Once teammates who famously helped Leicester City author the most amazing chapter in the history of the Premier League, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante now find themselves on opposite sides and ready to face off against each other on the biggest stage in club soccer.
Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final in Porto between Chelsea and Manchester City marks a reunion of sorts for Mahrez and Kante, who played starring roles in Leicester’s improbable run to the English league title in 2015-16. The Foxes nearly escaped relegation the previous year and were starting the season with newly installed coach Claudio Ranieri in charge, so it was hardly a surprise that bookmakers pegged them as 5,000-to-1 longshots to win the Premier League at the start of that campaign.
But Leicester defied the odds and ended up hoisting the trophy at the end of the season, thanks in large part to Jamie Vardy’s goals (he finished second in the scoring race with 24), and the stellar support of Mahrez and Kante. Mahrez supplied width and goals to Leicester’s attack, while Kante’s industrious play in the middle of the park earned him universal praise from fans and pundits.
Five years removed from guiding Leicester to the pinnacle of the Premier League, Mahrez and Kante are now on the cusp of achieving European glory. The exhausting and winding path they took to get to this point started long before their stints with Leicester and is testament that hard work and perseverance pays off.
Kante toiled in the lower leagues of his native France for several seasons, including a stint in the ninth tier of French football as a 19-year-old after being rejected from the country’s renowned Clairefontaine training centre. He eventually played in his first top-flight campaign in 2014-15 in Ligue 1 with Caen. Les Vikings finished in the bottom half of the table, but Kante’s ball-recovery statistics were higher than any player in Europe’s top five leagues that season. Leicester’s scouting department, who had a reputation for identifying talented players who flew under the radar, scooped him up by paying a modest £5.6-million transfer fee.
It proved one of the most astute moves in Premier League history. Kante played an integral role in the Foxes’ run to winning the title in 2015-16 as the team’s midfield general, and he was voted to the Professional Footballers' Association Team of the Year. He would go on to claim a World Cup winners’ medal with France in 2018. Having discovered what Leicester had already known about Kante, top teams from across Europe queued up to try to lure him away. Leicester decided to cash in Kante after only one season and sold him at massive profit to Chelsea for £32 million in the summer of 2016.
Since then, the Frenchman has enhanced his reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, having guided Chelsea to a Premier League title and a UEFA Europa League, while also being voted Premier League player of the season in 2016-17 in his debut campaign with the Blues.
Like Kante, Mahrez laboured in France’s lower leagues at the start of his career, turning out for such unfashionable outfits as amateur side Quimper in France’s fourth tier (while he was 18) and Le Havre. Leicester scout Steve Walsh travelled to France because he was tracking another Le Havre player, but he ended up being more impressed by Mahrez. Leicester paid a paltry £400,000 to bring Mahrez to England, where the Algerian international helped the team gain promotion to the Premier League in 2014.
Two years later, in only his second top-flight campaign, Mahrez enjoyed a breakout season, scoring 17 goals en route to being voted the Professional Footballers' Association Players' Player of the Year, and helping the Foxes win the Premier League title. A mere seven years after he was playing amateur soccer and earning a meagre £650 per month, he was a Premier League champion.
Mahrez stayed at Leicester for two more years before being sold to Manchester City for a whopping £60-million transfer fee, making him the most expensive African player and also the club’s most expensive signing. He has repaid City’s faith in him by helping them win two Premier League crowns and an FA Cup. Mahrez has also played a key role in City reaching its first Champions League final, scoring four goals in the knockout stage of the continental competition, including a brace against Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of the semifinals.
Riyad Mahrez celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Champions League semifinal second leg match between Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Dave Thompson/AP)
The ties that bind Kante and Mahrez extend far beyond being former Leicester teammates, though.
Both of their parents immigrated to France from Africa in search of prosperity and a better life. They both lost their fathers at tender ages – Kante when he was 11, Mahrez at age 15. Their mothers largely raised them, working cleaning jobs to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. And they were both originally snubbed by professional clubs and cut their teeth by playing in amateur sides in Paris before slowly moving up the ladder of French soccer.
From the depths of soccer obscurity to becoming a Champions League winner – one of these players will complete their remarkable journey this weekend in Portugal.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.