It was Friday, February 27, 2015. In the bars and cafes flanking the historic Vieux Port, Marseille fans sipping their morning coffee learned of their club’s interest in Caen midfielder N’Golo Kante in local paper La Provence.
As fate would have it, Kante was to play against Marseille at their Stade Velodrome that very evening. It was the perfect chance for his prospective future employers, and their army of fans, to size him up.
The Marseille midfield boasted the talents of Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Giannelli Imbula. The 24-year-old Kante wiped the floor with them.
Noticing Marseille’s tendency to leave Imbula isolated with the ball as he built play from the back, Caen manager Patrice Garande set Kante loose on the callow midfielder, blocking off his passing options and sucking the oxygen from the air around him. Marseille went 2-0 up, but Caen fought back. Kante created the equaliser for Emiliano Sala and was involved in the build-up to Nicolas Benezet’s 87th-minute winner.
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“He ate the entire Marseille midfield on his own. He destroyed them,” Guillaume Laine, a journalist for Ouest-France who followed Kante’s time at Caen, tells Bleacher Report. “A monster,” was L’Equipe‘s verdict. “He strolled between Marseille’s lines like a fish through water.”
Kante was unaccustomed to the attention he received that night. Journalists he had never met greeted him by name. In the mixed zone, in his deep, sonorous voice, he bashfully played down talk of Marseille’s interest. But the experience of playing beneath the spectacularly sinuous Velodrome roof would remain in his mind. By the time Marseille came calling in the summer, Kante had set his heart on joining them.
Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa saw in Kante a player who could infuse his midfield with the relentless forward drive he demands. Bielsa’s plan was to pair him with Idrissa Gueye, then at Lille. Kante made more successful tackles (176) and interceptions (106) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 in 2014-15. Gueye ranked sixth for tackles and third for interceptions. As a partnership, with more creative players around them, they would have been terrifying.
But while Marseille had invested significantly in new players during the two previous summer transfer windows, the emphasis as the 2015 market opened was on prudence. They could only offer a €5 million-plus bonus for Kante, which Leicester City comfortably trumped with a bid of around €8 million. Kante was left with no option but the East Midlands. Gueye wound up down the road at Aston Villa.
Instead of Kante and Gueye, Marseille settled for the perennially injured Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra, who had not played for 15 months because of a contract dispute with Lokomotiv Moscow.
All was not well at Marseille. Five days after Kante’s move to Leicester was announced—and just minutes after a 1-0 home defeat by Caen on the opening Saturday of the new campaign—Bielsa walked into the press conference room at the Velodrome, sat down at the top table and announced, via an interpreter and to row upon row of stunned faces, that he was leaving.
It was a Sliding Doors moment in the recent history of European football. Kante, the most relentless central midfielder in the modern game, and Bielsa, high priest of verticality, might have been a match made in heaven. Instead, their paths forked, and it was Claudio Ranieri who ushered Kante into the limelight in a Leicester team that stunned the world.
Kante’s parents came to Paris from Mali in 1980 and settled in the Rueil-Malmaison district in the city’s western suburbs. Kante grew up with his four brothers and four sisters in a flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building.
Talk of a football player emerging from a Parisian banlieue conjures images of looming concrete tower blocks and urban decay. But Rueil-Malmaison, tucked between the folds of the River Seine to the west of the Bois de Boulogne, is a long way from the crime-scarred districts of Paris’ north-eastern suburbs.
Horse chestnut trees, their green foliage trimmed square like the trees on the Champs-Elysees, cast shade over wide, mauve-coloured pavements. Smart, low-rise apartment buildings crouch between neatly tended municipal areas. The 15-minute walk from the Kante family home on Rue des Geraniums to JS Suresnes, Kante’s first football club, takes you past a pretty public square, a concert hall and a luxury chocolatier. The Suresnes pitches at Stade Maurice Hubert are a booming goal-kick from the Paris Country Club.
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Kante made that walk for the first time at the age of 10, in September 2001. He arrived alone for the season’s first training session, which took place on the middle of the three pitches used by Suresnes. These days, it is a pristine synthetic pitch, but back then it was the kind of crumbly red clay surface that you often find at French municipal sports clubs.
