Appearances can sometimes be deceptive, as Didier Ya Konan has made a point of proving this season. Without being particularly big or especially powerful, the prolific forward has finally started looking right at home alongside his fellow Elephants in the Côte d'Ivoire line-up. Thanks to a superb campaign with club side Hannover, the 27-year-old has taken his career to a new level this term and now commands respect on the international stage.
It is not just his size that marks the Abidjan native out as a different breed. His agility and combativeness compliment the honed finishing skills that saw him rack up 14 strikes this season in the Bundesliga as Die Roten confounded expectations by coming fourth.
Nor has he forgotten his route to the top, despite at least one strange twist as well as a FIFA World Cup™ disappointment along the way. First shown the ropes at ASEC Mimosas, he was 22 when he announced his talent by finishing top of the CAF Champions League scoring charts in 2006. That performance made him an obvious target for a big club, but he raised eyebrows by packing his trunk for the frozen climes of Scandinavia and Norwegian outfit Rosenborg. “It’s true that the cold didn’t help things, but I picked up so much experience there,” Ya Konan told FIFA.com. “I played in the Champions League after all. That kind of adventure can only help you grow.”
Ya Konan dependence
Around 50 matches and 13 goals later, the forward then decided to head south for Germany, a country “which loves football and talks about little else...” His new side Hannover struggled in his debut campaign, but despite their 15th-placed finish it proved an excellent season for their new recruit. Ya Konan settled into his new surroundings in no time and surprised everyone by weighing in with nine goals and five assists, not to mention performances of a high standard overall.
In fact, little by little, Die Roten began to find themselves unable to cope whenever their Ivorian talisman was absent. In the nine matches Ya Konan had to sit out due to injury in that maiden campaign, HSV failed to pick up a single point, and the pattern of dependence continued in 2010/11. It took Mirko Slomka’s men until 26 February and a 1-0 defeat of St. Pauli to finally prevail without their lucky charm, who missed a portion of the winter due to an injury to his right knee.
Once he was restored to fitness and back in the side, Hannover bore down on a top-four spot to clinch a UEFA Europa League berth. “I’m very happy with my season,” explained the front man. “I feel like I’ve progressed and reached a new level. I beat my own personal goals record too, which is always pleasing for an attacking player like myself. Teamwork and the club’s mentality were the secrets of our success. On a personal level, I’d add my prayers to that, because I’m very religious.”
He certainly has plenty of faith in himself. Not selected by Sven-Goran Eriksson for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, he quickly went about proving that the Swedish trainer had made a serious mistake. “Honestly, it wasn’t a problem for me,” said the marksman, who had won just three caps in five years heading into the global showcase. “I carried on working and took being left out as a challenge. I knew someone would give me another chance one day.”
Ya Konan was right, and it was Eriksson’s successor François Zahoui who brought him back into the fold for a friendly against Mali in February this year. The returning striker promptly showed his gratitude by firing the only goal in a 1-0 win for Côte d'Ivoire. “To finally be recognised as being good enough at this level doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “What’s important is to know how to grab your chance and give everything when you get called up. All the footballers in the national team are great players, so you don’t really have a choice.”
Competition for places is undeniably tough in the Elephants’ ranks, with Gervinho, Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba all seemingly un-droppable. Ya Konan feels there is room in the team for someone to form an effective partnership with Drogba, however. “Didier Drogba is a truly great player, and you learn a lot just being around him,” he explained. “But I believe we combine well together. Above all, I think I can bring a flexibility to the Elephants, as I can play in midfield or attack – and that suits the team as much as it does me. Whatever my position, I’ll always give my best.”