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Karim Konate: Could Cote d'Ivoire wonderkid be Drogba's heir?

12:00 EAT 20/01/2022
Karim Konate NXGN GFX
The 17-year-old striker is the third-youngest player at Afcon 2021, with many hoping he can be a leader of the nation's new golden generation

Cote d’Ivoire has produced a slew of great footballers since the Elephants’ debut at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1965, but it was in the early 2000s that the country's true 'golden generation' emerged.

Led by Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, the group boasted a number of influential players from Europe's elite clubs, including the likes of the Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo, Emmanuel Eboue and Salomon Kalou.

They were, however, unable to replicate their club form for the national team, leaving their millions of expectant fans upset as they craved a second continental title, and first since 1992.

They did reach two Afcon finals, in 2006 and 2012, but both ended in disastrous defeats for the Elephants, as many supporters vowed not to watch their football again in the aftermath. Their historic qualification for the World Cup in 2006 remains the most glamorous achievement of the group.

By the time Cote d'Ivoire did win their second Afcon title, in Equatorial Guinea in 2015, Drogba and a number of other members of that famous side had retired. Yaya Toure was still there to captain the side, but it was a team that soon disbanded as the remaining veterans hung up their boots soon after.

For the remainder of the decade, enthusiasm for domestic and national team football in the country diminished, with no household names to root for either at home or abroad.

Interest has, however, been reignited in the past 18 months by the emergence of striker Karim Konate - a player many hope can take up Drogba's mantle and become the leader of a new generation of star names.

Konate has grown into key member of the ASEC Mimosas first team since his debut in 2020, and there is a belief he can follow in the footsteps of former ASEC stars Kolo Toure, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry by becoming a key figure in the national team.

"The first time I watched Karim Konate, he reminded me of the 1998-99 remarkable generation from ASEC Mimosas," Armand N'dri, a staunch supporter of the club for 30 years, tells GOAL, referencing the team of teenage players that stunned African football by winning the CAF Super Cup at the end of the 20th century.

"He has the same push and spirit. We have not seen such a sensation for a long time. Could this be the beginning of the new Golden Generation?”

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Konate has certainly come a long way in a short amount of time. Born in Koumassi, one of the poorest districts of Cote d'Ivoire's largest city, Abidjan, he was spotted by scouts from ASEC while playing in a street football competition.

He was soon invited for a trial before being enrolled into the club's academy, though he was not immediately offered a place at the ASEC boarding house for its young players, and instead had to cover his own transport costs for months.

“That was the most difficult aspect in the beginning," Konate tells GOAL. "Travelling that long distance to the academy and back with your own money, and then you are not sure whether you will finally be admitted and given a room."

His progress, though, was phenomenal, and he thrived both in the classroom and on the pitch.

“The most difficult part of the preliminary training process is the classroom. Most of the lads want to hit the pitch right away, but it starts with the chalkboard. That wasn’t the case for Karim," a source from the club tells GOAL

"He came like he was in a regular school and wanted to learn everything. I think that helped him adapt quickly on the pitch.”

Ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, Konate - or 'Koka', as he is sometimes known - was invited to join the first team for pre-season training, and impressed enough to be registered for the senior side.

He soon became a mainstay of Julien Chevalier's side, finishing as the club's top scorer with seven goals as he helped fire the Yellow and Black to their 27th domestic title, and first in three years, in a season that saw fans flock to see him in action.

“I am one of those he won over," N'dri explains. "Back in the early 2000s, we used to travel from outside the city to come and watch players like Aruna Dindane, Emmanuel Eboue, Didier Zokora and Kolo Toure. They were very good and you never regretted spending money to see them.

"But later on, it all dried up and there were no more good players at ASEC. Now we have one in Konate, and we hope he inspires others.”

Though naturally right-footed, Konate is not afraid to use his weaker left, particularly when he is tasked with playing out wide, which he has done on occasion despite his natural position being that of a central striker.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the 17-year-old's game, though, is his heading ability, despite him being just 5'10 (178cm) tall. .

“Koka has a very good eye for the ball and knows how to position himself while negotiating a one or two-foot jump," a club source says. "He keeps winning aerial duels because of those qualities."

Konate, whose heading ability has been noted not just in an attacking sense, but also when helping out in defence, adds: “You kind of see it as a spot of light coming towards you and then you react immediately. If not, it passes you by. That is how I see the act of heading.

"I am still learning the skills involved in this aspect of football, and so I can’t say I am good at it yet."

ASEC's national title qualified them for the 2021-22 CAF Champions League, and Konate has wasted little time in introducing himself to a wider audience outside of his homeland.

He netted his first continental goal against Senegalese outfit Teungueth in the first qualifying round, before a double against CR Belouzidad looked to have earned ASEC a place in the group stages, only for the Algerian side to turn the tie on its head in the second leg.

That result saw ASEC fall into the CAF Confederation Cup (Africa's version of the Europa League), and Konate was able to pick up where he left off, scoring three of his side's five goals in their win over Angola's Interclube in the play-off round.

Konate's form was unsurprisingly rewarded with a first international call-up in September, and he made his Cote d'Ivoire debut against Mozambique in the nation's World Cup qualifying clash.

He made a strong enough impression to earn a subsequent call-up in October, before being named in Patrice Beaumelle's squad for the rearranged 2021 Afcon in Cameroon.

The third-youngest player at the tournament, the teenager is yet to make an appearance in the competition, though with Cote d'Ivoire already assured of their place in the last 16, he could earn some minutes against Algeria on Thursday if the likes of Sebastien Haller, Nicolas Pepe and Wilfried Zaha are being rested.

Even if he does not make it onto the pitch, however, Konate's mere presence in the squad, as well as the way he has thrived in both domestic and continental competition over the past 18 months, is a sign that Cote d'Ivoire is yet again producing special footballing talents.

“I don’t know if we can assemble another golden generation anytime soon," Konate says, "but I believe Ivorians are yearning for a new crop of players to cheer for."

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