“We watch all the kids in the first training sessions,” says Piotr Wojtyna, a 50-year-old Polish expatriate who became Kante’s first coach. “N’Golo jumped out at me straight away with his mobility and his ability to take the ball from other players. What was surprising was that he passed the ball straight away. He wasn’t the sort of player who took the ball and tried to dribble past everyone.
“He never stopped running. He was always moving. I put him in the middle of the pitch straight away, and he was impeccable.”
It took Wojtyna one training session to realise Kante should be playing with boys a year older. The pattern was repeated in the years that followed, and he was promoted in every age category, making the final jump to the under-20s at the age of 17. Because he was skipping more than one age group, Kante was obliged to undergo an extensive medical test with a local doctor. A certificate vouching for his physical readiness was sent to the French Football Federation.
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Kante’s team-mates back then remember a player so preposterously dynamic he was capable of winning matches on his own, a player whose extraordinary physical qualities left his opponents—and team-mates—with no option but to laugh. The club’s officials say that even in his late teens, Kante’s attachment to the game was almost child-like. Photographs from his early days show Kante looking impossibly tiny in relation to his team-mates, swamped by a succession of giant yellow Suresnes jerseys.
“When he was 12, he was playing with guys who were 14, and the biggest of them could have carried him in their arms,” Wojtyna recalls.
“My first memory of him? A little guy,” says Pierre Ville, Suresnes club secretary, jutting out a downturned palm at waist height (he uses the French term petit pouce, which translates as “little thumb”). “He always had his eyes wide-open and a little smile. He never spoke, but he listened. He’d come, he’d train, he’d leave.”
Kante, he says, was the chouchou, or “little pet,” of the club.
Kante’s father died the following year, but nobody at Suresnes knew. Nobody there can recall having met either of his parents, as an older sister typically took responsibility for administrative tasks such as signing registration forms.
“Usually we only meet the parents when there are problems with their kids or they’re unhappy,” Ville says. “But with him, there weren’t any problems, and he was always happy.”
Ville would drive Kante to trials at professional clubs in the region or take him to the train station for trips to teams further afield. He went west to Rennes and Lorient, east to Sochaux, north to Beauvais and Amiens, as well as south to the National Football Centre at Clairefontaine. But none of them showed an interest.
“Nobody ever asked me how N’Golo was doing,” says Wojtyna, a note of incredulity in his voice.
Kante was right on Paris Saint-Germain’s doorstep, but he passed beneath their radar, too. He failed to make a single regional representative team.
Ville, a gregarious 70-year-old, recalls a trip to Amiens, 75 miles north of Paris. Kante suffered from travel sickness and insisted on sitting in the front passenger seat. It was pouring rain when they got there, and Kante played in boots “two centimetres too big,” the studs worn down to the soles. He was, as ever, the smallest player on the pitch and struggled to assert himself physically amid the sea of elbows bobbing around at head height.
“But every time he got the ball,” Ville says, “he did something with it.”
“At the time in France, it was all about height and physique,” says Wojtyna, who has been coaching young players at Suresnes for 19 years. “The [professional] clubs didn’t really look at a player’s intelligence; it was more their physical, athletic profile. ‘He’s big, he’s strong, he’ll do.'”
Kante’s commitment was irreproachable, but Wojtyna wondered whether his natural timidity might hold him back.
“He always listened, and he always respected his opponents and his team-mates,” he says. “There were never any problems with him. But at one point, me and Pierre asked ourselves if he was too nice to become a pro.”
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The officials at Suresnes did their best to keep their young protege’s hopes up.
“We’d just say, ‘It’s not the moment yet,'” Ville says. “Of course he was sad. But we didn’t say, ‘That’s it, it’s finished.’ We said: ‘It’s not the right moment. It will come.'”
In his final season at Suresnes, playing in the ninth-tier Promotion d’Honneur, Kante added goals to his game, scoring 10 in 19 matches. He was playing on the wing now or as an attacking midfielder. By the end of the 2009-10 campaign, he was 19. At the same age, his current Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard, born two months earlier, had played over 70 Ligue 1 games for Lille and had his first taste of European football. Similarly, at 19, Cesc Fabregas had already started in a Champions League final and played at a World Cup.
