It is the night before the 2012 Champions League final and inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Munich, Chelsea’s players are preparing for the defining game of their careers.
For the likes of Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, it is almost certainly their last opportunity to lift the famous big-eared trophy. They had come agonisingly close before but only suffered heartbreak. This time had to – and would be – different.
Meanwhile, more than 500 miles away on the west coast of France, US Boulogne are ending their Ligue 2 season with a 2-0 defeat to Monaco. The French side are already relegated. There is little to play for and the match appears to have very little significance.
Except, in the 79th minute of the contest, Boulogne head coach Pascal Plancque decides to hand one of his substitutes his professional debut. The substitute in question is N’Golo Kante.
It is a little more than nine years since that evening. The following day Chelsea would go on to be crowned champions of Europe. Kante’s May 19 was a little less grandiose.
There would’ve been plenty of uncertainty for Kante to contend with that Saturday. Due to their relegation, Boulogne would play the following season in the Championnat National, the third tier of French football which includes professional, semi-professional, and amateur sides.
“I didn’t know how far I could go; I just wanted to turn pro and do my best,” Kante recalled in an interview with UEFA ahead of this weekend’s Champions League final, in which the 30-year-old will prove an influential figure for Chelsea.
Kante started out at his local side JS Suresnes and it wasn’t until he was 19 years old that he was signed by Boulogne, although he spent the majority of the first two years with the club in the reserves
Yet that relegation from Ligue 2 in 2012 proved exactly what Kante – who was not on a professional contract – needed. Boulogne hired Georges Tournay and he installed Kante in the centre of midfield during the 2012/13 campaign.
“When I arrived, I tested many young players from the training centre, including him.” Tournay explained to Le Figaro in 2016.
“N’Golo immediately exploded in my eyes. His movement, technique, his simplicity, his stamina. I wondered what he was doing there.”
Trust and an opportunity, that’s all Kante really needed. He made 39 appearances for Boulogne during the 2012/13 season, midway through which he signed a pre-contract with Ligue 2 side Caen.
At the age of 22, Kante could finally call himself a professional footballer. It had been a long journey but one that he had never given up hope of realising, partly because of Chelsea’s hero that night in Munich.
“I heard stories of Didier Drogba and Adil Rami, who went from being amateurs to becoming professional, it was a source of strength and told me that it was possible, even if you start from a long way off,” Kante told SFR Sport in 2017.
His first campaign with Caen resulted in the club securing promotion to Ligue 1 and Kante being named in the team of the season. During his second, Kante played top-flight football for the first time in his career.
He missed only one league match during the 2014/15 season and – given he made the most ball recoveries of any player in the division – caught the attention of the wider footballing world. Marseille were interested in signing Kante but couldn’t finance a deal. So Leicester City stepped in with an offer worth just £5.6million.
Kante spent one season at the King Power but helped the Foxes to the most unlikely of Premier League title wins. The Frenchman was the engine of Claudio Ranieri’s side, the glue that held everything together.
“This player, Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack full of batteries hidden in his shorts,” Claudio Ranieri said towards the end of Leicester’s unforgettable campaign.
“He never stopped running in training. I had to tell him, ‘Hey, N’Golo, slow down. Slow down. Don’t run after the ball every time, okay?’ He says to me, ‘Yes, boss. Yes. Okay.’ Ten seconds later, I look over and he’s running again.”
It was in July 2016 that the timelines of Kante and Chelsea merged. The Blues paid £32million to bring him to Stamford Bridge, something unthinkable that May night against Monaco four years earlier.
In his first season at Chelsea, Kante won the Premier League. A year later, he would lift the World Cup with France. A Europa League success would follow in 2019. And now, in just two days’ time, he has the opportunity to add a Champions League winner’s medal to his impressive collection.
“It’s happened little by little, season after season, with wins, with losses, with joy and with disappointment. It’s shaped me as a player, and I think that it’s helped me become the player that I am today,” Kante added in his interview with UEFA.
“To have got where I am today with Chelsea and to be lucky enough to play in a Champions League final, bearing in mind everything that’s happened in the meantime, is amazing.”
Source by Football London