Austria's Nicolas Seiwald, left, challenges for the ball with N'Golo...

Austria's Nicolas Seiwald, left, challenges for the ball with N'Golo Kante of France during a Group D match between Austria and France at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Duesseldorf, Germany, Monday, June 17, 2024. Credit: AP/Frank Augstein

DUESSELDORF, Germany — It was a classic N'Golo Kanté performance. Effective, understated — and overshadowed by a teammate.

With all the attention on Kylian Mbappé and his injured nose, Kanté's tireless defensive midfield work was quietly crucial to France's 1-0 win over Austria at the European Championship on Monday.

Kanté had not played a competitive game for France in two years. It was as if the 33-year-old had never been away. He completed 92% of his passes and stopped Austria counterattacks to preserve France's lead following an Austria own goal.

“Of course he was brilliant, he was bright tonight, we needed that,” France coach Didier Deschamps said through a translator.

On a night when seven yellow cards were issued in total and emotions ran high, especially after Austria fans booed the injured Mbappé for what they saw as time-wasting, Kanté brought much-needed calm to the French midfield.

Kanté was a key part of the team which won the 2018 World Cup but he last played a competitive game for France in the Nations League in June 2022. A hamstring injury meant he missed the World Cup in Qatar that year, when France was runner-up to Argentina.

Now playing in the Saudi Pro League, Kanté was called back into the team for Euro 2024. Fitness concerns over Real Madrid's Aurélien Tchouaméni opened up a spot in the starting lineup in the defensive midfield role.

N'Golo Kante of France, right, challenges for the ball with...

N'Golo Kante of France, right, challenges for the ball with Austria's Nicolas Seiwald during a Group D match between Austria and France at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Duesseldorf, Germany, Monday, June 17, 2024. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

“It was a bit difficult to start, with apprehension," Kanté said in translated comments. “It was good to start together, it was nice to get these feelings back. We started very well for this competition and we’re very happy about this. This is great.”

When Mbappé was substituted ahead of nine minutes of added time, it was Kanté who took over the captaincy and steered France to victory.

“It is the first time and I wasn’t expecting it, and this is an honor," he said. “I felt very pleased. It was for a few minutes but I have to say that it represents quite a lot. I'm very proud of that indeed.”

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