Christian Kouamé stood on the Allianz Stadium pitch, tired but starstruck. His Genoa side had just held Juventus to a 1-1 draw – the first time the Bianconeri had dropped points in Serie A in the 2018/19 season. And over walked Cristiano Ronaldo, ready to shake hands with the forward who had created the crucial equaliser.
“I was so overawed I didn’t have the courage to ask him for his shirt,” the 21-year-old explained. “Ronaldo is so important to me, so important to my football. I was always a fan of Real Madrid and would sit in front of my TV and say to myself; ‘I wonder what Ronaldo will invent today to help Real win.'”
Later in the campaign Genoa went one better and ended Juventus’ unbeaten run in Serie A. Ronaldo didn’t feature that day – he was rested for a Champions League knockout clash with Ajax – but Kouamé did and fashioned the all-important second goal in a 2-0 victory.
This penchant for rising to the big occasion is a trait the Ivorian not only shares with Ronaldo but with his football idol. The ultimate big-game player: Didier Drogba.
“To me, Didier is football, more than a just hero,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “Everywhere I go, everybody talks about Drogba. He is much more than a role model.”
It’s clear Kouamé, born in Abidjan, the same city as Drogba, was influenced by the Chelsea legend as he honed his talent.
At 6ft 1ins he has the physical profile to hold off defenders and consistently win the ball in the air. Yet he is far from a battering ram. He is nimble in possession, able to skip past a centre-back with a flick or trick; is deceptively quick, his long legs enable him to sprint past opponents with ease; and can unlock defences with an intelligent or subtle pass.
He was an excellent facilitator for Krzysztof Piątek in the first half of last season. Deployed as a front two, Kouamé would often drop deep or out to the flank, collect possession and then feed the clinical Pole.
He had three goals and four assists to his name in Genoa’s opening 12 league matches. Not bad for a player who hadn’t previously played in the top flight.
Kouamé was a street footballer when he was brought to Italy as a hopeful 16-year-old. There was no guarantee of a contract; he and four other teenagers would audition for different clubs.
“The president of Prato, Paolo Toccafondi, immediately believed in me, took me on and registered me at Sestese,” he told Milan-based newspaper Avvenire in March.
“I was a minor and could only stay with a foster family. At that point, father Alessio and mother Angela come forward. Their home has become my home. There has been no Christmas or birthday I haven’t spent with them for the past eight years.”
Kouamé had spells with Inter and Sassuolo to aid his development and then featured for Prato’s senior side on 13 occasions in 2015/16.
A loan move to Serie B club Cittadella followed and after 30 goal involvements in 65 games, he arrived at Genoa in the summer of 2018 for around £4million.
The club’s new No.11 – another nod to Drogba – quickly settled and was influential in Davide Ballardini’s 3-4-1-2 and then Ivan Jurić’s 3-5-2. By the winter break, he was among the top ten Serie A attackers for assists, open-play key passes, aerial duels won, and dribbles completed.
When the campaign restarted in late January, Piątek was gone, sold to Milan for close to £35million. Antonio Sanabria arrived on loan from Real Betis in place of the Pole but failed to settle.
Kouamé’s and Genoa’s form dipped and Cesare Prandelli, who had taken over from Jurić at the start of December, constantly switched between systems. The Ivorian was used wide on the left as often as through the middle in the second, which at the very least enabled him to prove his versatility.
Prandelli may continue to use him out wide in the forthcoming campaign but it’s clear Kouamé’s future is through the middle. He has every attribute required to become one of Europe’s most complete strikers.
Just as Drogba did 15 years ago.