A short walk downhill from the Togo team’s hotel in Bitam, northern Gabon, a graffiti artist has been at work. “Adebayor le meilleur” – Adebayor the best – is the scrawl on the side of a breeze-blocked structure, accompanied by a telephone number.
Someone is clearly keen to discuss the striker’s merits and this would not be a bad day for it: 24 hours previously it may have been a stretch to envisage Emmanuel Adebayor, without a club since leaving Crystal Palace in June, looking up to speed at the Africa Cup of Nations but his performance in a surprise goalless draw with Ivory Coast was eye-catching and the applause he received on his late substitution was anything but sentimental.
Adebayor’s ups and downs would fill a tome but, sitting on the balcony outside his room at Hotel Benedicta, he explains he has not been this happy for years. “To be honest with you, I’m feeling even better than when I was on top of my game,” he says. “Moving between Europe and Africa in the last six months has helped me a lot. And you can see me here – I’m laughing, singing, dancing, enjoying my life. I am the comedian of this team and I am also the serious guy. If it’s time to be serious I am the one who will tap on the table and say: ‘This has to stop.’ If something is needed to make the team laugh, it comes from me as well.”
Contradictions have had a habit of defining him and this period of unemployment has been another. Being without work may seem like very hard work for a footballer – Adebayor has been assiduous in keeping fit but in doing so used the time to rediscover connections back home. He smartened up a pitch in front of his beachside home in Totsi – an area of Lomé, the capital of Togo – and took control of a team who had been playing informal matches there. They ran out in the shirts of Palace, Tottenham and Real Madrid. Friends old and new were welcome, and football was as he likes it best: serious fun.
“We’d play organised games on Tuesday mornings, Thursday mornings and Friday evenings each week,” he says. “But that was not the end of it. Friends, old team-mates from the national team, would call me and say: ‘Can we have a game with you guys tomorrow?’ I’d say: ‘OK, sure, come.’ They would come, we’d play and then afterwards we’d go into my house, drink some soft drinks and talk about the old days – about the Cup of Nations, the 2006 World Cup, things we had experienced together.
“People would say to me: ‘I can’t believe you are playing here, you’re too big for here,’ and I would ask them why. I’ll never be too big for anything. I was born in a house without a light or a toilet, so why would I forget who I am or where I come from? It is where I started – why should I be sad about playing there?”
Having fun on the pitch is a mantra that has peppered Adebayor’s interviews for years. He admits there were times in Totsi when he had to temper things and make sure the kickabouts still had the necessary edge, telling himself: “Manu, you have to want it a little bit more” or “Manu, stop joking and concentrate on this because if a club calls you now you’ll have to be ready”. It is fair to suggest his demeanour has, at times in his career, coloured perceptions of his professionalism but nobody who saw him pop up all over the pitch for Claude Le Roy’s team on Monday, at times dragging his team-mates through, would doubt his effort to stay in tune. The seasoned Le Roy calls him “a monument” and says Adebayor’s performance was “unbelievable”, paying tribute to his dedication in working every morning with Togo’s fitness staff over the past two months. Since the Ivory Coast game Le Roy has taken calls from some of Adebayor’s previous managers. All rang to praise his captain’s condition.
“I think people can see I am ready, that I am still a footballer,” Adebayor says. “A lot of people were waiting to see that. I’m a lucky guy because I have good genes, and this is not the first time I’ve come back after a long time out and played as if nothing had happened. Those who know me will not be surprised, even some of my old Tottenham team-mates. I had hardly played for months under André Villas-Boas and then, when Tim Sherwood took over on the Monday, I started against West Ham on the Wednesday [on 18 December, 2013, in a League Cup quarter-final], was man of the match and scored. It’s kind of normal and convinces me that I’ve got five or six years left in me, easily.”
Adebayor is 33 next month and would like, somehow, to return to London for his football. He still owns a flat in Hampstead while his family, including his six-year-old daughter, Kendra, live in Golders Green. FaceTime calls at 4.30pm, when Kendra is home from school, are the highlight of these long, crushingly hot days in the jungle of northern Gabon and the aim is to be nearer on a full-time basis once again.
