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Liverpool's Ibrahima Konate’s journey from cage football to Champions League Final

Liverpool defender seeking home comfort in ‘dream’ Parisian decider

Liverpool's Ibrahima Konate after scoring the opening goal against Benfica at Anfield. Liverpool will take on 13-time winners Real Madrid in the Champions League final tomorrow. Photo: PA Wire

Chris BascombeTelegraph Media Group Limited

Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konate hopes the Champions League final will be a springboard on his journey towards becoming “the world’s best defender”.

It was not so long ago Konate was playing football with his friends in the “cages” of Paris, the idea of making it to the Stade de France seeming possible only with the help of finding a lucky golden ticket.

“Like most young Parisians, we couldn’t get to see football in proper stadiums,” Konate says. “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 we used Sellotape and paper to make footballs 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 ball made out of foam or leather or plastic – it would keep us busy all day. We’d play in the street, those cages, me and my brothers, and that’s why, I think, we have these talents; qualities.

“I hope that I’ll reach even higher heights and be a source of inspiration for young people, an inspiration for more people to come from the streets of Paris into football. It would be good to think I can inspire more young players, and show it is possible.”

Konate once lived a well-directed set-piece away from the arena where Liverpool seek their seventh European Cup tomorrow.

Yet what might seem a short journey to an iconic arena has required several detours.

“Exactement! Exactly! A long, long journey. I remember six years ago, when I had just joined Sochaux, we made the journey to go to Stade de France to see the under-19s final [the Coupe Gambardella].

“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, yes.

“My dream at that time was simply to be a professional football player. I couldn’t think beyond that.” Asked what his dream is now, he says: “To be, one day, the best central defender in the world. And to win all the titles going. Every one.”

There were several occasions while the 23-year-old was speaking about the meeting with Real Madrid when his eyes drifted to a mural at Liverpool’s AXA Training Centre.

It is an image of Jurgen Klopp on the open-top bus touring the city with the European Cup in 2019 accompanied by a quote from the manager.

“By being together at all times, we will be stronger, better and our success sweeter,” it reads.

“I can’t stop looking at the trophy,” Konate says. “I think that for this trophy, we’re talking about games I watched on TV as a kid and grew up watching. Even the final against Madrid [2018], when they lost, I watched on the TV. So, it’s something that is already part of my history because I’ve seen it with my own eyes – 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 [You’ll Never Walk Alone], and having this history together, it is beyond words, beyond dreams.

“I never would have imagined it. I knew I was coming into a big club that wants to win titles and is going to win them. But this season is exceptional – and I think it’s a historic season as well for the club. I wasn’t expecting that.

“I think [the final] is definitely going to be the best moment of my life. The Champions League final. In Paris. My home. If I tried I couldn’t have dreamt of anything better.”

Klopp must choose between Konate and Joel Matip to partner Virgil van Dijk in Paris. Matip has experience going for him, especially given injury doubts around Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara – although both are expected to make the team sheet even if only on the bench.

Konate’s pace and set-piece prowess are assets, particularly given the threat of Vinicius Junior.

The young defender complements Van Dijk. “I think with Liverpool, it’s the whole team that defends, it’s not just the defenders,” Konate says.

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