Monday, 8 September 2008

Africa | Football: Heros and villains

The traditional summer bargaining season has come to a dramatic end and the football season has got underway in earnest. Among the usual whirlwind of gossip about which player might go where and which player is unhappy here and wants more money there, the names of three players will have caught the eyes of those with an interest in African football. Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor are three of the best strikers in the world. They are also African. And they also spent most of the summer publicly thinking about leaving the clubs they play for.

Eto’o, 27, the Cameroonian African Footballer of the Year 2003,2004 and 2005, plays for Barcelona. Adebayor, from Togo, plays for Arsenal and was a sensation in the English Premier League last season, scoring 30 goals and turning in a number of barnstorming performances. Drogba, 30, the enigma, is Côte d’Ivoire’s talismanic captain. He plays for Chelsea and was African Footballer of the Year 2006.

All three are idolised in their respective countries and all three have frustrated, angered and bemused the fans of the teams they play for this season. Surrounding the three sagas has been the question of money. The old temptress, as sure to be the motivating factor in any modern footballer’s decision to move to another club as it is for an estate agent looking to sell that next house.

Eto’o is perhaps the most intriguing member of this celebrated trio. He has cut an occasionally angry and often frustrated figure Barcelona in the last couple of years and, incredibly, almost ended up moving to a club called Kuruvchi, who play in Uzbekistan, a country most football fans barely knew existed. This news read a bit like finding out that Roger Federer was thinking about playing the Surrey amateur tennis circuit, or that Babe Ruth once gave serious consideration to the idea of going to Mexico to play Donkey baseball. It was simply unthinkable. And why did it nearly happen? Money.

Fed up with life in Spain, Eto'o appeared to have decided to go to whoever was willing to 'pay the most'. An articulate, outspoken man, Samuel Eto’o had announced, on his arrival in Barcelona, that he was going to 'run like a black so I can live like a white'. His success has been phenomenal, but it has been fought for – played out against the racist backdrop of Spanish football. He has frequently had to put up with crowds who make monkey noises and shout abuse at him whenever he gets the ball. He has always battled against this kind of behaviour, but things have got to a point where he now no longer allows his family to come to watch him play: 'It is something that has affected me personally. I think players, leaders, and the media have to join forces so that no one feels looked down upon because of the color of their skin. At this moment in time I prefer my children don't go to football matches. In the stands they have to listen to things that are difficult to explain to a child. It is better they aren't exposed to it.' In the end, the thought of plying his trade on the Asian steppes proved to be an unsavoury one and Eto’o opted to remain in Catalonia. But the question remains: for how long?

The mighty Didier Drogba cannot point to similar hardships in the English league, where racism, while still a problem, has been gradually ground down over the last fifteen years. The boy from Abidjan, who left his home country at the age of five and has been on the move ever since, has often been castigated by rival fans for diving, sulking and on-field petulance. Off the field, he has been unsettled at clubs in the past, seemingly waiting for his big move.

No doubt billionaire Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich thought moving him to England would change all this, but Drogba, having established himself as the most feared striker in the Premier League, seemed to see his job as being complete, and spent this summer and much of last season talking about moving to Inter Milan or Barcelona. There were summer rumours in Italy that Inter Milan's new manager, José Mourinho, formerly of Chelsea, had promised to rescue the unhappy striker and take him to the San Siro and that Drogba had already bought a flat in Milan.

This attitude has begun to alienate Drogba from his English fans, even though, back in Côte d’Ivoire, he is still a national hero whose status is almost godlike. In many ways, that’s as it should be. Drogba has overcome a brutal system of football trafficking in which many fall by the wayside. He is one of many would-be African footballers to have been signed at a very young age by European clubs and fed a dream of potential stardom. The difference between him and a host of others is that he made it big. Most don’t.

Drogba has also found time to bring a little music into people’s life. As Drogbacite – the name of an Ivorian dance inspired by his play, he is now a rap star. After spending much of 2008 issuing a number of pleas, mainly in the French press, for his release from Chelsea, the once adoring Chelsea faithful may decide that it is no longer worth paying the cover charge at Club Drogba.

Emmanuel Adebayor, 24, is the youngest of the three players and current African Footballer of the Year. He was bought by Arsenal in 2006 but it wasn’t until last year that he began to show the kind of blistering form that has made him a wanted man. He scored 30 goals for Arsenal last season; twice the number he had managed for the club prior to that. But with goals comes attention, and it looked as though Adebayor was going to repay Arsenal’s faith with treachery, and leave the club to be paid better elsewhere. He was angling for a better deal, and in the end he got it: he will now be paid £80,000 a week to stay at the club until 2012.

Adebayor may be staying, but his fans aren’t happy. On the first day of the season, against West Bromwich Albion, Adebayor tried to turn a defender when he should have passed the ball. He was tackled and, in an incredible moment of rejection, booed by his own supporters. Having spent the summer talking about how he might like to go and earn more money elsewhere, Arsenal fans were going to make sure Adebayor knew he had a lot of ground to make up. The brilliant Thierry Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona but the fans still cheer his name. The difference is that he spent eight years at Arsenal and scored 226 goals.

So Eto'o, Drogba and Adebayor may not have gone anywhere, and they may still be loved in Africa but, fairly or unfairly, the continent’s three finest strikers are going to have to spend the next few months winning back their fans.

No comments: