Benoit Assou-Ekotto: English football has had its problems with racism but I'd rather be living in London than back home in France
The shop assistant looked up as Benot Assou-Ekotto walked into the television showroom in France. Then, seemingly uninterested in his young, black customer, he turned back to his work.
But Tottenham's French-born Cameroon left-back was in no mood to be ignored.
'So I go to him and I ask, “How much is this TV” And the man didn't even put his head up but just said, “Expensive.”
'I said: “Yeah, but how much” He said, “Yeah, expensive.” I said: “OK, so tell me!” So he stood up and said, “It's about €10,000. Expensive.”
'So I showed him my watch and said, “About the same price as my watch” Then he started to respect me.'
Capital gains: Assou-Ekotto says London is a cool city
It is not something you sense Assou-Ekotto would have done unless pushed.
He does not come across as a
footballer given to vulgar displays of wealth or one who would thrust
his designer wristwatch into the face of a stranger to illustrate his
He is affable in conversation and no
polemicist. But while he was born in France and grew up in Arras, about
60 miles south-east of Calais, he opted to play for Cameroon, the
country of his late father.
And as Assou-Ekotto talks, sitting in a bar beneath his Canary Wharf apartment, he explains why he loves his London life and takes issue with the country of his birth, where he feels his race marks him as an outsider and the kind of person who would not be able even to contemplate paying €10,000 for a television.
Thoughtful and eloquent: Spurs star says racism is worse in France
'I think here there are better racial relations than in France,' he says, 'better interaction and better co-existence. For example, in England I see more [black] people with responsibility than in France. Here at Canary Wharf, there are black people and Asian people wearing suits and with good jobs.'
His perception is that the children of migrants to France – his father moved there from Cameroon when he was 16 – are still viewed as outsiders because of the colour of their skin.
'In France, I tell you how it feels,' he says. 'When you have colour, you are [seen as] poor people and a problem. When you are from France, you can be surprised by some things you see in England.'
One example, he agrees, is the racial diversity of those in London with positions of authority. He was taken aback, for example, to see a police officer wearing a turban.
And of the French shop assistant he encountered last summer, he is disdainful.
'This kind of behaviour is not cool,' he says. 'So we start to respect you only because of your money'
Settling in: Manchester City's Sergio Aguero feels the force of Assou-Ekotto's challenge
Assou-Ekotto , 27, does not live in a footballer's bubble.
He is often around the Tottenham neighbourhood which experienced rioting last summer – he has his hair braided there – and he is acutely aware of the allegations against Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, banned for eight matches for his racial abuse of Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, and Chelsea defender John Terry, who in court next month will deny the claim that he racially abused Anton Ferdinand, of QPR.
But Assou-Ekotto insists that, for a Frenchman with his ethnic background, England is a better place to work and live.
'Yes, I saw your problems in the last few months,' he said.
'When you are in your position in England I can understand that you look at yourself but when you are from France you say, “Ah, England is cooler”. You are more tolerant.'
He seems determined to demolish as many stereotypes as he can in a one-hour conversation.
On the run: Wolves' Michael Kightly can't get past Assou-Ekotto
But while he is self-evidently a thoughtful man, questions are invariably met with a playful grin and when he describes why he changed his tiny Smart Car for the marginally bigger Audi A1 his eyes dance mischievously.
'The Smart Car is in France now because last season I nearly had an accident with Aaron Lennon,' he explains.
'We were about to go to Blackpool and at the last minute, when we were at Stansted Airport, they said the game was cancelled, so the manager said, “OK, you can go back home but be careful” because it was cold and icy.
'So we started to drive, me and Aaron, in the Smart Car on the motorway and we made a spin. Three times we spun round and I was so scared. Aaron was like, “Benoit!! Benoit!!” We stopped and I thought, “Oh cool”. But then, like in the movies, we looked and heard, “Neeeeeeee!” (He mimics the sound of a horn blasting).
Firm favourite: Assou-Ekotto's goal against Everton helped Tottenham scale the dizzy heights of the Premier League
'And I saw a truck coming towards us. I thought, “Oh ****!” I was very scared and Aaron, too.'
Thankfully, the lorry stopped in time and Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was not left searching for a new full-back and winger.
There was one casualty, however, as Assou- Ekotto admits: 'After that I said, “No more Smart Car in the winter!”'
This winter the more pressing issue is Tottenham's title challenge.
Assou-Ekotto's long-range strike against Everton earlier this month propelled the club into almost unprecedented territory, three points off the lead in January (the last time the club occupied such a position was 1985).
But the draw at home with Wolves last weekend damaged their cause and Sunday's game at top-of-the-table Manchester City will be seen as a genuine test of third-placed Tottenham's credibility, especially as they lost the corresponding fixture at White Hart Lane 5-1.
That was their second Premier League game of the season and it followed a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United.
Assou-Ekotto admits: 'After the City game, I said, “Oh ****. This season can be very difficult if we don't wake up”. We have maybe a few players of experience – maybe William Gallas and Scott Parker – who are not old but experienced. If we had 10 players like that, you wouldn't be worried. But we have players who are young and I thought, “If we don't wake up quickly we will be finished”. But after that we didn't lose for 10 games or something like that [it was 11].'
The victory over Arsenal in October was a turning point.
'There are some teams we should beat, there are others we should beat but it's still hard to do that, and there are one or two teams where you think it's possible but very difficult. But after we won the Arsenal game we believe we can beat anyone.
'There isn't really pressure on us because everyone expects City or United to win the league. Our goal is to make the Champions League, but if the teams above us slip, we won't say No. There are two challenges for us now as players. We can become a part of history and in 100 years they can say, “That was the group of players who qualified for the Champions League”. Or we can be the players who gave Spurs their third ever league title.'
Even when discussing such momentous achievements, Assou- Ekotto maintains his perspective, He is at his most earnest when discussing his support for the United Nations Millennium Campaign to end global poverty by 2015.
No pressure: Assou-Ekotto and Tottenham face a crunch clash with City on Sunday
'If my career stopped today and in 50 years someone was to say, “What did you, the person who stopped school at 16 and took a gamble on football, achieve” and all I could say was, “I scored two goals and you can go to YouTube and see them and I made money and I bought my house, maybe even before the teacher who taught me in class,” that would be a sad indictment.'
Instead, he would rather be remembered for supporting a campaign that, among many admirable goals, aims to provide fresh drinking water to every community.
'That makes an unbelievable difference,' he says. 'It is so much more important than the goals I score or any of that nonsense.'
All of which is self-evident; it is just not usually expressed so directly or succinctly by young footballers. Not that Assou-Ekotto is likely to lie awake at night worrying about the reaction.
'I am like this maybe because I feel good in my skin and I don't really need many people. If journalists want to speak about me, it's cool. If they don't want to speak about me, I will do my job on the pitch, go home and sleep very well.
'So maybe that's why I can say what I want. For me, there is no point in speaking just to try to make the people who listen to me happy. If you are happy with what I say, it's good; if not, read another paper.'