Ibrahima Konate left home in Paris at the age of 14 and vowed not to return without making it as a professional footballer. Eight years on, a Champions League final at Stade de France represents quite the homecoming.
The ebullient Liverpool defender does not shy away from the magnitude of Saturday’s farewell to a remarkable debut season with Jürgen Klopp’s team. “I think it is definitely going to be the greatest moment of my life,” the 23-year-old says. “I don’t have any children yet so I can’t be sure but I think it will be the greatest moment. The Champions League final in Paris, my home. If I tried I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better. What a story: going to Paris, my home town, and coming back to Liverpool with that trophy for an incredible celebration.”
Konaté will enjoy a victory parade irrespective of the outcome against Real Madrid because Liverpool have accepted an offer from the mayor, Joanne Anderson, to celebrate their FA Cup and Carabao Cup triumphs, and the Women’s Championship, in the city the following day. Parading the European Cup for the seventh time, however, would lend the occasion, and the season, considerably more gravitas.
Throughout the interview at Liverpool’s Axa Training Centre, Konate’s head turns regularly towards a mosaic that dominates the wall on his right. The image is of the back of Klopp, holding the European Cup aloft at the front of the Liverpool bus during the 2019 trophy parade. A quote from the Liverpool manager is also featured. “By being together at all times, we will be stronger, better and our successes sweeter,” it reads. Konaté was at RB Leipzig when Liverpool won their sixth European crown, a mere twinkle in Klopp’s eye for central defensive reinforcement of the future, but the message and picture resonate.
“I can’t stop looking at the trophy,” laughs the France Under-21 international, signed after the club activated a release clause of £36m last summer. “With this trophy we’re talking about games I watched on TV as a kid. Even the  final against Madrid when they lost, I watched on TV. It’s something that is already part of my history because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s indescribable what it means – I’ve not got the words to explain what winning huge trophies like this one would mean.
“The club wants to show that they’re already part of football history, and they want to go on demonstrating that year after year. So when I think about the motto of being together and having this history together, it is beyond words, beyond dreams.”
Konaté grew up on a council estate in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. The Stade de France is less than 10km from there but felt a world away to the second youngest of eight children born to immigrants from Mali. He wanted to emulate Brazil’s Ronaldo and would study the striker for hours on YouTube, but that dream faded when a youth coach at Paris FC advised the young forward to become a defensive midfielder. The teenager’s performances in the role attracted widespread interest and, shortly after turning 15, he moved more than 400km to join Sochaux’s academy. It was there that the athletic midfielder with a fierce work ethic was converted into a centre-half, and first attracted the attention of Liverpool and Klopp. It was also at Sochaux where Konaté gained his first and, until Saturday, only taste of the Stade de France.
“I remember six years ago we went to Stade de France to see Sochaux Under-19s in a final. It’s incredible to think that I was watching a match at that level from the stands just a few years ago, my first time there, and now I’ll be on the grass playing in a Champions League final there. It really is some journey.
“I played in the cages like most young Parisians. We couldn’t get to see football in proper 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. At school we used Sellotape and paper to make footballs to play with, and we were happy playing in the streets. If it was a ball made out of foam or leather or plastic it would keep us busy all day. We’d play in the street, in the cages, me and my brothers, and that’s why I think we have these qualities.”
Konaté has imposed himself immediately and impressively at Liverpool, although Joel Matip’s polished form and Champions League experience provide fierce competition for a starting role alongside Virgil van Dijk on Saturday. Konaté has a proud record to strengthen his case for inclusion, however. In 28 appearances for Liverpool this season he never tasted defeat. His run of 23 wins, including penalty shootouts, and five draws is the longest unbeaten start to a Liverpool career. He has not lost a league game that he started since Borussia Dortmund beat Leipzig on 19 January 2019. He has come a long way from the streets of Paris.
“My dream at that time was simply to be a professional football player,” Konate says. “When I was 14 I didn’t have in my head the idea of being in a top club. If someone had asked me then at what age could you maybe play for Liverpool I’d have said 28, 29. At that time the dream was to be playing pro. I couldn’t think beyond that.” And now? “To be, one day, the best central defender in the world. And to win all the titles going. Every one.”