The round ball does not have the shape of a book, but it manages to tell us great stories. That of Ibrahima Konaté is one of them. The French central defender of Liverpool will play, in his first season with the English club, the Champions League final against Real Madrid, at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on Saturday May 28.
The one nicknamed “Ibra” or even “Ibou” could have had the pseudonym of “Good kid” as those who crossed his path describe the 1.94 meter colossus as a respectful being, with a well-made head. “The first time we met, he called me ‘sir.’ It shocked me, and we still laugh about it from time to time. He was different from the youngsters of the current generation, who perhaps feel like they’ve seen it all and been through it all,” recalls his ex-teammate at Sochaux, Pierre Gibaud, then team captain and 11-year-old his eldest.
“As soon as he arrived, he was already very mature and composed. Humanly, he’s a top guy, “says Jean-Sébastien Mérieux, at the time recruitment coordinator for the Doubiste club.
For this player from a family of six big brothers and a little sister, the notion of respect seems to come naturally. “Off the pitch, it’s important to respect the elders. But once on the pitch you shouldn’t be in that mentality, because there is no longer any age. It just has to be mutual and when the big ones give it back to you, it’s magnificent, ”confesses Ibrahima Konaté.
A “physical monster”
If virtuous people do not systematically make footballers capable of evolving at the highest level, the truth on the ground has made everyone agree. “When an attacker has it on his back, he knows he’s going to have a good evening”, notes, ironically, Jean-Sébastien Mérieux, now director of the Sochaux training center, where the leaders had signed Konaté, in 2014, a three-year contract at the training center, immediately after his arrival from Paris FC.
To sum up the No5 of the Reds as a “physical monster”, to use Jean-Sébastien Mérieux’s term, would however border on caricature. In modern football that requires defenders to have a certain technical ability, “he’s someone who is comfortable with the ball. He can find through passes, game reversals and drive the ball to look for gaps, ”describes Sylvain Ripoll, coach of the France U23 team, with whom Ibrahima Konaté played Euro 2019 and 2021.
He rose through the ranks at lightning speed. Trained as a defensive midfielder and central defender, he discovered the professional world at just 17 years old, in January 2017, during a quarter-final of the Coupe de la Ligue between Sochaux and Monaco. He then played twelve Ligue 2 matches, during which he was unanimous. “He became essential after fifteen days of training”, testifies Pierre Guibaud.
“Ibra” began his transition to the very highest level in Germany, in Leipzig, in the summer of 2017, where he arrived free from Sochaux. He spent four seasons across the Rhine, where he notably discovered the level of European matches. Despite the last two seasons truncated by injuries, he was recruited by Liverpool who won his services in May 2021 for an amount amounting to 40 million euros.
“I’m not done learning”
The English club’s coach, Jürgen Klopp, had his eye on the powerful defender since his debut at Sochaux. The German does not grill his colt, who must first settle for the bench in the shadow of the duo Joël Matip-Virgil van Dijk. These first weeks were beneficial, according to the main interested party: “He gave me a period of adaptation which allowed me to assimilate the principles of the game of the team and gave me the opportunity to show me in big games. He helped me by knowing how to give me playing time at the right time, ”says Ibrahima Konaté.
He made his debut for the Reds a month after the start of the championship. His performance during the correction inflicted on Manchester United (0-5), his third match for Liverpool, caught the eye of observers. The neophyte silences Cristiano Ronaldo and comes out of the shadows.
Holder in seven of the last eight of the Champions League, Konaté has stood out in the course of the Reds, with in particular two goals during the double confrontation against Benfica Lisbon in the quarter-finals.
“I’m not done learning. And so much the better, because it allows me to be in a state of mind of work and progress on a daily basis, “said the player. Before facing Real Madrid, the former hope of Paris FC has not lost any of the twenty-eight games he has played this season where he has already won the two English national cups, even if everything has not been perfect. This ultimate challenge against Karim Benzema’s teammates gives him the chance to triumph a few kilometers from the 11th arrondissement of his childhood, under the eyes of his family present at the Stade de France. Only three days after his 23rd birthday, the young “Ibou” already has the opportunity to become a great.