Karim Konate, the 17-year-old striker is the third-youngest player at Afcon 2021, and many expect him to be a leader of the country’s new golden age.
Since the Elephants’ debut at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1965, Cote d’Ivoire has produced a plethora of outstanding footballers, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the country’s genuine ‘golden generation’ emerged.
The group, led by Chelsea veteran Didier Drogba, included a number of key players from Europe’s top teams, including the Toure twins Yaya and Kolo, Emmanuel Eboue, and Salomon Kalou.
They were unable, however, to repeat their club form for the national team, leaving millions of eager fans disappointed as they sought a second continental crown, and the first since 1992.
They did reach two Afcon finals, in 2006 and 2012, but both ended in humiliating defeats for the Elephants, with many supporters vowing never to watch their football again. Their unprecedented qualification for the World Cup in 2006 remains the group’s most illustrious feat.
Drogba and a number of other members of that historic team had retired by the time Cote d’Ivoire won their second Afcon title in Equatorial Guinea in 2015. Yaya Toure was still there to captain the team, but it was a team that disintegrated soon after, as the other veterans put up their boots.
With no household names to support for at home or abroad, passion for local and national team football in the country waned throughout the rest of the decade.
The emergence of striker Karim Konate – a guy many hope may take over Drogba’s mantle and become the leader of a new generation of star names – has revived interest in the last 18 months.
Since his debut in 2020, Konate has developed into a major player of the ASEC Mimosas first squad, and there is a belief that he can follow in the footsteps of former ASEC luminaries Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora, and Boubacar Barry by becoming a key figure in the national team.
“The first time I saw Karim Konate, he reminded me of the 1998-99 extraordinary generation from ASEC Mimosas,” Armand N’dri, a 30-year club follower, told GOAL, referring to the team of adolescent players who astonished African football by winning the CAF Super Cup at the end of the twentieth century.
“He has the same drive and spirit as me.” We haven’t seen anything like this in a long time. Could this be the start of a new Golden Generation?”
Karim Konate has gone a long way in a short period of time. Born in Koumassi, one of the poorest districts of Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, he was seen by ASEC scouts while participating in a street football competition.
He was quickly asked for a trial before being accepted into the club’s academy, though he was not immediately provided a spot at the ASEC boarding home for its young players, instead having to fund his own transportation costs for months.
His improvement, on the other hand, was spectacular, and he excelled both in the classroom and on the field.
Konate – or ‘Koka,’ as he is sometimes known – was invited to join the first squad for pre-season training ahead of the 2020-21 season, and impressed enough to be registered for the senior side.
He quickly established himself as a key member of Julien Chevalier’s squad, finishing as the club’s top scorer with seven goals as he helped propel the Yellow and Black to their 27th domestic title, and first in three years, in a season that saw fans rush to see him in action.
“I am one of many he persuaded,” N’dri says. “We used to come from outside the city to watch players like Aruna Dindane, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora, and Kolo Toure back in the early 2000s.” They were fantastic, and you never regretted paying to see them.
“However, it all dried up later on, and there were no more good players at ASEC.” Konate is our new hero, and we hope he inspires others.”
Though he is typically right-footed, Konate is not hesitant to use his weaker left foot, especially when tasked with playing out wide, which he has done on occasion despite his usual position as a center striker.
Despite being only 5’10 (178cm) tall, the 17-year-heading old’s skill is perhaps the most remarkable feature of his game.
According to a club insider, “Koka has a very strong vision for the ball and knows how to position himself while negotiating a one or two-foot jump.” “It’s because of those qualities that he keeps winning aerial duels.”
“You kind of see it as a spot of light going towards you and then you react immediately,” Konate, whose heading talent has been noticed not only in an attacking sense but also when assisting in defense, adds. If you don’t, you’ll miss it. That’s how I interpret the act of heading.
“I’m still learning the abilities involved in this facet of football, so I can’t claim I’m very excellent at it.”
ASEC’s national championship qualified them for the CAF Champions League in 2021-22, and Konate has wasted no time in promoting himself to a wider audience outside of his birthplace.
In the first qualifying round, he scored his first continental goal against Senegalese team Teungueth, before a double against CR Belouzidad appeared to have earned ASEC a place in the group stages, only for the Algerian side to turn the game on its head in the second leg.
As a result, ASEC was relegated to the CAF Confederation Cup (Africa’s version of the Europa League), and Konate was able to continue up where he left off, scoring three of his team’s five goals in a play-off round triumph over Angola’s Interclube.
Konate’s form earned him his first international call-up in September, and he made his Cote d’Ivoire debut against Mozambique in the country’s World Cup qualifying match.
He made an impression enough to gain a second call-up in October, before being nominated to Patrice Beaumelle’s team for the rescheduled 2021 Afcon in Cameroon.
The tournament’s third-youngest player, the adolescent has yet to make an appearance, but with Cote d’Ivoire already assured of a place in the last 16, he could get some minutes against Algeria on Thursday if the likes of Sebastien Haller, Nicolas Pepe, and Wilfried Zaha are rested.
Even if he does not play, Konate’s very existence in the squad, as well as his success in both domestic and continental competition over the past 18 months, is proof that Cote d’Ivoire is once again creating extraordinary footballing talents.