A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Taye Taiwo has always had a reputation as a Cannonball Kid. Once during his school days back in Lagos, the powerfully built youngster hit a shot so hard it knocked one of his friends out cold. The emergency services even had to be called. “All the mums and dads came to my house,” Taiwo told RMC Sport. “They started yelling and my father told me that I was going to have to give up football.”
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The head teacher merely banned Taiwo from playing at break time and the thunderbolt on which he would build his reputation soon came to the attention of Pape Diouf, the former Marseille president, and José Anigo, the club’s existing director of sport.
“I did not even know Marseille had sent a scout,” Taiwo shrugged. “Nigeria played a friendly against South Africa and when I got home, my agent told me: ‘In two weeks, you’re going to Marseille’. I told myself: ‘Marseille are a great club. How will I play for a team like that?’ The self-effacing left-back was in for quite a culture shock. “The airport was clean. It wasn’t like at home where nobody works and the people say: ‘I’m tired, I’m haven’t been paid’.”
Drafted in by Diouf and Anigo to replace the departing Bixente Lizarazu, a star struck Taiwo learned the ropes from Fabien Barthez. “I told myself: ‘Look, it’s Barthez who won the World Cup! I had my picture taken with him and sent it home to Nigeria. He spoke English. He helped me and told me how things were at Marseille. I’ll always thank him for that.”
Seven years later Taiwo is the longest-serving player on Marseille’s current squad. His daughter Ahliyat even speaks with a Marseillais accent. But the Nigeria international’s time at the club hasn’t always been easy. He was never going to be afforded the same talismanic status reserved to fellow Africans Didier Drogba or Mamadou Niang during his time at OM.
A lack of positional sense and frequent lapses in concentration occasionally brought criticism from the fans and local journalists, and when Didier Deschamps’ reshuffled his defence last season, asking his anchorman Stephane Mbia to drop in at centre-back and Gabriel Heinze to play at left-back, Taiwo perhaps realised he was no longer assured of a place in Marseille’s starting XI.
After considering his options, the 26-year-old let it be known that he would not be renewing his contract at the end of the current campaign. But Taiwo wasn’t done with Marseille just yet. In fact, he would make his mark on the club’s history in his own special way with a goal in Saturday’s Coupe de la Ligue final against Montpellier at the Stade de France.
With 10 minutes remaining and extra-time on the horizon, Montpellier keeper Laurent Pionnier flapped at a Benoit Cheyrou free-kick only for the ball to fall to Taiwo on the edge of the box who cocked his weaker right foot and pulled the trigger, hitting a bobbling shot that found its way through a crowded penalty area and into the net.
It was enough to make Marseille the first club to retain the Coupe de la Ligue, but perhaps even more remarkably also meant that their fourth piece of silverware in 13 months under DD was on its way to the trophy cabinet after a 16-year title drought in La Vieux-Port. “Europe has José Mourinho,” wrote L’Équipe. “France possesses Didier Deschamps.” The manager blushed. “It’s flattering to compare us, but he is more handsome than me.”
Meanwhile, Taiwo was getting carried away in his celebrations. On the lap of honour at the end of the game he took hold of the microphone and led the Marseille fans in chants against the club’s historic rivals Paris Saint-Germain. “The Marseillais have come to Paris to f*** PSG,” he sang.
When asked about Taiwo’s little ditty in his post-match press conference, Deschamps said: “You’ve got good ears. You must be the only one who heard it.” He wasn’t, though, as across town, PSG were seething.
Their president Robin Leproux called his counterpart at Marseille, Jean-Claude Dassier, to express his dismay that this could be allowed to happen after all the hard work they have done to reduce tension between the two sets of supporters. Antoine Kombouaré, the PSG coach, also said: “It’s unacceptable. The club must take action. If tomorrow one of my players were to insult Marseille supporters, I would intervene.”
A repentant Taiwo soon appeared in front of reporters, telling OMTV: “I want to apologise for what I sang into the microphone on Saturday. All my teammates told me that it was wrong to have done that and it made them feel sick in the heart. Now I feel bad for having done that. I was euphoric. We had to win and we sang. I apologise again.”
Whether the LFP’s Ethic’s Committee, who have since opened an investigation into Taiwo’s actions, will accept his excuses remains to be seen. Still, the ‘leaving present’ he handed to Marseille fans on Saturday will live long in the memory and no doubt earns a place for him in their hearts. No one at the Vélodrome begrudges Taiwo a move to pastures new.
Tuesday’s L’Équipe claimed he had reached an agreement with Milan to join on a three-year deal ahead of next season, although according to La Gazzetta dello Sport it’s contingent upon whether he can secure a French passport so the club’s one non-EU spot can be kept free for Santos playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso.
As for Marseille, the double-double is now very much on the cards. Lille’s 1-1 draw at Lorient on Sunday means Deschamps’ side can go top for the first time since November if they win their game in hand at home to Nice this evening. “Our destiny is in our hands,” Cheyrou told RMC Sport. “If we win all our matches, we will be champions.”
In that case, it’s perhaps best to keep Taiwo away from the microphone.
A fitting tribute to a player who's done the colours proud. Bon chance, Taye.
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