Montreal's Ismaël Koné bursts into soccer's global spotlight

·6 min read
Ismaël Koné (6) and Panama's Cristian Martinez, right, battle for the ball during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in Panama City last March. (Arnulfo Franco/AP Photo - image credit)
Ismaël Koné (6) and Panama's Cristian Martinez, right, battle for the ball during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in Panama City last March. (Arnulfo Franco/AP Photo - image credit)

Not even in Ismaël Koné's wildest dreams would it all happen this fast. But the 20-year-old Montrealer is seeing soccer opportunities coming at him at an Alphonso-Davies-like speed.

Koné is poised to become — and determined to be — the biggest name soccer has ever produced out of Quebec. Based on how the last few months have gone for him, with rumours of English clubs like Sheffield United and Norwich City bidding for his services, there is little reason to doubt it.

Koné's run into the global spotlight started in March, following a match in Atlanta where the CF Montréal midfielder scored his first goal in Major League Soccer (MLS) league play. After the game, he got the news that Canada senior men's national team was calling him up.

"I didn't believe it because I was only four games into my (professional) career and I was like, 'that's a bit early,'" Koné said.

Days later, he was on the pitch in Costa Rica making his international debut. A few more days passed and he was celebrating with the nation as Canada qualified for Qatar 2022 — the country's first berth at a FIFA Men's World Cup since 1986.

Koné is on the roster for warm-ups later this month against Qatar and Uruguay and hopes to be named to the final roster for the sport's greatest showcase in November. Without question, clubs in Europe will be watching him closely.

A multimillion-dollar transfer out of Montreal to a European side seems inevitable.

"This could take my career to another level, going to the World Cup. I'm aware of this but I don't let it distract me," Koné said.

The move from Ivory Coast to Canada

Koné was not quite eight years old when he left Ivory Coast for Montreal with his mother in 2010. She was searching for a fresh start. He faced a new world radically different from his West African home.

The two relied on each other as they adapted to the weather and the cultural differences.

"I left young. I left my family. I left my friends. So, it was a little bit hard for me," Koné recalls. "It was only me and my mom but I got through it and I'm happy that I'm Canadian now."

Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press
Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press

Koné's mother got a job working at a bank and they moved into Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.

"The first friends I made were speaking only English and me, coming from Ivory Coast, I only spoke French,"

Koné says having English-speaking friends at a young age was difficult at first but now he's grateful to be fluently bilingual.

Soccer also helped break down any language barriers that remained.

"Going to school was OK, I wasn't that bad at school. But otherwise I was just going to the park after school or during lunch break and just with my ball,"

Because he came from Ivory Coast, he naturally grew up admiring players like Didier Drogba.

Drogba joined the Montreal Impact in 2015 and Koné recalls how exciting it was to see him at a game at Saputo Stadium for his hometown team.

"It was unbelievable, for me coming from his country, it was beautiful to see him in person," Koné said.

When Drogba was in Montreal, Koné was still playing soccer with his neighbourhood club in N.D.G but by the age of 17 he and his mother had moved and he had joined the Saint-Laurent Soccer Club (CS Saint-Laurent) in another borough.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Under the leadership of technical director and former Montreal Impact player Rocco Placentino, coach Kwame Ansah and others, he was able to put together a highlight reel and get it online.

That led to him being picked up by an agent who then immediately started to search for opportunities at the next level.

European Soccer in sight

When Koné was 18, his agent found him a trial opportunity in Belgium with KRC Genk and Royal Excel Mouscron and while that 2020 stint abroad was relatively short-lived, Koné says he learned a lot about what he needed to do to compete at the professional level.

"My problem was that I knew I was good but wasn't really doing everything that I could to get there."

He credits the staff CS Saint-Laurent for getting him on track mentally.

"Talent is not enough. You have to work harder than everybody and I was lucky enough to go to CS Saint-Laurent and get coaches to show me the way."

His foray into Belgium also landed him on the priority list of Montreal's professional soccer team, which was renamed CF Montréal in early 2021. When Koné returned to Quebec they brought him into their academy and only two weeks later he was up with the first team and had his first pro contract in hand.

But while playing for his hometown squad is an honour, Koné has never taken his eyes off the goal of playing in Europe.

"As a footballer, for me, if you want to challenge yourself that's where you want to go. MLS is a great step for me … but Europe is where I want to end up, it's where I want to play."

By all indications CF Montréal have never been under the illusion that Koné was going to be with them long term.

Following the 2021 MLS season they facilitated an opportunity for him to go to Italy to train with Bologna F.C., Montreal's sister club (which is also owned by Joey Saputo). Koné spent two weeks working with the reserve team there.

It was another step to prime their prize local talent for a move abroad.

When Koné makes his move abroad he will join a growing list of Canadians — such as Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan and Sam Adekugbe — who are coming from the MLS and fetching transfer fees from European sides.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

First things first

Before Koné takes the next step he has some business to take care of at home first.

CF Montréal are in the midst of their best season in club history at the MLS level and they will be competing in the playoffs this fall.

"Doing something great for my city is something that I've always wanted to do. Even outside of football, giving back to the city that loves me and makes me the man that I can be today and doing it with the sport that I love is even bigger," Koné said.

He'd like nothing more than to deliver a championship.

"I'm grateful. I grew up in this city.… I get to play for the city. I get to showcase my talent. To win for this city, it's beautiful. It's a blessing, some players never get this chance."

Koné and CF Montréal will open the MLS playoffs with a home game at Saputo Stadium on either Oct. 15, 16 or 17. Canada competes in the FIFA World Cup starting in November and all signs point to Koné being sold to a new team in Europe during the January transfer window.