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Konate surpasses his own dreams as he returns to his roots for Champions League final

Konate surpasses his own dreams as he returns to his roots for Champions League final
The French centre-back grew up just a short distance from the Stade de France – but it might as well have been another world entirely

It is a tale of Sellotape and paper, of foam and leather and plastic. It was football, but not as Ibrahima Konate knows it now, not least because the objects he kicked may not even qualify as footballs. He has been on a long journey to take him a short way, from the 11th arrondissement of Paris to the Stade de France. It is about 10km but he has taken the long route, via Sochaux, Leipzig and Liverpool.

When the boy from the banlieues of the French capital lines up in the Champions League final, it will differ from the games he used to play in his home city. “Now I’ll be on the grass,” the defender said. They didn’t have grass in the cages where he started out. The ground that hosted the 1998 World Cup final, a year before his birth, was in the same city, but a different universe.

“I remember six years ago when I had just joined Sochaux, there was this final,” Konate recalled. “We made the journey to go to Stade de France to see the Under-19s in the 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 playing in a Champions League final there. It really is some journey.”

It began in inner-city Paris. Lacking resources, Konate had to be resourceful. “If it was a ball made out of foam or leather or plastic, it would keep us busy all day,” he said. “We’d play in the street, those cages, me and my brothers, and that’s why, I think, we have these talents.

“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 we really didn’t need much to be happy. We were happy playing in the streets.”

Not just in the streets, though. “I played in the cages,” Konate continued. “I think that 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.”

Whether despite or because of that, Paris may produce more top-class footballers than any other city. Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Kingsley Coman and Presnel Kimpembe have emerged to excel.

“Everyone knows that Paris is a fish pond, a hotbed, with a lot of talent,” Konate added. “I hope that I’ll be a source of inspiration for young people to come from the streets of Paris into football.”

His path involved a move from RB Leipzig to Liverpool last summer: if he was bought for the long term, he might be displacing Joel Matip from Jurgen Klopp’s strongest side.

He is speaking at Liverpool’s training ground, his gaze distracted by a giant picture of Klopp lifting the European Cup on the wall. This season has exceeded his expectations. So has his career.

“When I was 14 I didn’t have in my head the idea of being in a top club,” he said. “If someone had asked me then at what age will you be when you could maybe be playing for Liverpool, I’d have said 28 or 29.” Instead, he turned 23 on Wednesday, having played in every minute of the Champions League quarter- and semi-finals, the FA Cup semi-final and final. His aims have already been upgraded. “My dream? To be, one day, the best central defender in the world,” he said.

That tag may now belong to his centre-back partner, Virgil van Dijk. Another dream could be realised rather sooner.

“What a story: going to Paris, my hometown and coming back to Liverpool with that trophy for an incredible celebration,” Konate said. “It’s 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.”