Nobody at Suresnes had given up hope, however, and later that year, Kante’s luck finally changed. Jean-Pierre Perrinelle, the Suresnes president and a former Olympic 400-metre hurdler, arranged for him to take part in a trial at Boulogne-sur-Mer, whose senior team had just been relegated to Ligue 2. This time, Kante was accepted.
At Suresnes, they have watched his incredible journey over the seven years since with wonder and enormous pride. The clubhouse, built in 2012, is a veritable Kante shrine. Sylvain Distin, Armand Traore and Damien Perrinelle—son of Jean-Pierre and currently with the MLS’ New York Red Bulls—all started out at Suresnes, but it is Kante’s face that beams down at you from the corkboard above the table football and the walls beside it.
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There are cuttings from L’Equipe and France Football charting his progress at Caen, Leicester and Chelsea, some pinned one on top of the other, along with photographs of his greatest triumphs. There’s Kante shielding the ball from James Milner. Here he is outjumping Paul Pogba in an aerial battle. There he is celebrating his first goal for France with Antoine Griezmann.
The Kante story at Suresnes has not finished yet. His younger brother, Mamari, started this season playing as a wide midfielder for the under-19s. His little sister, Fatou, plays for the girls’ under-10s. “Fatou runs everywhere as well,” says Ville with a smile.
Kante’s move to Leicester in 2015 was worth €240,000 to Suresnes, money they have invested in infrastructure improvements and two new minibuses. It will give them peace of mind for at least the next five years and means they will not have to increase subscription fees.
There are 27 teams at Suresnes—24 male, three female—and 985 players registered with the club. They usually send between 40 and 50 children to an annual youth tournament in Belgium. This year they can afford to send 140. “We always say N’Golo has given us back 100 times over what we gave him,” says Ville.
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The officials at Suresnes are all volunteers and what makes them particularly proud is the extent to which Kante embodies the values the club strives to embody itself: humility, hard work, respect. “He hasn’t changed,” says Wojtyna. “He’s the same person. That’s what’s so nice. He’s a very humble boy and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. We could put up a statue of N’Golo here.”
The Boulogne trial took place at the club’s Stade de la Waroquerie training ground, which sits on the side of a hill overlooking the city, in the summer of 2010. All of the club’s coaches were in attendance. Wojtyna says it was Kante’s “last chance.”
“We arranged a match for potential recruits, and there were lots of people there that day,” recalls Gilbert Zoonekynd, then in charge of Boulogne’s academy and now head coach at Ligue 2 side Tours. “He stood out because of how active he was, his physical capacities and his ability to change pace. That really struck us.
“He won a lot of balls. He lost a few as well, but I’d rarely seen someone who was so involved in the thick of the action and also capable of blistering acceleration. And we found ourselves asking, ‘Where does he play? What’s his best position?’ Because he was everywhere.” Kante, he says, had “fire in his legs”.
Boulogne signed Kante on an amateur contract, which Perrinelle helped to negotiate. Perrinelle was also eager for Kante to continue with his studies, having already obtained his baccalaureat (high school diploma) while he was playing at Suresnes. With Perrinelle’s assistance, Kante enrolled on a vocational accounting course at a college in the city centre, Lycee Giraux Sannier.
As Giraux Sannier did not provide accommodation for its students, Kante stayed across town at Lycee Professionnel Professeur Clerc. It was here that he lived during his first two years in Boulogne. He slept on a bottom bunk in Room 308, a south-facing dormitory room on the third floor of the college’s white and tan residential building. Joining him on the third floor were around 35 other young footballers from Boulogne, aged between 15 and 19, plus eight or so players from the local Portel basketball club.
The other students at the lycee were studying metalwork or mechanics, or training to be electricians. Kante would eat his breakfast alongside them in the communal canteen, before hopping on his scooter and trundling across town to Giraux Sannier. In the evenings he would climb the hill to La Waroquerie on his scooter for training sessions at Boulogne before returning for a late meal in the canteen at Professeur Clerc.
