After a summer where the Arsenal striker looked set to leave the Emirates for Milan, an image had been portrayed of him being greedy for money but for Togo that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Republic of Togo has been under rule of the longest serving leader in African history (after being president for 38 years) at the time of his death in 2005 where his son Faure Gnassingbé was elected president. Riots proceeded his election as claims that it was rigged. Even before that the country was ruled by his father who was considered to be a ruthless dictator whereby the The European Union suspended aid in 1993.
The 2006 World Cup was a momentary respite from the rioting in the country as Togo looked to unite the country with an inspiring performance led by star striker and talisman Emmanuel Adebayor Sheyi. But even that didn’t go to plan as rows over appearances and unpaid bonuses over shadowed what was meant to be a momentous moment in the country’s history. The club went without a win and Adebayor even received death threats.
Even after such setbacks the striker and captain is still as popular as ever and is seen as a ray of hope in a struggling country.
“I tried to ask him once and he changed the subject,” said Parfait Akwei, who was instrumental in bringing through Adebayor. “But my personal belief is he has something. I’ve heard some people in Togo say he’s our saviour, that Adebayor is our saviour. They joke he’s more popular than the President. People believe that if there are problems politically then the only thing left is football and that’s Adebayor.”
The row after the World Cup was over money; unpaid bonuses which were promised to the players if they qualified for the tournament and were not received. Adebayor wouldn’t have needed it but his team mates did and he was the leader and captain.
Adebayor’s story wasn’t easy. Born in a poor family with ten people living in two rooms. His parents moved from Nigeria to Togo. As a toddler he was unable to crawl or walk so his mum took him too a church to heal him but before the Pastor was to administer him someone dropped a ball. Little Adebayor was determined to get the ball; he fell over continuously, hurt himself but kept on getting up. Eventually Sheyi walked to the ball; he was destined to play football.
At 15 to join Metz all by himself, leaving his freinds and family behind to journey into the unknown.
“At the airport my mum said ‘You see where we are, where we are living? Go to France, do something good, we need your help.’ I nearly cried that day. I’m leaving my family and I know my family is suffering. I said to myself, ‘Now your time has come.’
‘I was on my own, no support, nobody. On the plane the food was so difficult to eat and when I arrived in France it was freezing. I was so skinny. The next day I go down to breakfast with all my clothes on, my hat on, hands stuffed in pockets and they all start laughing at me. The supervisor told me to take my hat off, hands out of my pockets.
“But that first day, after training the Director of the Academy knocked on my door and said ‘You’re good, your going to stay.'”
The Togolese infrastructure was poor and the wealth very unevenly distributed. Parfait played in Togo’s division two but wanted to do more to help the kids in Togo achieve their dream.
” If you go down to where Adebayor grew up there are 10, 20, so many talented kids but they just go down the drain. There was so much loss and I said such a talented guy would need help, Sheyi’s qualities then were as a midfielder, controlling the situation. He knew when to speed up, give the pass etc. He knew nothing about life but he could make everyone laugh and his talent? Marvelous.”
Soon for Metz he was converted to a striker because of his lanky style and even for not scoring many goals at Monaco there was enough in him to convince Arsene Wenger to sign him. He was in Togo after a fallout with his President at the Monaco where he was told that he would never play for them again when he got the phone call from Wenger.
“I was holidaying in Togo, playing football and my mobile rang. My friend answered it and ran of the pitch saying, ‘Manu it’s Arsene Wenger’ and I’m going ‘Shut up, hang up. Can’t you see I’m playing?’ And he screams again it’s Arsene Wenger. So I run to it and it’s him, that voice that never changes.
“Adebayor, how are you? Would you like to come to Arsenal?
“That’s not a question you can ask me even for free, even if you buy me an air ticket tonight, I will be at that club tomorrow morning. I love that club to death.
“He told me to keep it a secret, or the deal was off. I got back home, took a little bottle of champagne and sat with friends who kept on asking me why so happy? I didn’t say a word or sleep that night. But I told myself ‘even if it doesn’t happen then Arsene Wenger still wanted to buy you. Not because you’re tall, not because you’re beautiful because he sees something in you.’”
Adebayor looked set to leave the club last summer in a £30 million move to either Milan or Barcelona. He stayed and signed a new contract but money isn’t his biggest desire; he’s given £15-20,000 to complete strangers. Even before his determination to succeed for Arsenal he would want to see the people in Togo (and Africa) lead a better life and if it be, he will look to contribute to it.
“One day this will all stop. They won’t ask for my autograph anymore but I have to keep giving something back. Help find talented players, help their dream come true. What am I going to leave behind me? I don’t want to leave a bad name. I want people to judge on what I am and what I do.”