The N’golo Kante Phenomenon– Mike Awoyinfa Column

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Already, he is widely touted as the man to win the next Ballon d’Or, the Golden Ball—football’s most prestigious individual award won six times by Lionel Messi and five times by Cristiano Ronaldo.  In 2018, Luka Modric broke the Messi-Ronaldo dominance to win the Ballon D’Or.  

Now, there is a powerful wind of change blowing in the direction of a phenomenon by name N’Golo Kante, the diminutive Chelsea midfield marshal, who many are tipping to win the Golden Ball for 2021 after inspiring Chelsea to win the UEFA Champions League 2021 which is next to the World Cup in prestige.   

Who else should win the Ballon D’Or, if not this workaholic, this dynamo whose yeoman work in the midfield stood him out and contributed in no small measure in bringing the coveted UEFA Cup last Saturday to Chelsea—the underdog by comparison to the Premiership league winners Manchester City?  Who else, if not this hard-tackling, ball-winning, skillful footballer sitting in the engine room of Chelsea and driving the team to greater heights?  Who else if not this French-Malian whiz-kid whose arrival at Stanford Bridge tolled the knell for our very own John Obi Mikel, a good midfielder who lost his regular position and had to be benched on account of Kante, a superior midfielder who drove Leicester City to winning the Premier League in a fairy tale style under Coach Claudio Ranieri?

From Leicester City to Chelsea, Kante won the Premiership back-to-back, joining fellow Frenchman Eric Cantona in the list of exceptional footballers who won Premiership back-to-back with two different clubs.  In a game where strikers and goal poachers take the lion share of the accolades, Kante’s services and contributions to the team do not go unnoticed.  From coaches to players to fans, everybody notices the input of this defensive-cum-attacking midfielder who is everywhere, defending with his heart, soul and might, intercepting enemy attacks, reading the game perfectly with a sense of clairvoyance, passing the ball for others to score, joining in the attack and scoring when it matters most.  He may be short, yet he flies high like a bird into the sky to win aerial balls, beating taller opponents to the ball.

Such is his utility and soccer prowess that all the experts have words of praise for Kante.  Legendary Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger says of Kante: “We have seen a man who is above everybody else, N’Golo Kante.”  

Joe Cole, former Chelsea midfielder says: “I don’t think there is a more important player for his team in world football than N’Golo Kante.  He drove the team.  I played with Claude Makelele and I thought he was the best in that position until I saw this kid.  He is Makelele plus extras.”  

A BBC analyst had this to say about last Saturday’s epic duel: “Chelsea had heroes everywhere, none more so than the magnificent N’Golo Kante, who delivered the complete midfield performance, this game’s great manipulator and controller.  Kante’s performance was one of the great big match displays, breathtaking in its skill, energy and uncanny ability to be everywhere the action is.”

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Kai Havertz, the player Chelsea brought from a German club for 75 million pounds may have justified his financial worth by scoring the one-vital goal that won Chelsea the coveted UEFA Cup, beating the much favoured Manchester City coached by the tactically savvy Pep Guardiola, but Kante ended up as the Man of The Match in this hotly contested soccer spectacle.  It wasn’t attained by a fluke.  He worked for it.  He earned it.  He deserved it.  All through the league, Kante has consistently emerged as the Man of The Match.  Against Atletico Madrid, he was.  Against Real Madrid in the semi-finals, home and away, he was.  He dashed the hopes of the two Spanish giants.  The harder they came, they harder they fell.  Thanks to the phenomenon called N’Golo Kante, a player who is the embodiment of humility, shyness, self-effacing, a selfless utility player sacrificing everything for his team to win.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are you when even your teammates carry you and lift you into the air in celebration as we saw on television with Kante being carried aloft in the post-match celebration.  Blessed are you when your mother is seen on television globally, embracing you after the battle is won and shedding tears of joy together as mother and son remembered the past—the days when there was no food on the table, when they remembered Kante’s father who died when Kante was just 11.  Blessed are you when the fans are singing your name like the women of Israel did for David after he slaughtered Goliath.  Blessed are you when your name is N’Golo Kante, the little man who has made it big and written his name in the Ballon D’Or of the heart.

What a triumphant spectacle it was seeing the Chelsea owner Abramovich grinning like the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, knowing that he made the right decision in bringing in the expert, the highly experienced coach Thomas Tuchel when the limitation of Frank Lampard became obvious.  Tuchel, the German tactician who outmatched Guardiola strategy for strategy, tactics for tactics, beating him three times and scoring a hat-trick in all the three meetings of Chelsea and Manchester City since taking over as Chelsea coach.  

Come on, Frank Lampard.  Come and take a bow.  At least, you laid the foundation by bringing in the young talents, the materials that Tuchel worked on and converted into solid gold.  Now we know: it’s one thing to be a great footballer, it’s another thing to be great coach.  I think that is the problem with Manchester United now.  They have a lot of lessons to learn from Chelsea, if Manchester United is to go back to the glorious days of Sir Alex Fergusson.

All said it was a great day to be a Chelsea fan.  Guardiola is still a good coach.  Only that he came up with a strategy that backfired, choosing to start with players he had never picked before, gambling with an array of attacking talents and leaving behind his tested, reliable midfield anchors like Fernandinho and Rodri.  Failure indeed is an orphan.  You can imagine the accolades that would have followed if only his strategy had worked.  Guardiola is no god.  He is human after all.  He has failed but not a failure.  He has done so well as a coach.  Kudos too.  There is always a next time.  I am sure Guardiola himself would vote for N’Golo Kante to win the Ballon D’Or.    

      

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