With a sizeable pack of teenage boys staying in the same building, there was no shortage of high jinks, but Kante kept his head down—quite literally. “It was lights out at 10 o’clock,” says Vincent Yvart, an educational supervisor who oversaw Kante’s two-year stay at the lycee. “The other staff members and I often had to round up the kids who wouldn’t go to bed, but he was always tucked up in bed by 9.30 p.m. He never caused us a single problem.”
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At weekends, while his team-mates from the local area returned home to their families, Kante and around 10 other young Boulogne players would often remain in the city. He used to stay at a youth hostel opposite the train station, taking a single bed in a room with one or two other boys. Khedi Bettahar, who mans the reception desk, would enjoy prising smiles from him as he padded across the lobby following another excursion on his scooter. “I’m glad it’s happened for him,” she says with a wide grin. “He deserves it.”
There are few elite-level footballers who were still in full-time education at the age of 21, but having been overlooked by so many professional clubs, Kante could not afford to neglect his studies. “He didn’t know then that he’d have the career that he’s had,” says Nicolas Durand, Boulogne’s general manager. Kante confided to team-mates that he found some of the work difficult, but he stuck it out and succeeded in obtaining a BTS (brevet de technicien superieur), a national diploma of higher education.
A two-hour train ride from Paris, Boulogne is France’s largest fishing port and sits on the northern coast, gazing across the English Channel towards Dungeness. It is a place of sea breezes and screeching seagulls. The city’s football team, US Boulogne Cote d’Opale, spent the 2009-10 season in Ligue 1, but they are most famous for having launched the career of local boy Franck Ribery. The east stand of Boulogne’s Stade de la Liberation carries his name. The stadium, shared with the local athletics club, is accessed via steep streets bordered by tightly stacked terraced houses.
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With the first team reacclimatising to life in the second tier, Kante went into the academy and played for the reserves in the Division d’Honneur, the sixth level of French football. It was a step up for Kante, who struggled with injuries and the jarring reality of finding himself far from home for the first time. It took him time to find his feet. As team-mate Eric Vandenabeele recalls: “Tactically, he wasn’t quite there.”
It didn’t take him long to catch on, however. Zoonekynd says he became a key player in the reserve team “practically instantly.”
Vandenabeele, now playing at Grenoble, occasionally roomed with Kante and remembers him asking if it was OK for him to pray. “He’s very religious. He’s a Muslim and he does his prayers and all that,” Vandenabeele says. “He’s very discreet, very polite, very respectful. Sometimes I’d take him to training in my car. We’d be driving for 10 minutes and he wouldn’t say a word. He’d just say ‘thank you’ at the end!”
They would play FIFA and watch Europa League games together on Thursdays prior to matches on Friday nights. “You’ll be playing in this one day,” Vandenabeele would say. Kante would scoff.
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Zoonekynd recalls “a slightly delicate period during Ramadan one year. He didn’t want to break his fast. It was in the middle of the summer and we were training twice a day, so it was complicated for him. We said, ‘If you can’t train, you might as well go home.’ So we sent him home for the whole period and he came back after. And his levels were exactly the same as before.”
The mosque in Boulogne sits on the city’s northern periphery. A grey, two-storey residential property, it is the last building you pass as you leave the city on the road towards Calais. Kante was a regular visitor with his team-mate Harouna Abou Demba. When he couldn’t get a lift, he would walk—half an hour there, half an hour back.
Playing under Christophe Raymond in the Boulogne reserves, he operated as one of the two narrow midfielders in a 4-4-2 diamond. They won promotion to the fifth-tier Championnat de France Amateur 2 (CFA 2) in his first season. Pascal Plancque, now one of Claude Puel’s assistants at Southampton, was in charge of the first team. With Boulogne battling to avoid relegation from Ligue 2 in the 2011-12 season, he didn’t think it was the right time to throw in an untested youngster.
