is yet to come.
“Today, I can’t say what are the limits of N’Golo,” Ville told Omnisport. “I think he can still improve. He knows it. I tell him sometimes – it’s not done yet.
“Although he is in the national team, he’s an England champion, N’Golo can still improve. He has improved so much his football between Caen and Leicester.
“He knows it when we talk to him. He is a clever player. He tries to do better and has done better. He is an exceptional engine. He runs, his movement is great, he’s brave and he is exceptionally humble.”
That grounded nature was apparent in Kante from the start of his football journey when, at the age of 11, he stepped up to Suresnes Under-13s and took it in his stride.
“He was running everywhere, more than any other player,” former team-mate Francois Lemoine said. “He would take the ball off our feet even though we were taller than him.
“We thought that we were better than him, but he would come and intercept all the balls. He would pass when we were only thinking about dribbling.
“At this age, you want to show off. Not N’Golo. He would think about passing the ball. He has kept the same qualities.”
The talent was there, but his size presented a problem for prospective suitors, who could not envisage the pint-sized enforcer overcoming his apparent physical disadvantage.
“I know that every year, the three best players of each category go to Clairefontaine to do some trials,” Lemoine continued. “I know that it never worked out for him, probably because of his height.
“He was so good so I don’t have any other explanation.”
Ville echoed those sentiments, revealing his frustration at being unable to get clubs to take a chance on a player he felt was destined for the top.
“We called a few clubs,” he explained. “He went on trial at Sochaux, Rennes, Lorient, Amiens. But he didn’t get signed.
“But it was okay for N’Golo. In his mind after that, it wasn’t like ‘I want to be a pro footballer’. He was saying ‘I am not ready’. He was right. We knew his qualities, but one couldn’t see it after only a day of trial.
“N’Golo wasn’t obsessed with being a pro. He wanted to get the best. He wanted to improve.”
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