Better Beveren than never
Matt Scott meets Emmanuel Eboue, who says he owes his success to the academy system
Controversy can have happy consequences. As Fifa investigates the relationship between Arsenal and Beveren, there is one man for whom the "technical partnership" proved an almost providential path.
In the space of three months this year Emmanuel Eboue collected runners-up medals in both the African Nations Cup and the Champions League. Yet the Arsenal right-back's road to distinction would never have been possible without the stepping stone of Beveren and a certain academy in the Ivory Coast.
That Abidjan academy, founded by the controversial former Beveren sporting director Jean-Marc Guillou, helped take Eboue to where he is today.
"When I was young it was my dream to be a professional footballer but when I was in Abidjan, to be honest, it was pretty hard to imagine myself coming to play football in Europe," he said.
"Even when I was in the youth-development centre there (at ASEC Mimosas) I thought it would not be possible. I thought that when the scouts came I would not be taken because I was considered a bit old or that I didn't have enough experience.
"But then I was spotted by the scouts at Guillou's academy and that's where it started to work for me. After that I really started to work at it. When I got to that academy I did great and they wanted me in Belgium."
Initially it was hard for the young Eboue, who made the move across continents as a 17-year-old in 2001. For his first six months he was given no opportunity to play and even then was only drafted into the second team. But gradually he found his feet and his diligence paid dividends. "When I started to play in the first team I didn't waste a minute working at it," he said.
"Ever since I was very young I've always worked, since I was a child, because football is my calling. When I'm on the pitch I don't like to muck about enjoying myself, I like to give absolutely everything to it."
The seriousness of his approach extends to the expression of his faith on the pitch. He will be seen taking up the right-back position for Ivory Coast before the kick-off of matches in Germany in open-palmed prayer.
Despite his obvious enjoyment of the trappings that come with being a footballer, the fashion-conscious Eboue is not one to take things for granted. Having emerged from the back streets of Abidjan he knows the value of camaraderie, almost to the extent that it acted as a brake on his career when bigger clubs came knocking.
"I didn't want to leave Beveren, didn't want to because there was where I had my friends. That was my life," said Eboue, who will be accompanied to Germany by his wife, whom he met during his time at the Belgian club, and her parents.
"Then after a while I started to say to myself that I would have to leave because of the teams that were in for me. There was Lyon, there was Marseille and Real Mallorca wanted me. But I didn't want to leave.
"But then since Arsenal and Beveren had a partnership, Arsene Wenger called me and told me that I could do a trial at Arsenal. I was happy about that. Honestly, that was the dream that I'd had in my head, to play in England. And I went to the Amsterdam tournament in 2004."
Eboue put in a tremendous display in that tournament, as a substitute right-winger, and won a contract with the Gunners; but he once more found it difficult in new surroundings. "When I left (for Arsenal) I was a bit stressed over there," he said. "There were some great players there, Thierry Henry, so it did stress me out a bit. But afterwards, with the talent I have, people respected me and I started to feel more at ease."
He will turn 23 tomorrow, only six days before his first taste of World Cup football against Argentina. That will put him up against Juan Pablo Sorin, whom he stifled so expertly during the Highbury leg of Arsenal's quarter-final against Villarreal that the left-midfielder was withdrawn.
"I already know how he plays, Sorin, how he is, what he does on the pitch," said Eboue, his hat worn at a jaunty angle as if to convey a relaxed frame of mind. "So I'm not worried about that. I know that my friends in the defence are not stressed about it. We'll give absolutely everything against Argentina and I've got confidence in this squad. In the games that we have had we have shown that we can be a good country. I've said to my African brothers that we cannot be scared of the big players, that we have to have confidence. Honestly, African football has evolved. In Africa there are great players and the people know they can count on us. If we play like we can we will have no problems." ...