Watching football fans watching the football
Phil Gillen of TheSeatsFaceThePitch.com on the always-entertaining Assou-Ekotto
Benoit Assou-Ekotto doesn't score many goals, but his effort against Everton cemented his place in Tottenham Hotspur's apparent resurgence and into the white hearts of the N17 faithful.
Not often in these glamorous, hedonistic days does a player emerge to stand out from the crowd of prima donnas. Not often would you expect to see a player topping up his Oyster card at a London Underground station. Not often would you see a professional footballer so laid back he was almost horizontal. Assou-Ekotto bucks the trend.
Signed in the summer of 2006, he was lauded as one of the brightest young stars in French football. As impressive as that label sounds, similar titles seem to accompany every foreign player arriving on these shores, so judgement was rightly reserved.
Given the promise that heralded his arrival, Assou-Ekotto made a faltering start to his Tottenham career. First impressions were that he was merely a Magna Cum Laude graduate of the Thimothee Atouba school of ‘Own Penalty Area Step-overs’ due to his lackadaisical defending. His every touch was greeted not by raucous applause but the sound of 30,000 palpitating Lilywhite hearts.
His first season was blighted by a series of injuries that scuppered his attempts to unseat Lee Young-Pyo as Spurs’ first choice left-back. After a serious knee injury, he only featured twice in the 2007-08 season. Talk of not settling in England led to rumours of a move back to France.
The Cameroonian had, to that point, maintained a seemingly blasé attitude toward his chosen career. His well-documented comments admitting that he merely played football to make money were refreshing in their honesty, if a little unsettling for the Spurs faithful. The distance between passionate fan and well-paid player seemed to be once again widened.
However, given his injury problems, Assou-Ekotto admitted that he now appreciated his career more – it was still a job, but one that he shouldn’t take for granted. And in the following season, as Juande Ramos's side gained two points from their first eight games, Assou-Ekotto stepped up his game. He featured heavily after the appointment of Harry Redknapp, playing – like the team – with a new lease of life. He was slowly becoming an integral part of the Spurs line-up.
Still, he was stigmatised for his laid-back style and previously publicised comments; despite his growing prowess on the field a somewhat myopic view of Assou-Ekotto had already been formed. Notable television pundits continued to highlight his apparent lack of concentration and commitment, not to mention his over-ambitious heart-stopping defensive trickery. It wasn’t until he masterfully contained Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2009 League Cup Final that he finally started to receive the recognition he deserved.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s first Tottenham goal was a rather poignant and instructive moment in the club’s modern history. Starting the 2009/10 season afresh under Redknapp’s tutelage and eager to finally banish the memory of the club’s worst start for a century the year before, Tottenham were handed a tricky home tie against the eternally title-tipped Liverpool. Some focus was on how Tottenham would start the new season, but most was on this surely being “Liverpool’s year”.
Tottenham started the game brightly, and were marginally the better team for the first half. In the 44th minute, Tom Huddlestone’s disappointing free kick rebounded to the nearby Assou-Ekotto who surprisingly unleashed a wicked half-volley past Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal. That goal seemed to instil a tangible belief into the team, evident when Spurs overcame a second-half Liverpool equaliser to win 2-1.
A confident Spurs went on to qualify for the Champions League. Assou-Ekotto’s goal in the first week was by no means the defining reason for Spurs’ qualification into the supposed “Promised Land”, but an important part of the thousand-piece jigsaw it surely was. It was a signal of a team coming of age, typified by the individual’s newfound vigour and purpose.
A number of candid interviews have shown Assou-Ekotto to be more down to earth than his previous comments might have suggested. Football is his job, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy himself or indeed be able to relate to the fans. His admission that he will happily travel to London on the underground like the rest of the great unwashed started to show glimpses of the character behind the on-field nonchalance and wild hairstyles.
