Accra Stadium, Saturday 11th October, 2008
It was an unequal contest. The big men of Togo, cheered on by hordes of yellow-shirted trumpet-blowing fans, versus the little men of Swaziland, cheered on by nobody. Togo have had to play their last few home games in neighbouring Ghana (after spectator violence in the Togo v Mali game last year), but coachloads of Togolese had travelled to Accra, so this was near enough a home fixture. And Togo had the best player on the pitch – nay, one of the best players on the planet: Emmanuel Adebayor.
Adebayor plays for Arsenal and is barely 24 years old. He captains Togo and is idolized by the fans. He is an outrageously gifted striker and this afternoon gave a master class in footballing skills, albeit against inferior opposition.
Adebayor is lazy grace – some would say arrogance - personified. He purrs along like a Rolls Royce, before accelerating past his marker to deliver a slick pass or score a goal. Against Swaziland he scored four and should have had five (a header of his rattled the crossbar).
What makes Adebayor special is not so much his goal-scoring ability
– which is remarkable – but his style.
For much of the time Adebayor seems to be coasting, almost loafing. He is not one of those perpetual motion players – like Kevin Keegan or Dirk Kuyt; no, he prefers to conserve his energy, read the game, drift into space and then explode. I suspect he learnt this from his mentor at Arsenal: Thierry Henry. Both players are supremely composed - stealthy predators content to bide their time before seizing on a chance and going for the kill. Both of them have the ability to suddenly switch gears, to accelerate from a casual stroll to top speed, leaving defenders in their wake.
In the first half, Adebayor was lurking on the wing, as he often does, and received the ball. A defender came in hard, but Adebayor had anticipated this and, at the moment of impact, flicked the ball behind the defender and along the touchline. Managing to stay upright, he rounded his tackler, hurtled after the ball and headed goalwards. It was a magical moment, which drew from me the comment that nobody else on Earth could have done that.
Adebayor is a big man – tall and powerfully built. Big tall strikers are usually target men, who lay the ball off for their more mercurial colleagues and score mainly from headers. Adebayor is certainly a very good header and layer-off of the ball, but he possesses something else, something very rare in a big man: fantastic dribbling ability.
Three times in the Swaziland game, Adebayor set off on mazy runs, bamboozling the opposition with his feints and shimmies before slotting the ball home. In this he reminded me of Eusebio, another African giant, dribbling through the North Korean defence in the 1966 World Cup.
Is Adebayor, then, a selfish player who goes for personal glory instead of passing the ball to better placed colleagues? No: he knows when to pass, and he knows when to dribble. In the game he delivered many astute and beautifully weighted passes. I have never seen a big man with such deft feet.
Interestingly, Adebayor, in the whole 90 minutes, did not have a single shot at goal, yet he scored four times. His first three goals were close-range tap-ins after dribbles. His fourth goal was a tap-in after a coolly calculated race against the goalkeeper: Adebayor beat the offside trap, pushed the ball far behind the advancing goalie and accelerated after it, knowing that he would get there first and score. His four goals were brilliant conceptions, works of art, the final kick in each case a mere formality.
It is almost as if Adebayor disdains the uncertain outcome of medium-range shooting. Not for him the wasteful effort from 15 yards that flies just over the bar or just wide of the post. No, he prefers to toy with the opposition at close quarters, to see the whites of the goalkeeper's eyes and then trickle the ball past his feet.
Part of Adebayor’s appeal is his extrovert personality, as manifested in eye-catching body language and superstitious rituals. My friend, Jon O’Neill, who used to live in Togo and knows all about African football superstitions, told me to watch Adebayor before the kick-off. Sure enough, he hopped onto the pitch, which, according to Jon, was a good luck fetish. After one goal he stood still and stared up at the heavens with half-raised arms, as if communicating with his Maker. After his fourth goal he celebrated madly on the touchline and was admonished by the referee for holding up play. Then he rolled up the left leg of his shorts, as far as the buttock, and played on like that for the remainder of the game.
Jon suggested, half jokingly, that, since 4 is Adebayor’s lucky number (he always wears the No 4 shirt), the rolling up of the shorts might be some sort of ju-ju against scoring a fifth goal. Adebayor immediately disproved Jon’s theory by surging goalwards with the ball. In the absence of alternative theories, we just enjoyed the show; whatever Adebayor was up to was beyond our ken, but it was immensely watchable.
Adebayor is a theatrical performer who enjoys playing to the crowd and who knows his own worth. Although some people wish he were more humble, I have to confess I was entertained rather than repelled by his antics. We live in a bland world, and we need Adebayors to alleviate the monotony.
There were only about 3,000 spectators in the big Accra stadium, but they were entertained most royally. All for the price of a 2 GHC ticket. As I write this I still don’t know if Togo have qualified for the next stage of the World Cup. According to Jon O’Neill, even today’s 6-0 victory may not be enough to guarantee their further progress.
Tot: 0.046s; Tpl: 0.017s; cc: 17; qc: 26; dbt: 0.0083s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.2mb