ABUJA, Nigeria – This week, the very best of African football had gathered in Abuja, Nigeria, for an awards ceremony in honour of the players and teams who had excelled in 2015. It was meant to be a celebration of the continent’s achievements but in the end it was overshadowed by the comments of a man who finished second in the African player of the year awards.
It is a shame that the focus has shifted from the winner in that category, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to a sore loser but perhaps the world should have expected what was to come long before Thursday’s ceremony ended because Yaya Touré was visibly stunned right from the moment it was clear that he was not going to win the top honour for a fifth consecutive year.
When the Platinum Award (an accolade usually given to the head of state of the country in which the year’s African Footballer of the Year awards is held) had been given to Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, there was just one more prize to give out.
The three nominees for the final, blue riband award were called on to the stage and then the co-host Juliet Ibrahim started to speak. “And now, the award for the 2015 African Footballer of the Year. In second place,” she began, repeating “second place” for emphasis – no doubt to be very clear and also, perhaps, as a self-check to avoid a Steve Harvey moment “… is … Yaya Touré!”
First there is the briefest of pauses from the crowd inside the International Conference Center – the exact time they need to allow the Ivorian’s name to leave Juliet’s lips, travel through her microphone, jump off the walls, slip into their ears and lodge itself into their brains.
Then, a collective gasp. Part of the crowd is silent, absolutely stunned. A few guests high-five. Loud cheers come from others. On the live TV feed, viewers are given a close-up shot of a woman mouthing ‘wow, wow, wow’.
The real wow, however, is Touré’s reaction in those three seconds. His head, staring down at the floor shortly before his name was mentioned, snaps up. A brief frown and a tightening of the jaw.
Looking at him then, we should have known that the Ivorian was not going to take this decision lightly.
Perhaps Touré’s bodyguard already knew. He picks up one of the dessert forks on the table and, with eyes trained on his boss on stage, begins rhythmically tapping the fork against a plate. Clink, clink, clink. He watches Yaya closely. We all do.
When Aubameyang is announced as the winner, the contrast in facial expressions is stark: Touré sports a stony expression while the Gabonese is unable to stop himself from breaking out in a huge smile.
Just before leaving the stage, Touré briefly shakes hands with Ghana’s André Ayew, who finishes in third place, and whispers a word of congratulations to Aubameyang.
The official ceremony, what the world sees on television, ends at 10.04pm GMT. Almost immediately after that Touré gets up and walks out of the hall. He asks an official where the post-event press conference is to be done, and heads there.
There are no people in the room when Touré and his bodyguard enter, just a few chairs, a dais, and the humming air conditioners. One minute. Two minutes. Three. The four-time African Footballer of the Year starts pacing.
“Où sont-ils?”, he says with minor irritation. “Where is everyone?”
Just then, three Ghanaian reporters walk in. They hesitate, unsure of his mood and whether to try for an exclusive. Eventually, Nana Akua Amankwaa from TV3 Ghana goes forward.
“Hi Yaya, can I get a selfie?”
Still pacing, the player responds: “Yes, sure.” After the selfie, she asks for an interview. Touré agrees.
While her cameraman gets ready, the third journalist, Kwame Dwomoh from Class FM in Accra, whips out his recorder. Lights are checked. Sound is checked. And then Kwame asks the midfielder: “Were you surprised you came in second today?”
“To be honest? Yeah, a little bit. But at the end of the day what you have to know is that in sport anything [can] happen. And to be a player who wants to achieve a lot of things as much as possible, it is very important to keep it going. And sometimes, when, in the end, you win a trophy and you are not able to achieve things personally it is a shame. But what can we do?”
Kwame: “Were you expecting to win?”
Touré: “What do you think? I ask you a question.”
Kwame: “I don’t know”.
Touré: “You don’t know? Me as well, I don’t know. Because normally when you win the African Cup of Nations and you are able to be named as one of the 23 best players in the world, being in the Fifpro list as the [only] African and, today, to be decided second, what can you do?”
