N’Golo Kanté is really the world’s best soccer player

Move over, Lionel. You had your time.
Move over, Lionel. You had your time.
Image: REUTERS/John Sibley
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The shortlist for the FIFA’s player of the year featured no Lionel Messi for the first time in 12 years and provoked a predictable outcry. French striker Antoine Griezmann said he deserved to be in the top three, instead of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Croatia’s Luka Modric, or Egypt’s Mohamed Salah.

“This is a trophy that’s awarded by FIFA, right?” Griezmann added. “We won a World Cup and there’s no Frenchman on the shortlist. That’s the choice, but it’s surprising.” It is indeed FIFA’s award, entirely separate (except for a short period of time) from the Ballon d’Or, the other annual award for the best player in the world, which has been won by Ronaldo or Messi every year since 2008. The Ballon d’Or, selected by journalists, is awarded by France Football magazine. (The winner of the FIFA award will be announced this month; the next Ballon d’Or is in December.)

French national team coach Didier Deschamps echoed Griezmann’s sentiment that a Frenchman should win after the country took the World Cup in July. Of the French players, Griezmann, Raphael Varane, and teen prodigy Kylian Mbappé all made the longlist.

In any case, none of them deserve it. The winner should be their fellow Frenchman, N’Golo Kanté.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound right. In 2013, when Ronaldo was winning the first of four Champions League titles in a row with Real Madrid, Kanté was plying his trade in obscurity in France’s second division. He helped Caen win promotion to Ligue 1 and stay there. Unheralded by any of the big boys, he was bought by a middling English club, Leicester City, for around €8 million (about $8.8 million at the time).

Kanté deserves to be honored for his incredible winning streak since getting his chance to play at the highest levels of the game. Leicester were likely contenders to be relegated from England’s insanely competitive Premier League when Kanté joined. Instead, Leicester— 5,000-to-1 outsiders—won the league in 2016 in the greatest upset in team sports history. That was in no small part due to the diminutive Frenchman at the base of its midfield.  Their fans called him “the Kanté twins” for his ability to cover as much distance, it seems, as two players.

His work was recognized that year as the soccer writers’ player of the year in the UK and, crucially, as his fellow players’ player of the year. They understood what just what Kanté did for his team. He got his biggest chance when he moved to Chelsea the next season. When Chelsea won the Premier League in 2017, Kanté became the first outfield player to win back-to-back leagues in England with different clubs since a very different French player, Eric Cantona, in 1992-93. And now, in 2018, the midfielder was crucial as France took apart some excellent teams to win its second World Cup.

Only Ronaldo can claim a better three-year period. Then again, Ronaldo’s ascent wasn’t as sharp and his role in soccer games is very different—he is social-media handsome, fast-charging, a winger-cum-midfield-cum-striker who scores a lot of goals. And that may be the difference in why every kid in the world isn’t wearing a Kanté replica shirt.

Soccer doesn’t have a good track record of rewarding those players that do the hard work. The last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, for example, was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, after his Italy won the World Cup. Kanté’s last club coach, Antonio Conte, suggested last year that he will never be crowned the best player in the world.

I don’t know if Kanté can win the Ballon d’Or in his life because of the characteristics of this player. He doesn’t score a lot of goals. He is a great worker. For me, as a coach, Kanté has to win, but in reality it would be very difficult. Paolo Maldini never won but he was the best defender in the world. Gianluigi Buffon never won, he was the best goalkeeper in the world for many years. But this is the story of the Ballon d’Or.

We love shiny things that catch our eye. And we are like moths to the flame of new talent. We love genius. So we love Mbappé, who is scoring goals for fun in the finals of major tournaments at the age of 17. Kanté is not that kind of sportsman. He had to wait to age of 25 to make his debut for the national team. He has won a lot through being willing to do all the stuff that nobody else wants to.

His teammates try to draw attention to the 5ft-6in midfielder, even if he won’t. ”To wind him up, we tell him to dance, to express himself a little. He doesn’t like it. He is shy and reserved. But just seeing him smile makes us happy,” said his national teammate Samuel Umtiti. “N’Golo works in the shadows. We feel obliged to bring him into the light.”

So do we.