Chelsea: N’Golo Kante’s absence impacts more than football matches

N’Golo Kante has brought attention to himself by taking a leave of absence from Chelsea, citing fears about COVID-19.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, there is no being in this universe purer than N’Golo Kante. Whether it’s his style of play, his personality or every testimonial from his teammates, Kante is everything you could want in a role model, a friend and a defensive midfielder. He’s right up there with Ghandi and the Buddha, though neither of them could effectively shield a back four.

Given how beloved he is, the idea of Kante acting as the proverbial, squeaky wheel is patently absurd. And yet, he’s taken a leave of absence from Chelsea’s return to training. In all likelihood, we won’t see Kante again until next season starts up, whenever that may be.

It’s easy to look at his abstention as an act of protest against the obvious dangers of taking part in group activities in our current virus-ravaged dystopian present. That would be fair enough, but it doesn’t really fit Kante’s ethos. In truth, his reluctance to participate is the product of the type of tragedy that would alter anyone’s behavior for the rest of their life.

Prior to France’s successful World Cup run in 2018, Kante’s older brother—Niama—died of a heart attack. Further, his father died when he was 11. A familial history of premature death, in part due to cardiovascular issues, makes the risk of contracting COVID-19 far scarier than it is for most of us. All of that adds up to an unbearable amount of anxiety. You can understand his reticence to return to Cobham.

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Kante had his own health scare in 2018 after fainting in the dressing room following a training session. All tests came back clear, but that type of event doesn’t just fade out of your memory. The fact that he’s managed to lead such a successful life and keep a smile on his face is a minor miracle. It takes a person of immense mental strength and character just to soldier on, let alone flourish.

A leave of absence is the least Chelsea can do for him. By all accounts, Kante’s teammates—and the club in general—have been unerringly sympathetic to his concerns. Anything less would be shocking and disappointing. His dedication and professionalism have earned him that level of respect and faith. If anyone has earned the right to ask for this, it’s Kante.

With the Premier League returning next month, the absence of Kante will be apparent in more ways than one. From a football perspective, Chelsea will be missing its best midfielder as it fights to retain a spot in the top four. Kante has been in and out of the team all year with a range of nagging injuries, but he’s been typically imperious when available—the 2-2 draw against Arsenal notwithstanding. The potential return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek could at least fill a spot on the depth chart, but there’s no question Chelsea will miss Kante’s unique and unrivaled talent in the final stretch of the season. But, all things considered, you’d prefer a physically and emotionally healthy Kante in August over an underprepared and worried Kante for the last nine matches of this season.

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More importantly, however, the distinct lack of Kante will serve as a reminder as to how serious this pandemic still is, and how football is perhaps overestimating its value in society. Every time Chelsea announces its starting eleven, Kante’s name will come up, and we’ll be forced to once again grapple with the ethical and medical implications of bringing back football. Ironically, Kante’s abstention will likely provoke more conversation than if he was missing time due to actually having the virus. The thought of Kante sitting at home while his teammates are out on the field will affect how we feel watching Chelsea for the rest of this season. Even the best moments from here on out will be dampened by Kante’s absence.

This phenomenon will be most keenly felt within the Chelsea community and fanbase, but Kante’s near-universal approval rating means his decision will have at least some emotional effect on fans of other clubs as well. Opposing sides might be glad to face a Kante-less Chelsea, but knowing why he’s unavailable should further generate a conversation about how trivial football really is in the midst of this crisis.

Kante is someone who garners admiration, adulation and respect from just about everyone, without ever requesting it from anyone. His decision to step away for the rest of the season has been met with unanimous sympathy and support, even though we love watching him play. He would never ask for the role, but Kante has become a face for this uncomfortable time in football. The Premier League is returning to our lives, which is all well and good, but it’s returning still very much in the heat of a pandemic. The push to finish the season as soon as possible is coming at the expense of people like Kante, who either risk their lives just by showing up, or stay away from the game entirely. That certainly doesn’t feel right.

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Of course, Kante himself has said little to nothing publicly throughout this whole period. It would be shocking if we hear much out of him in the weeks to come, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

As usual, N’golo Kante’s actions speak louder than his words.