Kante: France's heartbeat at Euro 2024

When Didier Deschamps named N’Golo Kante in the France squad for the UEFA European Championship Germany 2024, there were more than a few raised eyebrows from onlookers in Europe.

The Al Ittihad star had endured a torrid time with injury in his final season with Chelsea, sidelined for large parts with a debilitating hamstring injury, before securing a high-profile move to Jeddah last summer. Since, the soothing air on the shores of the Red Sea has clearly done wonders for his rehabilitation.

While it was largely a season and title defence to forget for Al Ittihad, the evergreen Frenchman was one of the consistent standouts in midfield, playing 44 games across the Roshn Saudi League, King’s Cup, Saudi Super Cup, AFC Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup.

Competing in five competitions took a toll on Al Ittihad, but it only strengthened Kante, and while many questioned Deschamps’ decision to recall the hugely decorated midfielder after two years in the international wilderness, the 55-year-old, who won the FIFA World Cup as both a player and coach, had no such hesitations.

"[N’Golo] was coming out of a season where he did not play much,” Deschamps explained before the tournament began.

“He then had a full season, certainly not in a European championship, but he has regained all his physical abilities. He has regained his athletic abilities… he played more than 4,000 minutes during the season; that's more than 40 games.

“From his experience, I am convinced that the French team will be better with him. With N'Golo, no matter the situation, there is never a problem.”

Three matches and two Player-of-the-Match performances later in Germany, it’s fair to say Deschamps has been well and truly justified in his selection.

The bizarre thing is, if you just rely on the statistics, to this point Kante’s Euros doesn’t look overly impressive. He is well down the list for tackles and balls recovered, while the same is true of passes attempted and completed, as well as accuracy (although he is still over 90 percent for the latter).

But the stats don’t tell the full picture.

Kante’s influence has been profound; his experience and football IQ evident in every action. He knows where to be and when, covering space, closing passing lanes and showing the form that saw him long regarded as one of the best central midfielders in the world.

“Just look at what he’s done; that’s why I brought him,” Deschamps said last week. “He’s tactically intelligent, has the ability to recover and get forward. He was brilliant today, and so much the better because that’s what we needed. He was radiant.”

Teammates are equally in awe of what Kante has been able to produce upon his return.

Kante and Mbappe for France at Euro 2024

“There was a certain amount of uncertainty when he arrived,” France’s superstar captain Kylian Mbappe told French media.

But, said the newly unveiled Real Madrid star, his softly spoken national-team colleague has more than allayed any fears they might have had. And rather emphatically, too.

“He hasn’t lost a thing,” Mbappe added. “He has a thousand lungs.”

Marcus Thuram, meanwhile, described the suffocating feeling of playing against Kante in training drills.

“I have the impression that there were three of him,” the Inter Milan forward joked ahead of the tournament. “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.”

A two-time English Premier League champion, and a UEFA Champions League winner, among other trophies and trinckets, too, Kante has proven his talent is still very much there.

“But more seriously, N’Golo is incredible, and in one week he reminded us why he was one of the best midfielders in the world,” Thuram said. “We are very happy to have him with us.”

If that’s what he’s like in training with his teammates, imagine how the real opposition must feel when Kante steps across the white line.

The next to face that prospect are Belgium, featuring Al Qadsiah’s Koen Casteels and Al Shabab’s Yannick Carrasco, in the last 16 on Monday after France - somewhat surprisingly - finished second in Group D behind Austria.

While that outcome was a shock for a side many had as their pre-tournament favourites, Kante issued a warning to their rivals, suggesting things were “looking good for what is to come.”

And, despite questions existing for this French side to answer as the tournament enters the deciding knockout rounds, the role and importance of Kante isn’t one of them. That question has been answered in suitably assertive fashion.

It bodes well not only for France for the remainder of the tournament, but also for Al Ittihad for the 2024-25 RSL season ahead, as they look to make amends for last season’s fifth-placed finish and return to title contention.

With the effervescent Kante commanding the midfield, it feels infinitely possible.