Ibrahima Konate grew up with a ball of tape and paper in the cages of Paris, but this weekend he could make his debut at the Stade de France in the Champions League final for Liverpool
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Ibrahima Konate lived almost in the shadow of the Stade de France, but it was a long, hard road to make his first appearance there.
The French defender is THE story of the Champions League final. The son of Malian immigrants to Paris, one of eight children who used to play in the capital’s cages, sometimes with a ball made of paper and scotch tape.
Now he will be part of the Liverpool squad to take on the mighty Real Madrid at the famous stadium built just a year before he was born and he wants to be an inspiration for all kids from similar backgrounds to show that always still possible to go from street football to stadium glory.
In Paris, working-class kids play in the cages, a fenced-in area made of gravel or sometimes artificial turf, and upon his unveiling as the new number five of one of the world’s biggest clubs, he went back to his neighborhood to celebrate his with his friends and his Raise family to elite.
They were moving, emotional pictures. Little did Konate know that he was born a year after the National Stadium was built for the 1998 World Cup, and he said: “Ah bon… Oh really?! I didn’t even know it!” But he knows what it means to come this far on a journey that will end less than five miles from his childhood home. When pointed out, he replied with a big smile: “Exactement! I agree! A long, long journey.
“I remember six years ago, when I just joined Sochaux, there was this final. We traveled to the Stade de France to see the U19s in the final. It’s unbelievable to think that a few years ago I watched a game of this level from the stands when I first went there and now I’ll be standing on the grass… and there in a Champions play league finals It really is a journey, yes!
“I think it’s definitely going to be the best moment of my life – I don’t have any kids yet so I can’t be sure – but I think it’s going to be the greatest moment. The Champions League final. In Paris. My home. If I had tried, I could not have dreamed of anything better.”
He admits that he remembers this trip every day. “I could never have imagined that. I knew I was coming to a big club that wants and will win trophies. But this season is exceptional – and I think it’s also a historic season for the club. Compete for everything across the board, be able to win every title; to be honest I didn’t expect that. It’s extraordinary and I say it every day… I live it every day and it’s just amazing!”
It’s more remarkable when you consider his background. Konate had never played on grass when, as a 10-year-old, he had a trial with lower-league Paris FC not far from his home in the city centre. He impressed as a striker but his first coach felt his height made him better suited to a defensive midfield role and after a few seasons at youth level he was picked up by Sochaux, then a Ligue 1 club.
From there he was picked up by RB Liepzig after only 12 games, the rest is history. But he knows it’s a remarkable story. “Yes, I played in the cages. I think like most young Parisians we couldn’t see football in real stadiums, we didn’t have the money.
“And we didn’t play on (proper) pitches because we didn’t have those opportunities. But we found ways to play football whenever and wherever we could – even with paper! I remember at school – and he’s laughing out loud here – we used to make footballs out of tape and paper to play with, and of course we really didn’t need much to be happy, we were happy playing in the streets.
“If it was a foam ball or leather ball or plastic ball – it would keep us busy all day. We played in the street, those cages, me and my brothers, and that’s why I think we have these talents. Everyone knows that Paris is a ‘fish pond’ / hotbed (but in a good way) with lots and lots of talent. Today I was lucky enough to reach that level, but it’s not the end in itself – I still have a lot of goals and goals to achieve.”
Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Now he wants to win with Liverpool – and the Champions League final caps a remarkable, historic season for Liverpool – but he also wants to inspire. “Today I was lucky to reach that level – but that’s not the end. I hope to reach even higher heights and be a source of inspiration for young people, an inspiration for more people coming to football from the streets of Paris,” he said.
“It would be good to think that I can inspire more young players and show that it’s possible.” And he too has a dream, even if it seemed impossible as the son of Malian immigrants in the poorest part of Paris. “As a child, my dream was to become a professional soccer player. Just a pro soccer player.
“When I was 14 I didn’t have the idea of being at a top club – if someone had asked me what age you will be if you could maybe play for Liverpool, I would have said no. But now? “Dream or goal?! To be the best central defender in the world one day. And to win all the titles. Anyone. With Liverpool!“. And who would bet against it?