Saturday, June 25, 2022

N’Golo Kante – One tree that makes a forest

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Chelsea’s French midfielder N’Golo Kante (L) holds off Swansea City’s English midfielder Tom Carroll (R) during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Swansea at Stamford Bridge in London on February 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS /

I was one of the speakers at a recent retreat organised for top executives of a company early this week in Lagos. The title of the presentation was ‘winning through team work.’

It was a very refreshing subject, nothing new to all the participants except that rather than a hard core technical conversation, my presentation was wrapped around true life recounts of events from my school of life experiences situated in the period between two Olympic Games – Barcelona ’92 and Atlanta ’96 – containing some of the greatest achievements in the history of Nigerian sports.

In the stories that I told in pictures, sounds and narration were captured the true interpretation of ‘winning’, as well as what can be achieved when a team of variables comes together and performs as one unit!

It was a totally new excursion for me into the arena of public speaking. At the very end of the event the roof of the Ballroom of Eko Hotel and Suites, venue of the event, came down on the gathering when my ‘mystery guest’ walked onto the podium to the pleasant surprise of all. It was an awesome spectacle and a unique experience for the mostly expatriate audience ending in a standing ovation in acknowledgement.

The icing on the cake for all was the presence of a legendary African athlete whose accomplishment in sport epitomised the theme of the event. Hers was a story of a champion in the true sense of the word, rising from the pits of hell and unimaginable adversity to conquer the world with an ‘impossible’ performance at the biggest stage on earth. But it was the Q and A session that brought out a picture that stayed in my head throughout the rest of the day.

A participant at the retreat had asked an interesting question: ‘when a team has won something and become successful, what does it do to sustain it and to keep winning?’
It is a pertinent question because the man that asked it needed to situate my possible response within the context of the organisation he works for that has achieved remarkable success and needed to sustain that tradition.

I really had no simple or single answer to the question. In my world, seen through the lens of sport, Success and Failure are Siamese Twins, they go together in a rollercoaster. There is no single infallible formula to succeed or to sustain success. The presence of the human factor makes nonsense of extrapolations in the matter of winning and losing even though some factors always intervene to swing the pendulum one way or the other.

The most successful football team in the world in the past decade is FC Barcelona, yet it has lost and won many matches and trophies. Indeed, it has won almost as many trophies as it lost during that period, yet it remains the team with probably the most established tradition of winning in the world.

Lionel Messi has also probably been the biggest single factor in establishing that success story.As I mention Messi, I am thinking about another player now. A picture of a young, unassuming football player comes into focus on my radar screen. He is currently playing some of the best football in Europe at the moment. The young man of African descent (probably originally from Congo) but representing France and adorning the Blue shirt of Chelsea FC this season, is N’Golo Kante.

Like Messi, he is an enigma, quiet, unobtrusive, not a showman, totally devoid of the characteristic air of flamboyance and sometimes arrogance often associated with sports superstars. He is doing an incredible job for Les Bleu.

Incidentally, this is a repeat performance. He did it also for Leicester City FC last season. He is establishing a tradition of success wherever he goes. N’golo Kante is again quietly going about the business of winning matches for Chelsea FC with an almost unflappable coolness and calmness that have convinced me that here, probably, is the most valuable player in the Chelsea line-up this season, a great example of a team player in modern football. Should Chelsea win the EPL, as they are poised to do already, N’Golo Kante will deserve the highest award earned through his hard work and contributions in every single match without any fuss or fear.

The first lesson I learnt in the unofficial book of coaching is that ‘you do not change a winning team’. But we all know that the same set of players are never always available in a team due to injuries, suspensions, transfers, retirement, etc. So, the statement above is really subjective, it cannot stand the test of reality, it is not an infallible rule, yet it remains a useful guide for coaches.

Two seasons ago, Leicester City FC were struggling at the base of the English Premiership to escape relegation. The next season, for the first time in their over a Century history, they became champions of the EPL, a feat considered almost impossible considering their pedigree, their low investment, size, followership, resources, reputation and tradition. Yet they won the biggest trophy in English football.

Nine months after that stupendous achievement, although the league still has some ways to go to the end of the season, Leicester City FC are back again struggling at the doorsteps of relegation. Their revered coach, Claudio Raneiri, named the best coach of the year by FIFA and the English FA, was sacked a few weeks ago for ‘poor results with more or less the same team less one major player.

That’s what went wrong. That’s why the team could not sustain their winning streak of last season. That’s my response to the participant who asked the question at the retreat. Do not change a winning team. Leicester City FC did. They changed a winning team. They let N’Golo Kante go.

The moment he left, the club started to struggle. The moment he joined a previously struggling Chelsea FC the team stabilised and has now climbed up the rung of the EPL table to an almost unassailable height. Looking very closely, both situations are influenced by N’Golo Kante.

He was the main but quiet anchor of Leicester City FC’s success, not taking anything away from the very significant contributions of his team mates Vardy, Mahrez, Drinkwater, and all the others whose collective hard work and team spirit carried them to the top. But Kante was the key that brought out the best of the team.

That is exactly what he has now become in Chelsea FC – the key to their current success. Check the records of Chelsea’s matches this season and find out what happened to the team every time Kante did not play for one reason or the other.

So good and effective is he that he has become to Chelsea FC what Messi has been to FC Barcelona for well over a decade. N’golo Kante is a one man fighting machine, one tree that makes a forest in any club he plays for. In my reckoning, he already deserves, still many weeks to the end of the season, the award of EPL Player of the Year.

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