It was not until Boulogne succumbed to relegation that Kante finally got his first taste of professional football. It was May 18, 2012, and Boulogne were playing their final game of the season at home to Monaco. They lost 2-1. The game was chiefly memorable for the fact the decisive goal was scored by the Monaco goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic.
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Clad in an orange bib, Kante was warming up with two of his team-mates beside the goal in front of the near-empty Kop Boulonnais as Subasic steered a free-kick into the bottom-left corner from just inside the D at the top of the penalty box. He replaced right-winger Virgile Reset for the game’s last 11 minutes.
Boulogne’s demotion to the third-tier National—their second relegation in three seasons—was to prove a major turning point in Kante’s career. Plancque was sacked and his replacement, Georges Tournay, immediately installed Kante in the first team. “He really exploded in the National,” remembers Zoonekynd. “If we hadn’t gone down, maybe he wouldn’t have had his chance so quickly. It could have been a blessing in disguise.”
Kante scored his first goal in professional football to give Boulogne a 1-0 victory over Luzenac in their first home game of the 2012-13 season, following up on a rebound to score from close range in the seventh minute. Local journalists, many of whom were watching him for the first time, asked him if he modelled himself on Claude Makelele. “No,” he replied. “Lassana Diarra.”
Within three years, Marseille would sign Diarra as a back-up option after missing out on Kante.
Deployed as one of the lateral midfielders in a 4-3-3 system, Kante excelled and would go on to feature in all but one of Boulogne’s 38 league games as they finished 13th. But still the scouts remained sceptical. Rennes took another look at him and decided he still wasn’t ready. Lille thought about signing him and loaning him out to Belgian club Mouscron, but it didn’t materialise. Thankfully for Kante, Jean-Pierre Perrinelle had taken his career in hand once again.
“I got a phone call from Mr. Perrinelle at the end of August 2012,” remembers Alain Caveglia, sporting director at Caen. “He told me, ‘There’s a very, very good player at Boulogne.’ I thought, ‘OK.’ There are lots of people who call us to say they’ve found a little gem, so I didn’t really follow it up.
“Then in September he called me for a second time to say, ‘Alain, it’s really worth it. You have to come and see him.’ So I sent someone to watch him play. Then I sent a second person to watch him play and the second person said, ‘Alain, there’s really something in this player.’ So in November I went to watch him play and you saw straight away that he had extraordinary qualities.”
The journey along the northern French coast from Caen to Boulogne is a round trip of some six hours by car. Fortunately for Caveglia, he didn’t need to go back. “I only watched him once,” he says. “That’s all I needed.”
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As word of Kante’s ability spread, rival clubs began to circle. There was interest from other teams in the region, with Valenciennes leading the queue, as well as clubs across the border in Belgium. But Caen had got in first. Kante signed a pre-contract agreement with them in January 2013, and at the end of the season, he joined them on a three-year contract. A professional at last, at the age of 22.
His new club had spent the previous 10 seasons yo-yoing between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 and had a squad full of top-flight experience. Kante found himself sharing a changing room with former France and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Jerome Rothen, one of several players accustomed to playing at the highest level. But he quickly found his feet.
“Right from the very start, everyone loved him,” remembers Caveglia, who made his name as a prolific striker with Sochaux, Le Havre, Lyon and Nantes. “It was as if everyone wanted to protect him. I’ve seen very few players, either during my playing career or after, who was loved by everyone like that.”
Kante moved into an apartment close to Caen’s stadium, Stade Michel-d’Ornano, and adjacent training complex. The scooter had gone by this stage, but the upgrade was hardly jaw-dropping. Caveglia recalls him arriving for training in a Renault Megane “with 90,000 kilometres on the clock.” In a carryover from his student days, he was rarely seen without a backpack.
Caveglia told Garande, Caen’s head coach, that once Kante got into the team, there would be no moving him. And so it proved. He played in every game as Caen secured promotion to Ligue 1 by finishing third and was named in the Ligue 2 Team of the Season.
Sadly, Perrinelle would never see Kante play in the top flight. He died of cancer in early 2014. Kante had received assistance from various people during the early years of his career, but each time he had taken a major step, it was Perrinelle whose hand was at his back. “From the beginning to the end, the guy who put it in the pipeline was Jean-Pierre Perrinelle,” says Pierre Ville.
