In 10 short months, Ismaël Koné’s life completely changed.
The dreams, goals and mentality remained the same, but everything around him accelerated at warp speed. In 10 short months, Koné made his professional debut, shot to MLS stardom with CF Montréal, played all three games for Canada at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and now, sealed a club-record transfer to England's Watford FC.
“Crazy,” the 20-year-old replied when asked on a virtual press conference to sum up his year. He let out a proud sigh and repeated himself: “Crazy.”
Koné rose from the unknown to global wonderkid over the course of the year, compiling a breakout season in Montréal and earning a regular place in Canada’s senior squad as his country qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The midfielder had 2g/5a in 26 regular-season appearances and has now accrued eight caps with Canada, all in 2022.
He was at the Qatar-based World Cup when the transfer to Watford was being finalized; Koné and Les Rouges teammates celebrated together in his hotel room when it was done.
There hasn’t been a lot of time to sit back and exhale throughout the year in which all of his dreams came true.
“I haven’t had time really to celebrate,” Koné said. “Me, my mom and my agent went to dinner, we sat down and spoke about where we were and where we’re at now in our career. I say ‘our’ career because, man, that’s my mom and that’s my agent. They helped me to move up. It was a small celebration, but that’s all I needed.”
Watford were the third team in England’s Championship (the second tier) that pursued a deal to sign Koné. Over the summer, Norwich City and Sheffield United both had the framework of transfers agreed upon, but deals ultimately fell through.
Koné is excited about the project he’s joining.
Watford sit fourth in the Championship as they chase promotion to the Premier League, widely regarded as the best league in the world. The top two in the division automatically get promoted, then 3rd-6th place enter a playoff to determine the final team that moves up.
Watford also have the same ownership as Italian Serie A club Udinese, which represents future possibilities for Koné as well. Both clubs have a strong recent record of developing and selling young talents, namely Brazilian star Richarlison (Watford) and Portuguese star Bruno Fernandes (Udinese).
“The project of re-selling is very good,” Koné said. “They’ve sold a lot of players within Europe, like Richarlison and Bruno Fernandes. It’s encouraging to me to go there because they have the right platform. The project is to come, develop my potential and become the top talent I can be and hopefully move to a higher team. I felt they really wanted me. It’s a win-win for the both of us.”
Kone’s ambition to continue his development and move forward in global soccer isn’t something he’s hiding.
“It’s encouraging to make the jump to go to Europe,” Kone said. “I always wanted to play in the biggest leagues – the Champions League is in Europe. As a competitor, I want to be there. I’m proud.”
"Montréal helped me a lot"
Koné earned his professional debut in February for Montréal, scoring in the Concacaf Champions League against Liga MX's Club León. Then he started his club’s season opener in MLS play that weekend.
That’s when folks around the league started to take notice.
A month later, Koné made his debut with the senior Canadian national team. By the summer, he was a key starter for a very competitive Montréal side. Then reports of European interest emerged and a pair of transfers to England (to Norwich then Sheffield United) nearly materialized.
By the fall, it was obvious Koné would make Canada’s World Cup squad and soon depart Montréal in a lucrative transfer abroad. He helped the club finish second in the Eastern Conference and scored in a Round One Audi MLS Cup Playoff win over Orlando City SC.
“Montréal helped me a lot,” Koné said. “I think I played my role, but the team helped me so much. The group, the coach, everybody was on a mission and we all knew what we could do. … I’m grateful for that team.”
Koné isn’t the only rising CFMTL talent to depart the club this offseason. Djordje Mihailovic sealed a transfer to AZ Alkmaar, while Alistair Johnston is off to Celtic. Even 2022 Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year runner-up Wilfried Nancy departed to sign with the Columbus Crew earlier this week. They all led Montréal to their best regular season in club history.
Preparing to join Watford, where he’ll be eligible to debut on January 2 against Norwich City after the January transfer window opens, Koné is excited to see how this roller coaster ride of a young career can keep climbing.
“It’s fun man, it’s football,” Koné said. “Going into this life, I know what I was getting myself into. I didn’t expect it to be this fast, but that’s the game. I have to adapt; I’m leaving to go to London to play my football.
"I’m happy. This is the life I wanted for myself.”