Touré is asked how disappointed he is, considering that this would have been a record fifth award. He blows out his cheeks. “I think so, yeah. Because normally this kind of trophy you achieve it when you have won something and when, at the end of the season, you have achieved something, you know what I mean? I don’t say like I would be the best and I don’t want to complain but when you win important trophies and you don’t win personal trophies it is a little bit of a shame.”
Kwame: “Do you want to congratulate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?”
Yaya: “Yes, definitely. But I think it’s not his fault. The fault is with people he knows, you know what I mean? Aubameyang has been doing brilliantly. As well as André Ayew he deserves it today as well but to be honest with you I am little bit disappointed, but what can we do?”
After this interview, the Manchester City player went on to grant similar sentiments to Afrique Foot. The standout comment from there was: “Us Africans, we don’t show that Africa is important in our eyes. We favour more what’s abroad than our own continent. That is pathetic.”
Touré is wrong. The only thing that is pathetic here is his lack of class. After winning the award four straight times, he should know better than anyone else that his previous wins have come largely from his European performances. The Ivorian’s first win in 2011 came after a good year with City, when he scored the winner in their FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester United and in the final against Stoke, ending the club’s 35-year wait for a major trophy. That year, he beat Seydou Keita and André Ayew.
A year later, his key role for his club in England on their way to a first Premier league trophy in 50 years meant that he saw off competition from Didier Drogba (who had led Chelsea to the Champions League and FA Cup in 2012) and Alex Song. Touré should not forget that his Ivory Coast side did not win the African Cup that year, but he was still given the award.
His third crown in 2013 came the year Mikel John Obi won the Europa League with Chelsea and was also the standout player in Nigeria’s African Cup-winning side. But the imposing midfielder won, beating Drogba as well.
In 2014 Touré become the first player to win the accolade four years in succession, and he did it at a time when Nigeria’s goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama had powered the Super Eagles to the second round of the World Cup and had been the best player for Lille in Ligue 1. Touré had been nominated after playing a pivotal role in winning the Premier League and League Cup as well as helping his country to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.
History is an even better guide. The top African award has always been biased toward European performances; otherwise the excellent Mohamed Aboutrika should have bagged at least one when Egypt won back-to-back-to-back continental titles between 2006 and 2010. Instead, that period saw Drogba (2006 and 2009), Frederic Kanouté (2007), Emmanuel Adebayor (2008) and Samuel Eto’o (2010) win, mainly on the back of European showings.
Touré, though, has a point (even though the timing of the comments have made him look like a very bad loser). Voters must simply be encouraged to lend more weight to African competitions, especially in years when there is an African Cup of Nations. Consistency over 12 months is key, but how does a continent win respect for its flagship events when the top awards go to those who shine outside of Africa?
This does not excuse Touré’s churlishness on the night though. But maybe we should not be surprised. The birthday cake incident at City in May 2014 now, with hindsight, almost seems like standard fare.
After all, this is the man, also in 2014, who claimed he had been overlooked as a contender for the Ballon d’Or simply because of the colour of his skin, which was uncalled for and, quite frankly, nonsense.
And then after helping his country win the African Cup last year, he bizarrely lashed out at his countrymen for giving Drogba a bigger welcome to the former Chelsea man for winning silver medals from previous editions.
As graceful as he may be on the field, the 32-year old is in danger of being remembered more for his classless comments than his outstanding talent when he retires. And that would be a real shame.
African team of the year
Robert Kidiaba (DR Congo/ TP Mazembe), Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast/Paris St-Germain), Aymen Abdennour (Tunisia/Valencia), Mohamed Meftah (Algeria/USM Alger), André Ayew (Ghana/Swansea), Sadio Mané (Senegal/Southampton), Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast/Manchester City), Yacine Brahimi (Algeria/Porto), Mbwana Samatta (Tanzania/ TP Mazembe), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyeng (Gabon/Borussia Dortmund), Baghdad Bounedjah (Algeria/ Étoile du Sahel)