Updated to reflect Richard Kone’s professional debut

The remarkable story of young soccer player Richard Kone from Ivory Coast, who has signed his first professional club contract, is attracting interest from across the game.

Several articles published online by major outlets and social media posts from English football fan accounts have been celebrating Kone’s elevation from the grassroots into the pro ranks with third-tier Wycombe Wanderers.

Many of these articles and posts have referenced the footballer’s sexuality in light of an interview he gave five years ago in which he said he is “homosexual”.

However, the striker’s representative has told Outsports that Kone wants to “focus on his football” at the current time and is not yet ready to speak publicly in the media about his off-field journey.

Kone was presented to Wycombe fans before the EFL League One side’s home game on New Year’s Day. Wycombe later confirmed on their website that the striker’s move had been “ratified by the EFL and FA”.

The 20-year-old scored the winner on his pro debut on Tuesday night as Wycombe beat West Ham Under-21s 2-1 to reach the last eight of the EFL Trophy.

Local newspaper Bucks Free Press described the 32nd-minute goal: “After West Ham’s captain, Michael Forbes, gave the ball away, Kone ran through on goal, shrugged off a couple of defenders and placed it beyond Joseph Anang with his left foot.”

Before signing, Kone had trained with the Chairboys for several months while continuing to play for Athletic Newham FC, an amateur club based in east London where he has been in prolific goal-scoring form for the last two seasons.

As a teenager, he was part of the Ivory Coast squad that traveled to Cardiff to play in the 2019 Homeless World Cup, a long-running annual international tournament that features players aged 16 or over who have met their respective country’s definition of homelessness.

In an interview published on the HWC website at the time, Kone mentioned his sexuality and the challenges he faced as a result while growing up in Abidjan.

“I was living on the street because I had some problems with my parents because I am homosexual,” Kone is quoted as saying.

The teenager explained how he joined a street soccer program which led to him being selected for the tournament. It was the first time he had ever been abroad, let alone been on an airplane.

Kone put in a strong showing in Cardiff, and within two years he was turning out for Athletic Newham’s first team and catching the eye of scouts working for clubs in higher divisions.

However, work permit issues prevented him from signing forms with a pro club at that time and he stayed at Athletic Newham under manager Christopher Davis, who was also his legal guardian.

Kone scored an astonishing 42 goals in the Essex Senior League in the 2021-22 season and was named the league’s player of the year. He went on to net another 40 goals in the following campaign.

Kone is represented by Bloc Talent, who started working with him in 2021.

The player’s agent, Kola Adedoyin, explained to Outsports that the Ivorian’s application to remain in the UK had been submitted to the Home Office by that time, but that it was not clear how long the process would take.

“He kept his head down and carried on playing at Newham. I’m really proud of the way he has stayed focused on his dream of becoming a professional footballer,” said Adedoyin.

Meanwhile, Wycombe were keeping close tabs on Kone’s progress and he accepted their invitation to continue training with them. At the end of the summer, his papers came through, which would allow him to sign a pro contract.

“More interest came in from the likes of West Ham and Fulham, but Wycombe had the strongest interest,” added Adedoyin.

Through it all, Athletic Newham have supported Kone in his ambitions and provided an environment in which he can thrive. In a social post on Wednesday, the club said the player was departing “after 4 long years… we wish him nothing but success”.

“They’re very close-knit,” said Adedoyin. “As an amateur club, they’ve done a lot of work with him outside of the typical one or two days of training sessions that they have.

“They deserve huge credit in his development towards signing a pro contract at the age of 20.”

On New Year’s Day, when Kone’s signing was announced, the player posed for photos on the Adams Park pitch. With him — as confirmed by Wycombe and Adedoyin — were his girlfriend and young daughter.

Wycombe’s manager Matt Bloomfield told the club website a few days later: “He’s a young boy and we don’t want to put too much on his shoulders.

“He’s a lovely lad, he scores goals, he’s got a young family that he wants to support and we’re really pleased to have him here.”

Sam Grace is the Development Group Manager at Wycombe and also spoke about Kone to the club’s online TV channel.

He was asked why the striker had spent longer than expected with Athletic Newham.

“One of the stipulations of his visa was that he couldn’t play above that level [the ninth tier],” said Grace.

“If people are wondering why there’s this player scoring loads of goals who didn’t step up, that’s the reason.”

A Homeless World Cup success story

Both the club and Bloc Talent say they are aware of the recent articles and social posts that describe the striker as being an EFL player who is gay.

However, at the time of writing, neither felt they could provide any information about that.

Wycombe say Kone has “no plans to speak about his personal life… the club fully respects his wishes and right to privacy.”

Athletic Newham posted a farewell message from the striker, recorded at Adams Park on New Year’s Day, on their social media accounts on Jan. 5.

The Homeless World Cup Foundation, which runs the tournament and operates the website and digital channels, says it is thrilled by the news of Kone’s professional contract and is hoping to acknowledge the player’s success on its platforms in due course.

An HWC spokesperson said that the interview the player gave at the summer 2019 tournament in Cardiff was conducted in French via an interpreter, and was only published after approval was given by both Kone and that of the Ivory Coast team liaison officer.

