by Francis Okupa, Kwesé ESPN
Manchester City veteran Yaya Touré is a certified African legend, as his four CAF Player of the Year awards, two Premier League titles, two La Liga titles, one UEFA Champions League title, and one Africa Cup of Nations trophy all attest.
But despite his numerous accolades and awards, the former Ivory Coast star told KweséESPN during City’s current ICC tour to the USA that he feels unappreciated in his homeland, hence his stance on remaining retired from international football.
The captain of Ivory Coast’s 2015 Africa Cup of Nations-winning team hasn’t actually played for his country since that night in Equatorial Guinea, when Les Éléphants defeated Ghana’s Black Stars on penalties to win their first, and long-awaited, Afcon trophy.
Describing his emotions as he led his countrymen to victory, Touré reflected on the moment, and the hurt he carried with him from critics prior to 2015, saying: “[It felt] Unbelievable. We’d been fighting for how many years to bring the trophy? Losing in the finals two times, and sometimes when things happen they would say it was me, the main one who made them lose all the time, and I was very, very disappointed.”
Sitting on 100 caps for his country, Touré explained why he has refused all call-ups since 2015, and why he will continue to rebuff his national team, even if current Ivory Coast manager Marc Wilmots offers him an opportunity.
Touré stated, when asked if he would accept a call-up: “No. To be honest, I was very sad at what is happening for my country. Sometimes you’re not the king in your country, but you’re a king outside.
“I think the way I’ve been treated, I was living in my mind like I was the most hated person in this country because they’re always creating things with my big brothers, and always create problems between players.
“Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s never happened to him in his country. I think [Cameroon’s] Samuel Eto’o was fine, he was very loved in his country. Me, I was worse.
“Any problems that happened in this national team was me. It made me sad the way I was feeling, like I was the most hated person. What I was trying to do was show them that I love the country [despite] what happened to me. I promised my wife and my family and friends I would bring them a trophy [Afcon] and then I left.”
The Ivory Coast media have long cast aspersions at Touré regarding the relationship between him and legendary striker Didier Drogba [from a perceived lack of an on-field connection to regional differences], but Touré says: “[My best friend] it was Drogba. I don’t understand how people were saying I hate him. I loved to stay with him and play with him. The second one was my brother Kolo and the third it was Gervinho.”
With international football in his rearviewmirror, at least until (or if) his problems with his country are resolved, the midfielder is free to focus on club football and the task of leading Manchester City back to the top of a tightly contested Premier League.
The turnaround for Touré at Manchester City in less than a year has been a surprise to many observers. Cast out of the inner sanctum by manager Pep Guardiola last autumn after harsh words from Touré’s agent Dimitri Seluk in the media, one could have expected the Ivorian to leave Manchester for a less competitive league and a team willing to splash the cash.
But Touré, one of the hardest workers in the game despite his deceptively languid style, dug deep. Remaining professional in behaviour, he worked hard to get in better shape, which was noted by his manager.
Guardiola told reporters after a City victory versus Crystal Palace in November: “I’m so happy for Yaya Touré because he’s a really nice guy. His weight is perfect now and there are no doubts about his quality. The last two months he was amazing in the training sessions. His behaviour was absolutely perfect. His teammates love him. He’s another guy who will help us with the rotation in the team.”
Each season it seems Touré’s critics champ at the bit to chalk up subpar performances as proof of an official decline in his ability and standing as one of the premier box-to-box midfielders in the sport. The numbers, unfortunately for Touré’s critics, don’t completely bear that out.
Becoming the second midfielder in Premier League history to score 20 goals in a season (per Opta stats) as he did in 2013-14 took expectations for Touré to unreasonable levels. Add in his 90% passing accuracy and the fact that no player has more goals from outside the box than he has since his arrival in England, it’s not difficult to see why expectations are always high.
Last season was a mixed bag, statistically. Despite playing eight less games than City’s second-leading scorer Raheem Sterling, Touré still ended up with two goals less than a player that fondly refers to him as “Uncle Yaya“.
Until the arrival of midfield partner Fernandinho, Touré led City in passes completed each season since arriving in Manchester. And despite the presence of Fernandinho, Touré still ended up in the top 10 of players with the most passes completed each season he’s been in the Premier league, with the exception of 2016-17.
After a subpar (per his standards) 2014-15 season, especially in terms of defensive work-rate, Yaya rebounded the past two seasons to average more than 40 tackles each season, while showing the box-to-box running that made him one of the best two-way midfielders in the game.
Touré, having impressed managers, teammates, and opponents since his 2011 arrival at Etihad stadium, has one of his most ardent admirers in City captain Vincent Kompany.
Kompany explained why Touré is so valuable to City’s efforts, telling KweséESPN: “Yaya is one of the most gifted players I’ve ever played with. He has everything, he’s big and physical, but at the same time he’s got that dexterity in his passes and his touches, so he’s one of the few players who’s able to control the tempo of an entire game.”
With the spending wars going on at the top of the Premier League, Touré will be tasked with helping to dictate the tempo and change matches for City, while showing new signings what will be required if they are to finish the season at the top of the standings.
“We have to be consistent to win. The Premier league is the toughest,” Touré advised.
As brilliant and dynamic a player as he is, Touré still provides evidence from time to time that he doesn’t wear a cape 24/7. The midfielder with an eye for important goals isn’t impervious to criticism and he has his limits, like most.
Touré’s limit has been reached, for now, as it pertains to his national team. The hope for fans of Les Éléphants should be that a smoother 2017 season for his club, coupled with a productive conversation about country, will leave Touré, Wilmots, and Ivory Coast fans singing in harmony prior to the 2018 World Cup.