There have been questions asked of Assou-Ekotto’s decision to play international football for Cameroon rather than the country of his birth, France. One suggestion levelled was that he merely wanted to play at the World Cup. In a May 2010 interview with the Guardian, Assou-Ekotto concisely retorted.
“Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing," he explained. "I have no feeling for the France national team; it just doesn't exist. When people ask of my generation in France 'Where are you from?’ they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like [Aaron] Lennon and [Jermain] Defoe, they'll say: 'I'm English.' That's one of the things that I love about life here.”
The 2011 riots in Tottenham struck a chord with Assou-Ekotto – eventually. While everyone else in the country was glued to rolling news coverage, in typically detached fashion he was unaware of the troubles until a friend from France sent him a text. Assou-Ekotto took to the Tottenham streets to meet the locals and amongst the burnt-out buildings and ransacked shops he got his hair done, as he had for the last five years.
"People are nice here," he insisted. "They ask about the next game or the last game, but now the streets are very quiet, it's like a ghost city”. He called on football to assist with the problems rife in communities across the country. Many players appear at charity events, raising the profiles of worthy causes, but they are often put up to it by clubs or agents. Not to be critical of any player's work for charity, but Assou-Ekotto’s genuine concern for the Tottenham High Road community came from the heart.
Whereas it would seem there are more than a few football dignitaries yet to fully appreciate Assou-Ekotto’s languid style of play, Tottenham fans certainly realise the real benefit he brings to the club, both on and off the pitch. Although his rise in stature has coincided with the opposition's right flank focusing less on attacking than containing Gareth Bale, to suggest Assou-Ekotto has an easy time of it is doing him a great disservice.
Many of Spurs’ attacks stem from the left-back's coolness on the ball in tight areas, working space for Bale or Luka Modric to exploit. It's worth noting that Bale’s emergence as the talent he is today wasn't all down to the Welshman impressing in training; it was an injury to the in-form Assou-Ekotto that somewhat forced Redknapp's hand and opened the door for Bale, initially at left back.
Redknapp recently praised Assou-Ekotto’s commitment, when in the past even he had been at a loss to explain why the player wouldn’t know who Spurs’ next opponents were. When illness prevented him from travelling to Wigan with the squad, Assou-Ekotto received a call from Redknapp the night before the game asking if he might be able to feature in the game in anyway. At 7am Assou-Ekotto took a taxi to Wigan and played the whole match, helping Spurs to a 2-1 win. It was hinted that he only made the journey because he didn’t know how far Wigan was, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Some fans feel that players should also live and breathe the club. When a player wants to move to apparent 'bigger things' it's an affront that evokes a bilious rage in many a passionate fan. Gone are the days of the ‘one-club men’ who share the fans' affinity for the institutions where they ply their trade. The rewards of jumping ship at the soonest moment far outweigh the relative incremental wage increases of renewing a current contract. Before we cry foul and beat our sweaty palms on the ground in rage, any of us in a similar situation would do the same.
For a man initially painted as a mere mercenary, Assou-Ekotto has unassumingly begun to dispel that image. He's not interested in the over-dramatised side of the game, the supposed star names or their reputations. When asked which big-name player he would like Spurs to sign he replied “Look, Darth Vader could come to Spurs. I don’t care. If he does his job well I am happy for Spurs.”
Summarising on the Spurs-Villa game, Danny Murphy commented that “You can’t take Benoit seriously with that hair” after the player trotted onto the pitch with a wild afro that would have made Carlos Valderrama blush. But that's part of “Disco Benny’s” allure to Spurs fans. Football is taken too seriously and with the profession is in dire need of lampooning, Assou-Ekotto is happy to oblige.
"The whole problem with football players is that they really take themselves seriously," he acknowledges. "We kick a ball around and we earn 100,000, 200,000 or even 300,000 Euros a week. We don't improve the world. It's not like we invented hot water. We just kick a ball.”
With rumours of the newly-minted PSG making eyes at the full-back, hopefully Spurs can persuade him to continue to “kick a ball around” in London for a little while longer.
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