Having just had three starts at the World Cup in Qatar, suddenly French defender Ibrahima Konate looks set to be included in the starting eleven in the final against Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
It’s been a strange but successful World Cup for Konate so far, finding himself third-choice centre-back but clearly outperforming those before him.
The statistics don’t lie. The fact that he has averaged 6.9 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes in Qatar so far shows that the Liverpool defender is in the shape of his life.
Mind you, he is the third choice center back. Raphael Varane’s place as oldest starter at the back is understandable, but the gap in output between Konate and his former RB Leipzig teammate, Dayot Upamecano, was huge.
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With Upamecano sidelined due to illness on Wednesday night, Konate had a great chance to shine again, playing alongside Varane in the semi-finals. And he played a big part in France’s 2-0 victory over Morocco.
Incredibly confident in his reading of the game, the 23-year-old looked a level above Upamecano, who had a few moments of shakiness in England’s win.
He sometimes bullied Morocco’s forwards, providing key interceptions, headers and tackles in the process. He was also handy with the ball and created a huge chance when Olivier Giroud hit the post after falling behind.
It’s also quite a story for a boy who just wanted to be a professional player, but has played the final of the UEFA Champions League a year from now and will most likely play the final of a FIFA World Cup.
Konate left home in Paris at the age of 14, vowing not to return without making it as a professional footballer.
My dream at the time was just to become a professional footballer,” Konate said as Liverpool reached the Champions’ final, which was played at the Stade de France, 10 km from where he grew up.
“When I was 14, I didn’t have the idea in my head to play for a top club. If someone had asked me at what age you might be able to play for Liverpool I would have said 28, 29. At that time the dream was to turn professional. I couldn’t think beyond that.”
Konate, the youngest of eight children of immigrants from Mali, grew up on a municipal estate in Paris. He wanted to emulate Brazil’s Ronaldo and spent hours studying the striker on YouTube, but that dream faded when a youth coach at Paris FC advised the young striker to become a defensive midfielder.
The teenager’s performance in the role attracted much interest and soon after turning 15, he moved over 400 km to join Sochaux’s academy. It was there that the athletic midfielder with a fierce work ethic was converted into a central defender and first caught the eye of Liverpool and Klopp.
In 2017 he signed for RB Leipzig. He had quite a time there, having made 66 appearances for them before Liverpool came to visit last year.
Since playing under Klopp, he has improved immensely, making him one of the most feared full-backs.
But more importantly, he begins to dream. Big.
“Now I want to become the best central defender in the world. And to win all the titles. Everyone.”
He may not have won that Champions League title, but what’s bigger than a World Cup?