Yaya or no-no? A call for a little African football appreciation
Yaya Toure caused a storm in a teacup this week when he told the BBC’s Football Focus he didn’t think African players received enough recognition. But his comments were mostly taken out of context and spoke more of the desire to prove that Africa – and its players – were on the map and could compete with the best players in the world. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Yaya Toure is feeling a little bit irked. Not because he has been ruled out of the rest of the season with injury, but the Ivory Coast player says he believes African players are not recognised as much as they should be.
In a recent interview with Football Focus on BBC World News, Toure said he felt as though recognition for his efforts only came from fans. While his comments received much attention and excerpts were focused on, the actual interview itself was far tamer and came across more as a plea for recognising Africa as a growing continent.
"To be honest, proper recognition has only come from the fans," said the three-time African player of the year, also voted BBC African footballer of the year in 2013. "I don't want to be hard and I don't want to be negative, but I want to be honest."
He echoed the claims of Manchester City teammate Samir Nasri, who had previously claimed, "if he wasn’t African, everyone would say he’s the best midfielder in the world."
To understand Toure’s comments, you have to understand Africa. As a continent still struggling to understand itself, divided by war, homophobic laws, hunger, strikes and violence, the desperate need to latch onto achievements is completely understandable. African football has had success through a number of players, but very few of those have been globally recognised. You only have to think back to the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa to understand how most people across the continent will embrace their African identity, given half the chance (as fleeting and one-dimensional as that chance might be). With South Africa exiting the World Cup early on, most of the host country’s people latched onto Ghana and quaintly nicknamed them “BaGhana BaGhana”.
For Toure, players like him who emerge from Africa and achieve great things are paving the way for recognising that the continent is growing and achieving, something far away from the negative press which floods the headlines.
"I represent my country, but I also represent the continent of Africa when I play in Europe. That's why it's important to try to achieve something big. When we play at the World Cup, any African will back any African team. Because we want to hear the different approach to African football. We want to hear that Africans can do well and Africans do well,” Toure said.
Toure and his fellow Africans have received plenty of plaudits. Toure, Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba have been recognised for their achievements when it comes to rewarding players in Africa, but in Europe it’s somewhat different.
No African player has managed to win the EPL player of the month award this year and nobody managed it last season, either. In the 2011-12 season, Nigeria's Peter Odemwingie and Senegal's Demba Ba won it once apiece. Odemwingie also won the award once in the 2010-11 season. Perhaps most astoundingly, though, Didier Drogba never won the award in his eight years at Chelsea. Those might be a small sample group of stats, which can often fluctuate depending on who is in form, but it does add some context to Toure’s grievances.
The Ballon d'Or has only been won by an African player once, namely George Weah in 1995. Toure, Drogba and Samuel Eto'o have all been nominated, but have never made it into the top three. Toure and Drogba finished 8th and 12th for votes in the award in 2012, with Lionel Messi scooping the prize in the end. Of course that was a simple choice – Messi is in a league of his own, but it is understandable that Toure feels an inkling of frustration.
He further added that African players weren’t as well-known as their European counterparts, despite their achievements.
“If you go to any part of Africa now, people will say, ‘yes, we know him [Messi]’,” Toure said. “But when you come to Europe and say ‘Yaya Toure’ people will say, ‘who is that?’ Some will say they know my name, but not my face. But they will know Messi’s face,” the Ivorian said.
Again, comparisons to Messi are unfounded. The Argentinian is arguably the most recognised player in the world. Some might scoff at his comments, others might even brush them off as racist, but that’s not the case.
There is a desperate need for African players to still prove themselves and in the greater scheme of things, even those who have performed outstandingly probably haven’t received all the plaudits they deserve.
Part of the desire for recognition – beyond the big pay cheques and sponsorships – is perhaps that the football journey for African players is vastly different to some players from continental Europe and South America. Forget the fact that Toure did not actually own a pair of football boots until he was ten years old; that’s normal.
“I just had a normal African childhood, we played football a lot, but it was always in the street and always without shoes. Boots were very expensive, and when there are seven in your family and you say you want to buy a pair, your father wants to kill you,” Toure once said.
Aside from struggles to get started growing up, once they clinch success, African players have to contend with racism. Toure in particular has been subject of frequent racist remarks. Despite all football’s preaching of creating unity, it still causes much division, but Toure wants to see that change, another reason why he is so desperate to be recognised.
“I am very proud to be African, I want to defend African people and I want to show to the world that African players can be as good as the Europeans and South Americans. I say this because I want the young guys who come to Europe to play in big clubs. I want to put them in the right position,” he said in the interview.
Toure has had a solid season with Manchester City. Strong with a delicate touch and the knack for scoring goals, he's the blueprint for the perfect midfielder. Even though he can be inconsistent, or a liability at times, he is versatile and has been equally impressive for his native Ivory Coast. He's also in contention for the PFA Player of the Year award, alongside Steven Gerrard, Eden Hazard, Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.
Suarez will most likely scoop the award and although Toure admitted it will be disappointing, he also said that he believes strikers tend to get more attention than midfielders. Toure will, no doubt, be left disappointed.
His comments about recognition, though, should not be taken out of context or as sour grapes. Instead, they are simply comments by an African desperate to prove that Africa is “up for it”, something which it is far too often told it’s not. DM
Photo: Manchester City's Yaya Toure celebrates scoring the third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford in Manchester, Britain, 25 March 2014. EPA/PETER POWELL