Kanté is back, better than ever, and France need him badly

PADERBORN, Germany — In the games room of France’s team hotel, near Paderborn, defenders William Saliba and Ibrahima Konaté can’t stop laughing. You can hear their screams of delight echo through the corridors. The reason? They caught teammate N’Golo Kanté cheating at UNO again.

At the 2018 World Cup, the quietly spoken Kanté earned something of a reputation for dishonesty when it came to playing games of cards within the squad. He may have claimed he was only “a competitor” back then, but last week when the media asked him if he was any different now, his answer was straight: “No, I’m the same. But I don’t cheat at cards anymore.”

Clearly Kanté still strays from the rules of cards somewhat, but what’s certain is that on the football pitch it’s like nothing has changed.

The last time the 33-year-old played for Les Blues before the warm-up games for Euro 2024 was in a 2-1 Nations League defeat to Denmark in June 2022. After that, a bad hamstring injury saw him miss the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and 90% of the 2022-23 season with Chelsea. Then his move to Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad in the summer of 2023 pushed him further out of the spotlight and many wondered if we would ever see the all-action midfielder play for his country again.

But, while he was a shock inclusion in the Euro 2024 squad after 24 months away from international football, Kanté is back with a bang and it’s one of the greatest stories of the tournament so far.

Before travelling to Germany, Kanté beat everyone else in the squad in the physical tests. And, as if anyone needed reminding of his quality, his performances in training quickly won his teammates over.

“I have the impression that were three of him at Clairefontaine!” Marcus Thuram said before France’s opening game. “I have never seen anything like it, it’s horrible, it’s horrible, we can’t play anymore, we can’t play in training anymore. As soon as we have him on our team we know we have won. But more seriously, N’Golo is incredible, and I think that in one week he reminded us why he was one of the best midfielders in the world.”

For the first two matches, against Austria (1-0) and Netherlands (0-0), Kanté was just that and won the Man of the Match award on both occasions. He ran more than anyone else on the pitch, recovered the ball more than anyone else, and won more duels than anyone else. He was everywhere.

In the dressing room after the Austria game, teammates Konaté and Youssouf Fofana were stunned. “It is a madness. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Konaté said in a video shared on France’s official social media channels. Fofana added: “Listen to me when I talk. It’s not a myth. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I have. It’s crazy.”

For the third game against Poland, a 1-1 draw that saw France slip to finish second in the group, head coach Didier Deschamps played Kanté out of position on the right side of a midfield three and it didn’t work. But even Deschamps has been amazed by the veteran’s level so far — he has a 71.4% tackle accuracy from seven made (the most for France), and is joint-second in ball recoveries (13).

Deschamps can call upon the likes of Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Warren Zaïre-Emery (PSG), Aurélien Tchouaméni (Real Madrid) and Fofana (Monaco) in central midfield, yet the coach has used Kanté for 240 minutes at the Euros so far. Only five players have managed more so far.

But while Saliba revealed on Thursday how Kanté “brings so much to the team with his activity and his calm on the ball,” there is another aspect to his role as an elder statesman: helping out the young players in the team.

“He is much more vocal than ever before,” a source close to the France camp told ESPN. “Before, you never used to hear him, now it is different. He gives advice, he talks, he guides, he repositions. He has opened up massively, to the benefit of the team.”

Tchouameni, Fofana and Zaïre-Emery, who all play in his position, have received the most instructions. That’s where Kanté has changed the most in the last few years and admitted as much himself after the Poland game, telling the media: “I understood the importance of transmitting your knowledge when I got to Saudi in a young team. It was good to help the younger players.”

During Euro 2024, Kanté is yet to lose a single match — big or small — in training. But the round of 16 is where things get serious and, against Belgium in Düsseldorf on Monday, the midfielder will need to make the difference by showing his quality once more.

Against all odds, Deschamps has found great success by calling back one of his favourite players in his 10-year tenure at the helm of France. “N’Golo? I think he is still running!” the coach quipped after the draw with Netherlands.

And if the 33-year-old can lead France to the Euro 2024 final on July 14, they’ll let him cheat at cards all he wants.

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