One disparity that has emerged between then and now — and which has been queried online by fans — relates to Kone’s age.

He is referred to as being 17 in the HWC interview, but Wycombe and Bloc Talent have verified the player’s birth date as being July 15, 2003, which means he was 16 in late July 2019.

The error is negligible in any case as the HWC states that Kone was eligible to play in its 2019 tournament as a 16-year-old.

The HWC’s goal is to inspire people who are homeless to change their own lives and the organisation’s values are outlined in its Charter.

The Inclusion section states: “We believe strongly in diversity and equality and operate a non-exclusive and non-discriminatory programme that actively encourages individuals, regardless of sex, age, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation.”

The sharing of personal stories from people participating in the HWC is an essential component of the Foundation’s work. Its website lists ‘LGBTQI+’ as a specific group that is often at higher risk of homelessness.

Its Charter continues: “We believe in creating an identity for the players through all our work… we create a dynamic space where players can share experiences with others from around the world and be proud to be part of a global constructive movement.”

What is life like for LGBTQ people in Ivory Coast?

While consensual same-sex sexual activity is legal in Ivory Coast, LGBTQ people living in the West African nation have no protections from discrimination under law relating to sexuality or gender identity.

The database of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association says the Ivory Coast’s Penal Code has been utilized in recent years to sentence gay men to prison terms on grounds of public indecency. In 2017, Reuters reported that two gay men had been jailed under that law.

A former French colony, Ivory Coast has a population of nearly 30 million. Three of its five neighbors — Ghana, Guinea and Liberia — still criminalize homosexuality.

A France 24 report in May 2023 said that, according to a local NGO called Gromo that advocates for LGBTQ human rights, “70 to 83% of LGBT people are still victims of homophobia and continue to face death threats, assaults and rapes in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast.”

Gromo also claims that 70% of LGBTQ people in the country are unemployed.

The US Department of State report on human rights practices in Ivory Coast in 2022 detailed violence against LGBTQ people living there, noting how they “often did not report violence committed or threatened against them, including assault or homicide, because they did not believe authorities would take their complaints seriously.”

Comment: A highly unusual situation

Since Richard Kone’s signing was announced to Wycombe fans on New Year’s Day, there has been much enthusiasm among fans and also in the media about his achievement.

This is a hugely uplifting soccer story. To go from being homeless as a teenager on the streets of Abidjan to turning out in front of thousands of supporters at Adams Park in the space of just a few years is quite the journey.

Factor in Kone’s quite astonishing goal-scoring exploits in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid and it’s no surprise that people want to celebrate his rise.

For example, one fan channel called Rising Ballers did exactly that on its social media accounts.

Posts on Instagram — where the channel has 1.5 million followers — and X described Kone’s journey and said he had been “kicked out of his home for being gay”. The Insta post was later edited to remove the reference to sexuality, but the post on X is still live at the time of writing.

Kone’s sexuality has become the subject of wider discourse too — not in any negative way, but as recognition of the various challenges he may have faced in his young life.

The word “sexuality” was also used in the headline of an article published on a tabloid newspaper website within hours of Wycombe’s announcement that Kone had signed. That article referred to the 2019 Homeless World Cup at which the then-teenager had said he is “homosexual” and quoted him from it.

The HWC are confident their reporting at the time was wholly accurate, and Kone’s quote five years ago has not been disputed by anyone. They appreciate that the article has now become a source of information about the striker but have as yet received no requests to add any update or clarification to it.

As a result, it is understandable why many are anticipating an LGBTQ milestone in English professional football when Kone makes his first appearance for Wycombe.

When Blackpool’s Jake Daniels came out publicly as gay in May 2022, it was similarly reported and widely discussed as a significant moment due to the very low LGBTQ representation in the men’s pro game.

However, considerable time has passed since Kone’s interview in Cardiff in 2019 and his reflections on that time in his life are as yet unknown.

He has been through a drawn-out, pandemic-delayed Home Office process that meant he had to wait four years to gain the right to live and work in the UK.

The guidance he has received in that time from key figures at Athletic Newham has been pivotal in his development as a person and as a player.

Kone’s circumstances have changed and he is now entering an exciting new stage of his life. He has told Wycombe he is not ready to speak about his personal life and that has also been confirmed by his agent.

At some point, the striker may decide to talk about his past publicly and even offer some clarification on the matter of his sexuality.

He may continue to choose not to address that, which is entirely his right.

The latter course of action, however, will give him much less influence over how he is described in the media, on social media, and on influential websites such as Wikipedia.

From a player care and well-being perspective, this is a highly unusual situation in men’s football.

Those working in the field of LGBTQ inclusion will appreciate that not only is sexuality a spectrum upon which an individual may find themselves in a different place over time, but also that there are complex reasons as to why and how someone might state their orientation, particularly when they are not yet an adult.

For now, this is just one aspect of a football journey that thousands of people, millions even, are enthusiastic about.

Having scored on his Wycombe debut, he is already beginning to write another chapter in his story.

His performances on the pitch will be followed closely. His control over his personal narrative will be monitored closely too.

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