Your first thought when you meet N’Golo Kanté is that you wouldn’t want to be looking for him in a crowd.
He’s 5ft 6in (1.69m) but that’s the least of your worries; he is so mild-mannered and unassuming that you would not even register his presence.
Don’t let that fool you. For while Kanté might be gracious off the pitch, he is utterly tenacious on it. Indeed, there is a reason his teammates have dubbed him ‘The Rash.’
It is a nickname he lived up to throughout last season as he played his part in Leicester City’s amazing rise from 5000/1 outsiders to Premier League champions.
Signed from Caen for just GBP£5.6m, Kanté became the heartbeat of Leicester’s title-winning team – missing just one game all season.
Now the 25-year-old is trying to complete a remarkable double by helping France win Euro 2016 this summer and, as he pauses to think how far he has come, the midfielder can’t hide his emotion.
I will give my best for the national team.
‘It is a beautiful thing. I could not expect it two years ago. For me to play the Euros in France – it is an absolutely beautiful thing,’ says Kanté.
‘It is an amazing thing and I hope we have a good tournament – and that there will be great things in the future. I will give my best for the national team.’
‘I couldn’t expect this when I was younger, I just tried to become a professional footballer if I could be. But I couldn’t expect to be a player of the national team.’
Kanté’s disbelief is more than understandable when you trace his steps up the football ladder.
His parents are from Mali, but they moved to France and Kanté was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris. He still has a strong affinity to his African roots and right up until March 2016 he had not decided whether to play for France or his parents’ country.
Mali had tried several times to persuade the midfielder to represent them, but in the end when France came calling just three months before this summer’s Euros, Kanté’s mind was made up.
Kanté wanted to make his way to the top.
However, there was a point in time when it looked as though Kanté would not have a choice to make, when international football was just a dream. Trials with clubs came and went. The usual reason for rejection usually had something to do with the fact he was just too small.
So instead, if Kanté wanted to make his way to the top he would have to do it the hard way and start at the bottom.
‘I played for my local amateur club at Suresnes from the age of 10 to 19 years old. That’s when I went off to Boulogne at the age of 19,’ says Kanté.
‘They were in the sixth tier and it was their reserve team that I played for. With the reserve team we got promoted to the fifth tier so at that time I moved up to the first team, who were then playing in the third tier.’
Even then, the odds seemed staked against Kanté.
‘It was when I left my own environment in Suresnes and played for Boulogne that I finally started to have a desire and a belief that I could make it as a professional footballer.’
Even then, the odds seemed staked against Kanté. His small stature meant many of France’s established clubs were reluctant to sign him.
Finally in 2013, Ligue 2 side Caen took the plunge and made the move. Kanté was brought in and during his first season he helped them gain promotion to the top flight, playing in all 38 of their games.
After two years, Leicester approached him. Assistant manager and head of recruitment Steve Walsh had scouted him. He was convinced of the central midfielder’s talent but new manager Claudio Ranieri was not so certain.
In the end, Walsh took to following Ranieri around the training ground muttering the words: ‘Kanté, Kanté, Kanté.’
He sometimes wonders if Kanté has batteries in his shorts.
It worked and Ranieri gave his seal of approval, a decision he confesses now was a great one. The Italian has been bowled over by the midfielder, admitting he sometimes wonders if Kanté has batteries in his shorts such is his work ethic.
Kanté’s determination and effort epitomised the whole Leicester team.
And now, after a remarkable 12 months, which has seen him come from nowhere, Kanté knows exactly how he wants the fairytale to end.
We hope we can win the tournament.
‘We’ll enjoy playing the European Championship in France and we will try to win it, but we know a lot of teams want to win it as well.
‘We will try to give the best for a win but we don’t know who is going to do it. We hope we can win the tournament and we will fight for that. We will see what will happen after.’
And why can’t Kanté help France go all the way? He’s been defying the odds all his life.