Nicolas Durand, general manager at Boulogne, says: “Mr. Perrinelle always really believed in him. And he was proved right.”
Kante looked like a man in a hurry when his first season as a Ligue 1 player came around. He scored two goals in his first three games—slickly taken openers in away wins over Evian and Reims—but was sent off in a 1-0 home defeat by Rennes, collecting two bookings in the first 29 minutes for a pair of rash sliding challenges. The match he sat out through suspension would be the only game he missed all season.
Garande played him as one of the two advanced central midfielders in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with the experienced Nicolas Seube sitting in front of the back four and the elegant Julien Feret alongside him. It was a system that suited him even better than the two-man midfields he has played in at Leicester and Chelsea, the security provided by Seube enabling him to play his natural, hyperaggressive pressing game without worrying about leaving space behind him.
The only thing missing from his game was goals. After scoring at Reims in August 2014, he would have to wait until Leicester’s 2-1 home win over Watford in November 2015 to find the net again.
Steve Walsh, Leicester’s head of recruitment and assistant manager, had been tracking Kante for some time. But while manager Nigel Pearson had given Walsh the green light to go for Kante, his successor at Leicester, Ranieri, was not so sure. He might have taken Ligue 1 by storm, but his size remained an issue for the Italian.
Kante, meanwhile, was dreaming of Marseille. But Caen scoffed at their offer, general manager Xavier Gravelaine describing the €5 million bid as “a lack of respect towards Caen and N’Golo Kante.”
Marseille retaliated on the club’s official Twitter feed, provocatively dubbing Gravelaine as “the Monchi of Calvados” in mocking references to the renowned Sevilla sporting director and the departement within Normandy where the city of Caen sits.
Kante split from his agent, Philippe Flavier, to sign up with Etienne Mendy and Pierre Frelot at sports agency XL Sport in the hope they would help him seal a move to OM. But Leicester were prepared to pay €8 million for him and they had Gravelaine’s ear.
Walsh asked an agent based in Paris to bring Kante over to England in early August and, for three days, they had him switch off his phone. He wasn’t allowed to turn it on again until he had put pen to paper on a contract at Leicester’s Belvoir Drive training ground. “We had to almost kidnap him,” Walsh told Jonathan Northcroft of the Sunday Times. “I had friends in France bring him over. His primary agent didn’t even know he was there.”
Ranieri had been unable to persuade Esteban Cambiasso to sign a new contract, and as he revealed in a recent appearance on Sky Sports, Walsh presented him with two potential replacements: Kante or Jordy Clasie, then on the brink of leaving Feyenoord. While he plumped for Kante, he was unsure about how to fit him into the team.
In his first appearances in Leicester blue, Kante found himself being used as a wide midfielder, a position he had last occupied during his final season at Suresnes. But after testing him out in central midfield, Ranieri came to his senses and just as at Suresnes, Boulogne and Caen, once he got into the team, there was no shifting him.
By the time of Manchester United‘s visit in late November 2015, Ranieri had discovered the team that would win the title, Kante anchoring the midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater. As Walsh was fond of quipping, “We always play three in midfield—Drinkwater in the middle, and Kante either side.”
The milestones have been flashing by ever since. March 2016: France debut and first international goal. May 2016: Premier League champion. July 2016: star signing for Chelsea, at a cost of £32 million. He has just been voted England’s PFA Players’ Player of the Season. Another Premier League title beckons and with it the promise of a first taste of Champions League football.
Beneath it all, the man remains the same: shy, modest, perfectly inscrutable. And adored by everyone he has come across. Ville tells a story about Kante turning up alone and unannounced at a hospital to visit the sick son of a friend. He has kept in touch with all his former clubs.
“You don’t find people like that every day,” says Caveglia. “It was just a pleasure to have someone like that with us for two years. He made people happy. He’s a super, super guy and a super, super player. When he started to attract attention in France, I said: ‘I don’t know how far he can go.’ And I don’t think he’s finished yet.”