On another unbearably humid afternoon, Emmanuel Adebayor was once again underlining his reputation as the coolest man in Abidjan.
Nigeria were playing Ivory Coast and Adebayor, whose parents are Nigerian, was quietly watching the game on television — bedecked in a traditional West African robe, and sporting an embroidered cap — when a crowd began to gather around him.
Adebayor, 39, is everywhere at this Africa Cup of Nations: in the television studios, explaining what was happening in front of him; in the executive suites of stadiums, where he makes appearances as a “legend”; and in the hotels of some of the teams, enjoying chats with players old and new. He was, for example, one of the few granted an audience with Victor Osimhen.
One of the journalists present in the room that day, the Algerian Maher Mezahi, explained why Adebayor was a hero for the whole of the continent – a sharp contrast with his reputation in Europe, where his playing career ended four years ago.
Adebayor has quite the CV. Few players can boast of playing for such a range of big clubs – from Monaco in France, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in England and Real Madrid in Spain – but for all that stardust, the fact he only won one major trophy (the 2011 Copa del Rey with Madrid) seems an inadequate return.
Perhaps the lack of tangible success in a career that only officially ended last March, and which also included spells at Crystal Palace and in Turkey and Paraguay, contributes to the perception, in Europe at least, that Adebayor is a player who was more trouble than he was worth, particularly given his penchant for creating controversy.
As always, however, the reality is rather more complicated.
“If you understand where he is coming from, you understand his reactions,” Mezahi said. Such as, for example, when he scored against his former team Arsenal for Manchester City and ran the entire length of the Etihad Stadium pitch to slide on his knees and celebrate in front of the supporters who used to sing his name.
Adebayor had been burned by his experiences at Arsenal. Firstly, he did not get on with fellow striker Robin van Persie. He also felt manager Arsene Wenger gave the Dutchman favourable treatment. He has since said that Wenger is “not a friend, but a good coach”.
Adebayor felt pushed out by the club only for Wenger to claim that he, instead, had wanted to leave. Then, as a City player, Adebayor says Arsenal fans chanted a song, originally created by rival fans, about his father “washing elephants” and his mother being a “whore”.
Adebayor did not claim that it was racist or misogynistic — although it clearly was. His issue, however, was that he only explained the context around his own behaviour years later, which allowed the perception of him as an agitator to fester in the meantime.
In Africa, however, Adebayor’s reputation is very different. Many are hooked on his life story of the kid who came from nothing to become a superstar — his father had exchanged currencies on Togo’s border with Ghana, while his mother worked as a butcher — and the sense of mysticism that surrounds it.
It is believable, for example, that it was his job as the youngest boy in the family to find the buckets when rainwater came through the roof. It is also believable that the place did not have a toilet, and he had to do his business on a beach.
Perhaps less believable is the tale about him not being able to walk and how that problem was solved.
One version, according to Mezahi, is that, when Adebayor was five, his parents were still worried about why he was only able to crawl. They initially took him to see a marabout, an Islamic holy man. The young Adebayor would also spend time in mosques and churches, where one pastor instructed his mother that he should bring him for prayers every day from Monday to Sunday. “If he can’t walk, he’ll be like this for the rest of his life,” she was told.
Prayers in the morning, noon and evening followed but by the Sunday, Adebayor was still on the church floor, unable to get on his feet. There was a commotion outside, where a football match was being played. Suddenly, a ball came bouncing through the church doors and Adebayor, screaming with fear, began to feel sensations in his legs. His family began to cry.
Mezahi could not let the presence of Adebayor in the press room pass him by. He wanted to know the truth and Adebayor listened closely to him, as he recounted the details as quickly as he could.
“Not true,” said Adebayor, as disappointment met embarrassment on Mezahi’s face.
But Adebayor wasn’t finished yet.
“I was six years old.”
In 2015, Adebayor released a Facebook post which explained some of the issues he was facing.
Much of this boiled down to family and money. Throughout his career, he was expected to provide for those closest to him back in Togo but the boundaries were unclear. At what point did his extended family actually end? Everyone he knew seemed to want something from him.
He felt taken advantage of and, when he made a stand, threats were made against him. The basic message was: “Pay us or we’ll tell the press on you…”
In a 2017 interview with French football website SoFoot, Adebayor explained that, from the age of 15, he was expected to run the family because he was the wealthiest person in it.
“I even had to bang my fist on the table, because in the African family, as soon as there is money, everyone does what they want,” he said. “Nobody wants to work, but everyone wants to be the boss. I even had to go to war against my big brother, my big sister or my mother in order to achieve what I wanted.
“When it’s your family that’s against you and you’re working to get them out of trouble, it’s hard… I always told my little brothers in Africa that we were manipulated by our families.”
There were times when he was injured and the phone would ring. The caller was not checking on his welfare but whether he could wire some money home to them.
It frustrated Adebayor, because they did not see the correlation between his own health and the fortune he was sending back. He felt like he was being chased, and this led to him changing his phone number as soon as he received contact from an unfamiliar source.
He would compare the relationship with his family with being in prison, then suddenly being told: “Brother, take the door and get out. Now you are free.”
“That’s what I felt,” he said, after using social media to explain what was happening to him. “A deliverance.”
It would be understandable if Adebayor had significant trust issues. Even in the press rooms of Ivory Coast during AFCON, he was the star attraction, often surrounded by people who wanted something from him.
Ultimately, this included me. I wanted to interview him and try to find out more about his life.
After his conversation with Mezahi, I approached him, asking whether he’d be interested, only for him to tell me that he doesn’t do interviews anymore. I suggested it was a shame as he is largely misunderstood, particularly in the United Kingdom.
A big smile stretched across his face. “That’s life,” he said calmly.
With that, he maintained his position in the centre of the room, never leaving it, despite the electricity burning around him.
(Top photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)
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