"It went by so fast": CanMNT's Ismaél Koné reflects on whirlwind journey from CF Montréal to Watford
Ever since he was a youngster, Ismaël Koné always envisioned that he’d carve out a career for himself in soccer.
But as he dreamed of one day playing at the highest level as a young boy in Montréal, even he couldn’t have envisioned how things actually ended up playing out for him on his road toward where he finds himself today.
Just 13 months ago, he was a youngster for CF Montréal, just looking to make his pro debut, eager to show why many at the club thought he was someone worth keeping an eye on in the long-term.
Now, just over a year after he made that pro debut, he’s a regular for English Championship side Watford, as well as a key member of the Canadian Men’s National Team, after a whirlwind 2022 that saw him go from a hot prospect to one of the best in MLS.
Off the back of that rise, he was able to represent Canada at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as they made their long-awaited return to that tournament, capping off a dream year for the 20-year-old.
From there, off the back of some strong performances from Koné at that tournament, Watford soon came calling.
The rest, as they say, is history
“Yeah, it went by pretty fast, but I’ve said it before - this is everything I wanted,” Koné noted in a Watford Twitter Space on Friday. “In this sport, things can either go very fast or very slow, so you have to be up for it, ready for it, and for me, it ended up going by pretty fast.”
Ismaël Koné has done it again 🔥— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 17, 2022
Less than a year ago, he didn't have a professional appearance. Now, he's scored a CRUCIAL playoff goal for #CFMTL, putting him up to 4G/5A on the season
Been a great performance from him, too. Great stuff#CanMNT pic.twitter.com/nCojHZV0oG
Long before Watford came calling, however, the start of Koné’s wild journey really got going in March of 2022. After having made his pro debut in February, where he shone, Koné was churning along nicely for Montréal, where he quickly hit the ground running as a pro, scoring two goals and adding two assists in his first seven games.
As a result, he then got a call that changed everything - it was that of CanMNT coach, John Herdman, who told Koné that he’d been called in to represent Canada for the March window.
It’s worth noting that this wasn’t just any window for Canada, either. By fate, this just happened to be one where they were supposed to clinch a spot at the 2022 World Cup, finally snapping their 36-year absence from that tournament.
And they just happened to get that job done in front of a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s BMO Field, where Koné had a good view of the festivities from the bench, having made his Canada debut a few days earlier down in Costa Rica.
Not bad for someone who had just made their professional debut just six weeks earlier.
“It was a huge moment for the country, for me to be a part of that history, it was a true blessing,” Koné reflected back. “After those hard-working nights, where I didn’t think this would come as fast, obviously, it’s what I wanted but I didn’t think it’d happen this fast.”
“And it went by so fast I didn’t get time to process it, I think after the World Cup I got the chance to sit down with my close ones and reflected on what happened this year, and how blessed I was, and it was just crazy to think I only played a few games before getting called to the National Team, so to be a part of this historic moment for my country was just a true blessing. I was extremely proud, and am thankful for God to be in such a position.”
Yet, that just sums up Koné’s rise to date - it’s been rapid, exciting and meteoric, but that’s just a credit to Koné, who has attacked every challenge with the same fearless mindset that quickly got him onto Herdman’s radar for that first call-up.
And that mindset has continued to serve him well so far with Watford. There, despite being fresh off the World Cup and a gruelling MLS season, Koné has hopped right into the deep end for his new club, already making 10 appearances, not looking out of place as his club makes a push for promotion.
Despite making a jump that many before him have found daunting, Koné has wasted no time in adjusting to the level of the Championship, quickly becoming a Watford fan-favourite with his style of play.
“I was ready, it was the right step for me,” Koné said of his Watford move. “I came here to challenge myself, because it’s a very physical league, and I think I had that in MLS, but it’s even more physical in this league.”
“So it really was a challenge to come here, but I think I’m ready. I just have to work even harder to show more of my quality, but otherwise, I’m really enjoying it. It’s a process, I’ve been taking day-by-day and enjoying it, it’s been challenging but I’m happy with it”
Here’s Ismaël Koné’s assist from today— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 14, 2023
Not sure it’ll be counted as an assist, as Assombalonga’s shot rebounded in, but a great run either way from Koné to tee him up. Good start to life under Chris Wilder#CanMNT
🎥 credit: @EverythingCFMTL pic.twitter.com/3jBEGIl2XU
Now, Koné is also looking to take that mindset to his role with Canada.
After a strong showing at the World Cup, where he didn’t look out of place in performances off the bench against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, where he got to go toe-to-toe against the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Luka Modrić and Sofyan Amrabat, there’s no doubt that he’ll be a big part of Canada’s midfield for years to come.
That starts with the team’s next camp later this month, and he hopes that will continue into what’s to come for this team, as they get set for big Nations League, Gold Cup and Copa América campaigns over the next 16 months, before then shifting their focus to their big goal - the 2026 World Cup that they’re co-hosting in 3.5 years.
And given that Koné will be just 24 at that tournament, that’s exciting to imagine, as the best is still to come from the youngster, as is the case for much of this rapidly growing Canadian side.
“We’re still a new team, and we’re building a new foundation, so the best is yet to come for us,” Koné proudly stated. “We have so much to prepare, so much to look forward to, but we’re ready.”
“I think it’s time for us to take that next step, it’s time for us to go forward, and I’m excited to be right in the middle of it, as I’m looking forward to what’s next for us.”