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N'Golo Kanté on his long rise to stardom, and Chelsea's UEFA Champions League final meeting with Manchester City

"I just wanted to turn pro and do my best," the unassuming midfielder tells UEFA.com about his rise from Ligue 2 to the UEFA Champions League final.

Thomas Tuchel: 'If you play with N'Golo you have half a man more'
Thomas Tuchel: 'If you play with N'Golo you have half a man more' UEFA via Getty Images

Perhaps the most admired holding midfielder in modern football, N'Golo Kanté's workrate has stunned Thomas Tuchel since the coach arrived at Stamford Bridge in January; "if you play with N'Golo you have half a man more," he said.

The 30-year-old's tireless midfield effort has anchored Chelsea's run to the UEFA Champions League final, making it all the more remarkable that it took so long for Kanté to make his way to the top of the game. As he tells UEFA.com, he was rejected by numerous academies in France before starting his career in the second tier, and only became a major name after he – and current Manchester City midfielder Riyad Mahrez – helped Leicester to win the 2015/16 English title.

On his long route to the top

N’Golo Kanté with Boulogne in 2013
N’Golo Kanté with Boulogne in 2013AFP

"Nine years ago, when I was playing for the reserves at Boulogne and made my professional debut in Ligue 2, I was very hungry and very hopeful in football. I didn’t know how far I could go; I just wanted to turn pro and do my best. 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.

"That said, 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."

On his footballing upbringing

"I wasn’t necessarily the best or the most talented player in the team, but I gave my best with the attributes I had. Growing up, I started watching videos of great footballers like [Diego] Maradona, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. My friends and I sometimes tried to imitate them, to score like they did. However, I haven't ended up playing like them or in the same position. I was also less gifted than them.

Chelsea on their road to the final
Chelsea on their road to the final

"I had a good number of trials growing up. I was turned down several times by academies. I didn’t see those as failures, personally, but as opportunities to see how I compared to the academy level.

"At that time, I wasn’t telling myself that I had to go through an academy to turn professional. I was just thinking that I had to give my best, no matter what happened and that I’d succeed at a later stage or in a different way. I think being turned down has shaped me as well."

On his influences

"Growing up, coaches or team-mates might tell me that I resemble such-and-such a player. I was just someone who watched football; I would watch the games which interested me, without necessarily focusing on players in a similar position to mine. Whenever the international break came around, I would obviously watch France play. And getting to watch the likes of [Claude] Makélélé or Lassana Diarra, I drew inspiration from them at some point.

Royad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté at Leicester
Royad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté at LeicesterLeicester City FC via Getty Imag

"But in the end, I’m not like them. I was lucky to be in touch with them and they’re great players with their own career, and I have my own career and path at my side. I have had some chats with Claude since I came to Chelsea. He was here to give me advice on my play, and the impact I can have on the game. Being able to talk with him about that is beneficial for me because he knows the position."

On facing former Leicester team-mate Riyad Mahrez in the final

"We’ve spoken about it. We both realise that it’s exceptional. It’s taken a lot of work from before being in Ligue 2 until now, and a lot of perseverance on the pitch and in training. So to be playing a match like this is fantastic. But we both want to win, so we won’t be friendly on the pitch. I hope it works out for me, and he’s hoping it’ll work out for him, of course!"