“You know me well enough – I love England, love the Premier League and want to find a way to get back there,” he says. “I want to hit the top level again, that’s for sure. If not, I just want to play football and have fun, so if I get an offer somewhere then I’ll go.”
He will not confer with his agent over any offers – there have been “a few” – until the Cup of Nations is over. It is not lost on Adebayor that he is viewed in some quarters as a troublemaker, somebody with baggage, although he is at a loss to explain the reason. One opinion might be that, while he is the kind of interviewee who engages in constant eye contact and clearly believes what he is saying, he could have been given better advice at times in his career. He would not win many competitions for tact – “My father always told me to be myself and say what you think is the right thing; sometimes you pay the consequences but it means tomorrow will be a happy day for you” – yet there are plenty who can back up his assessment of his relationships with former colleagues.
“I have a bad reputation in England and I don’t know why,” he says. “Maybe it’s something that has just followed me. But one thing I always say is that 90% of the people I’ve played with would say I’m an amazing guy, a great team-mate. Other people, those who work on the gate at every stadium I’ve played at, will tell you I am a humble guy and a nice person. But the press will say what they want, and in my career I’ve been unfortunate enough to have a lot of negativity.”
There was more of that when, in September, a move to Lyon broke down. Some of the reasons offered – that he had smoked and requested whisky during a meeting with the Lyon manager Bruno Génésio – were bizarre but the truth, Adebayor says, was simply that he would not agree to a contract clause barring him from competing for Togo in Gabon. His experience of top-flight football has been limited to the television but there are no regrets about the length of his absence.
“Of course I’m watching the Premier League and I’ll think: ‘Wow, I could have scored that goal,’ ‘Oh, I could have missed that’ or ‘Wow, I’ve missed this atmosphere’,” he says. “That’s normal, it’s where I’ve been for nine or 10 years and you miss it. But look, I was there in Cabinda in 2010 [when the Togo national team bus was attacked in Angola and three people were killed] so I could be in a wheelchair today, or dead and forgotten. How can I complain about not playing football for six months?”
He has, inevitably, paid keen attention to the fortunes of Arsenal and Tottenham. It was at the former, in 2007-08, when he scored 30 goals for a team he feels should have won the league. He is comfortable admitting that nothing has been quite as good since.
“At Arsenal I reached a time when everything I was doing turned into goals,” he says. “We all have that – the one, two or three years where you are right at the top. We should have done it that year, but missed some experience and the team was quite young.
“Arsenal have a good team but if Sánchez gets injured I don’t know who they’ve got. If you look at Chelsea, when Hazard gets injured they’ve got Willian; if Willian gets injured they can still play Moses further forward. Arsenal’s problem is that today they are just Özil and Sánchez. If one of them gets injured, it is a problem.”
If Adebayor departed Arsenal, for Manchester City in 2009, under a cloud it was more of a heavy frost at Tottenham, where Mauricio Pochettino decided in autumn 2015 to separate him from the first-team squad.
“I’m happy for Pochettino and how they are doing,” he says. “Things didn’t work out between us but he is a great manager and we still have a good relationship despite what people might think. We still keep in touch – he is a good guy and has changed Tottenham. I don’t know whether the fans there hate me or love me but they should remember one thing, which is that there was a time when I scored goals for them and made them happy.”
For now, Adebayor hopes to inspire similar feelings in his countrymen. On Friday Togo will face Morocco in Oyem, a remote town whose Chinese-built stadium is barely complete and serves little obvious purpose beyond the next two weeks, and victory would make a quarter-final place appear likely. “We have a big chance but have to keep our heads,” he says. “At 4pm on Monday people at home said we were going to lose 5-0 against Ivory Coast. At 7pm they said we were going to be champions.”
If anything close to the latter should occur, it may just be worth seeing exactly what the person on the end of that line in Bitam has to say.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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