Ahead of the FIFA World Youth Championship UAE 2003, the observers keeping tabs on Côte d’Ivoire only had eyes for the striker Antonin Koutouan. However, since the victory in their first match over the Mexicans (2-1), they are being forced to talk about a duo, as Arouna Kone has burst to prominence alongside the Lorient player. This young man with the permanent smile is proving to be a real penalty box predator. Let the Irish be warned…

“It was the second time I’ve called my family since we came over here. It’s great to talk to my mother.” Arouna Kone is a normal young man of 20, closely attached to his nearest and dearest. After his demonstration of strength and vitality against Mexico, his first thought was naturally to talk them, as in spite of his tender years, Kone is no longer able to see his family often.

“Since coming over to Europe, I don’t get to see them much anyway, so being here in the UAE is no big deal for me from that point of view. I am hoping to go back home for Christmas though.” The career path taken by the striker is not at all typical for an African. Like all the other boys from his neck of the woods, he used to play the game in the streets from a very young age, until being snapped up by the local club, in his case Rio Sport, based in Anyama, a small town on the outskirts of the capital Abidjan.

After passing through the club’s training centre, he broke through into the first team at 17 years of age. Aided by his talents, Rio Sport climbed steadily up the first division table, and the young star was invited for a trial at RC Lens in Northern France. “It’s not exactly the most ‘African’ town in France! I came over for a week’s course, and they kept me there for a month. But I couldn’t get along with the management, so I moved to Lierse in Belgium. I then joined Roda Kerkrade in the Netherlands, which is where I’m playing this season.”

Invaluable European experience
His experience in the more competitive European championships stands him in excellent stead. “At Lierse, I developed physically, as the Belgian league is very demanding. At Roda Kerkrade, it’s more about technique and the game is more open, so playing there is really good for my game. I am acquiring plenty of experience, which I try to pass on to the other members of the squad when on national duty,” he explains. And as the Mexicans can testify, he is certainly succeeding in this aim.

A permanent nuisance, he is forging a formidable partnership in the Côte d’Ivoire youth side with Antonin Koutouan, nicknamed “Tony”… despite them having only just met! I haven’t known Tony long at all, as I came into the team more recently, but I already knew the way he played and we just seemed to hit it off at once. I know his strengths and weakness and he knows mine. We complement each other well, and it’s been a piece of cake for me to adapt to his style of play.”

So much so that the Mexican defence never worked out how to mark this dynamic duo, and after multiple close shaves, Kone finally made the breakthrough. A penalty it may have been, but full credit should be given for the composure he displayed, after he was ordered to retake the spot kick when one of his teammates encroached into the penalty area on the initial take. The Roda forward did not bat an eyelid and promptly scored again.

A second decisive match
Ever humble, he is reluctant to make too much of his performance. I am satisfied with the way I played, but more than anything else, I am pleased we won. We’ve taken part four times and had never won a game before, so we’ve already achieved one of our aims,” he reveals. It is clear that coach Mama Ouattara has schooled his charges well.

Qualification is not yet a formality, however, and a great deal is riding on their second match. “The entire team is aware that the clash with Ireland is vital. It’s nothing less than the qualifying match. We will play as we did against Mexico, by going for goal right from the off.”

While he admits being worried when the Mexicans reduced the deficit, Kone is confident of claiming victory over the Irish. His faith lies not so much in a magic formula but in the team spirit that prevails. “Since we set off for the training camp in Qatar, something special has happened. The atmosphere has been amazing, and it’s coming across on the pitch.” It is certainly inspiring a lad who dreams of joining Manchester United one day: “I want to win this cup and finish as top scorer. Why not?” If he maintains the form he showed against Mexico, the dream will live on.