Column: Kante, France's unassuming Mr. Fix-It at World Cup
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Strictly speaking, it is not true that N'Golo Kante single-handedly covers the third of planet Earth not covered by water , although it does often seem that the France midfielder is everywhere when he is wriggling his way into opposing teams' every nook and cranny.
Nor is it completely accurate that Kante works so hard that he generates his own electricity , although it must have felt that way to Lionel Messi, given how Les Bleus' indefatigable human dynamo helped run Argentina's superstar out of the World Cup.
But, yes, it is almost certainly correct that France wouldn't have marginalized Messi so successfully, beaten Argentina 4-3 and booked its quarterfinal rendezvous with Uruguay without Kante's disruptive ball-pinching, attack-ruining defensive midfield artistry. Mouse-like off the pitch, a bulldog on it, France's smallest player (1.68 meters; 5-foot-6) embodies the phrase: "He lets his feet do the talking."
No matter how much pressure Uruguay exerts on him, as he shields France's defense and gets the team moving forward again, here are things you won't see Kante do on Friday at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium: Argue with Argentine referee Nestor Pitana; flail around in mock agony when fouled; play dirty; lose his temper.
Kante's water-off-a-duck's-back level head and unbroken concentration could help neutralize the slippery guile of Uruguay striker Luis Suarez. Kante leads by example by generally not rising to the bait of spiky gamesmanship. Not since the semifinals of the European Championship — two years and 21 matches ago — has a referee felt the need to caution him.
But the 27-year-old should ask the French Football Federation to be paid by the meter, because he consistently runs everyone else into the ground. Kante and central defender Raphael Varane are France's only players to have played every minute at the World Cup.
In all but one of France's four games so far, Kante covered more ground than any of his teammates. Match stats show that no other member of coach Didier Deschamps' squad works harder without the ball, harassing opponents, cutting out passes, breaking up moves and getting back possession. Kante is a footballing whack-a-mole, popping up everywhere. Although gone from Russia, one can imagine Messi looking over his shoulder to see if Kante is still there.
Dovetailing on the left of the France midfield, Kante and Blaise Matuidi cuffed the five-time world player of the year, taking turns to thwart him. Kylian Mbappe, 19, hogged global headlines with his Pele-like performance for France, scoring twice and earning a penalty that Antoine Griezmann converted. But Mbappe's freedom to roam at speed and counter-attack is possible, in part, because Kante is guarding France's back. Matuidi is suspended against Uruguay, possibly replaced by the younger, less experienced Corentin Tolisso, so Kante's solidity will be essential. So, too, will the quality of his passing, sometimes slowing the pace and calming France down before getting hearts racing again.
Kante's teammates have been singing his praises to French media. Left-back Lucas Hernandez marveled that he seems to pop out of the ground. Midfielder Paul Pogba said Kante "has 15 lungs." Striker Olivier Giroud, who also plays with Kante at Chelsea, said: "With him, it's as though we're playing with 12 of us."
Refused by clubs as teen, considered too small and too reserved, Kante is now a world-beater in his role, gaining in marketability with each standout performance at his first World Cup. France fans have a song in his honor, to the tune of popular sing-along "Les Champs-Elysees." If he wanted, Kante would probably be forgiven for wearing T-shirts bragging: "Yes, we Kante!"
But that's not his style. In interviews, he is sometimes so reserved that he sounds as though his mouth is drying out with nerves and that he'd rather be anywhere else. Kante also isn't the type to forget that, at age 19, he was still playing at the amateur level in the suburbs of Paris. His slow-burn career took off from 2015 at Leicester City, with his vital role in the underdog team's extraordinary Premier League-winning season. Kante, a Muslim, also says his faith is more important to him than football, telling French broadcaster SFR: "Religion comes before football. It's your personality, your being, your life."
But as Messi learned and as Uruguay risks discovering for itself, Kante speaks loud and clear with a ball.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester