All Ibrahima Konate wanted was to avoid disappointing his father. When the French defender joined Sochaux at age 14, he left Paris, his family, his friends and his council estate in the 11th arrondissement — everything he had ever known — his dad said to him “Become a good person. Don’t cheat, behave well.” The older Konate didn’t really care if his son became a pro player; the only thing he wanted was for Ibrahima not to forget the values he had been taught.
Konate has never forgotten that day. He swore to himself that he had to make it work so his dad, who cannot travel due to an illness, could see him on TV.
Leaving home at a young age is never easy, and the very competitive nature of getting into a soccer academy can lead to all sorts of pressure, distraction and disappointments. Yet Konate succeeded, making his first-team debut for Sochaux in 2017 and then joining RB Leipzig later that year, where he’s spent the past four seasons.
“I didn’t know what it would take to make it, but I knew what not to do,” Ibrahima often says. And his father can be really proud today. Eight years since that moment, his son, who just turned 22, is a Liverpool player — his five-year contract was announced by both clubs on Friday — but more importantly, he’s a good person.
Things never came easy for the center-back, who is preparing for France‘s U-21 Euros quarterfinal against the Netherlands on May 31, Noon ET, stream LIVE on ESPN3 — France are favorites to win the tournament. Before Sochaux signed him, Konate hadn’t really been noticed by other top European, or even French, clubs. He started his career as a striker, copying his game on the Brazilian Ronaldo by spending hours watching videos of him on YouTube, but he struggled to reproduce in matches what he was doing at training or even with his friends down his block.
Konate even admits he wasn’t that keen on football anyway. He loved a frisbee, though! Eventually, moving to the No.10 “playmaker role,” and then further back to a defensive midfield position, helped him massively. He had all the skills needed for that difficult role: he was tall and assertive, but quick on his feet and technical in possession. Once settled at Sochaux, he became exceptional; they moved him to central defense and he never looked back.
“He had such great natural talent, with incredible physical abilities. But the most important was that he always listened and worked hard. There was nothing stopping him to get to the top. He was so determined. He didn’t want to let anyone down, especially his father. Now he deserves everything he is getting,” Eric Hely, his coach at Sochaux, tells ESPN.
The other thing you need to know about Konate is his ambition. It’s what French star Kylian Mbappe always says: age doesn’t matter. If you’re good enough, you play, you perform and you go higher.
Konate’s progression has been swift, direct and impressive: Paris FC, Sochaux, RB Leipzig and now Liverpool. Every time, he faced new challenges, new obstacles and every time he rose to the occasion, elevated his game and reached the next level. Even a lingering hip injury in Germany, which caused him to miss much of the 2019-20 season — a flare-up also led him to miss two months over the winter — didn’t slow him down.
Before agreeing to join Liverpool, he spoke to manager Jurgen Klopp, who has been following his progress for a while along with key decision-makers in the club’s scouting department. The young Frenchman didn’t get assurances of game time, or that he would start every game, but the extra competition doesn’t scare him. He has a lot of respect for Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips, though he’s heading to Anfield with the intention of becoming a fixture in their backline.
Under Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig, Konate continued his football education. He improved a lot when it came to tactical acumen as Leipzig routinely switched between a back-three and back-four. His decision-making got better as well, and coaches feel he is now ready for a step higher. He would answer that he was born ready, but he will take the twin challenges of assimilating to the Premier League and a high-pressure club like Liverpool with focus and drive, as always. Other top clubs like Manchester United were interested but once Klopp comes calling, you don’t say no.
This week, while training at Clairefontaine with his U-21 France teammates, Konate saw friend and Seville defender Jules Kounde, who used to be like him — a fixture with the U-21s — before being called up by Didier Deschamps for the senior team at this summer’s Euros. That’s the next step now for Konate: following Dayot Upamecano, his former RB Leipzig teammate who has already three caps with the A team, and Kounde to Les Bleus at the highest level. To do that, though, he needs to have a big impact at Anfield.