The enduring image of N’Golo Kante in the wake of France’s second World Cup triumph came not in the pouring rain of Moscow.
Nothing amid the tears and ticker-tape of Luzhniki Stadium would resonate like the party in Paris a few weeks later.
Following that 4-2 victory over Croatia, the Stade de France enjoyed a homecoming bash for Didier Deschamps’ victorious side. The night began with a 2-1 win over Holland. From there, one by one, the players were brought back on to the pitch.
As ‘numero treize’ stepped through the smoke, he turned to salute the crowd. He gave a thumbs up and then tapped the top of the glistening trophy.
The midfielder looked sheepish, an almost embarrassed smile stretched across his face as he wandered through a gauntlet of high-fives, into the arms of Deschamps and towards his team-mates.
Minutes later, he was hoisted on to the shoulders of Benjamin Mendy and Blaise Matuidi as the Stade de France serenaded their midfielder with one of the anthems of that golden summer. ‘N’Golo, N’Golo, Kante!’
His uneasy laugh illustrated a man more at ease in the shadows. The weight of fame and adoration has never sat comfortably on the shoulders of a man so at odds with stereotypical superstars.
But Kante’s smile belied the tragedy which had engulfed his preparations for that glorious summer.
Only a few weeks before the World Cup, Kante’s elder brother Niama died of a heart attack. Nevertheless, the midfielder travelled to Russia and shone en route to the final, when he played through a stomach bug. Kante is not one to cause a fuss.
Before last season’s Europa League final he was struck down by injury. The prognosis wasn’t encouraging.
But unfazed, the midfielder took to the pitch in Baku and delivered another masterful performance to secure his third trophy in Chelsea blue. He has grown used to playing through pain.
Kante lost his father aged 11 but still rose to become one of the greatest players in the world. It is testament to his concern then that the Chelsea star was given permission to miss the first days of Project Restart.
With the full support of manager Frank Lampard, the 29-year-old will continue to train at home as preparations gather pace for the return of the Premier League.
Reports suggest he could miss the rest of the campaign. Kante tested negative for coronavirus earlier this week but he has safety concerns during the ongoing pandemic.
He is not alone – Watford captain Troy Deeney is staying away too over fears for his son’s health.
Kante’s decision comes as experts investigate why Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups are being so disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
Two years ago, the midfielder collapsed in the dressing room of the club’s Cobham training ground in front of his team-mates. Cardiology tests did not reveal any issues with his heart but, understandably, the midfielder missed the subsequent match against Manchester City.
This season, meanwhile, a string of injuries have hampered the Frenchman. His problems stretch back to that heroic display in Baku, when he played through a hamstring problem to help Maurizio Sarri’s side down Arsenal.
During Lampard’s first season, he has been struck by ankle and muscle injuries, limiting him to just 22 appearances before the shutdown.
‘Obviously he has played four or five incredible seasons in terms of his success as an individual. He has been used, quite rightly so, by his managers a lot,’ Lampard said recently.
‘This season he has played about 40 per cent of our games. Even then it’s been difficult for him. I’ve really felt for him on an individual level.’
He added: ‘We obviously need N’Golo Kante in our team, one of the best players in the world. I knew that before becoming manager of Chelsea, I know that from working with him. We unfortunately haven’t been able to have him much this year, but going forward we want him fit and ready to go.’
When Kante returns remains to be seen. But the Frenchman has earned significant credit in the bank.
For Chelsea, as for France and Leicester, the midfielder has caused trouble only for opposition players and coaches. So goes Les Bleus’ chant: ‘He is short, he is kind, he ate Leo Messi alive.’
En route to two Premier League titles, the keen tennis player has been a model of professionalism and, off the pitch, a welcome break from the circus atop English football.
He has certainly avoided the controversy of former team-mates such as David Luiz and Diego Costa – with whom he formed an unlikely friendship.
When one of Sportsmail’s team interviewed the midfielder a few years back, he arrived at the central London meeting point wearing jeans, a hoodie and a satchel.
He looked more like a student than a Premier League footballer. Only once the cameras began to flash did fans begin to clock who was inside. Kante arrived and left by himself – no entourage, no hangers on, no fuss.
Even Chelsea were unfazed by him speaking away from their watchful gaze: they knew the midfielder was not one for creating unnecessary headlines.
When he does make the news, few feathers are ruffled. In May 2018, Kante made a three-hour round trip to surprise Chelsea fan Frank Khalid as he recovered from a triple heart bypass.
That September he made an unannounced visit to a London hotel to rub shoulders with the Indian cricket team and in particular Virat Kohli, of whom Kante is a big fan.
Two weeks later, following Chelsea’s win 4-1 win over Cardiff, the midfielder – a Muslim – missed his Eurostar from St Pancras. So he popped into a nearby mosque.
From there, Arsenal fan Badlur Rahman Jalil invited him back to their house. Kante obliged, joining the group of friends for a curry, tea, a game of FIFA and Match Of The Day.
It remains uncertain when Kante himself will be back on our screens. But he has certainly earned the right to choose.