From barefoot kid to football colossus, how Yaya Toure became the biggest beat
23:31 GMT, 9 May 2012
Yaya Toure arrived with nothing to declare but his talent. That is one memory they have of Toure on Beveren’s Klapperstraat: he did not own football boots.
Another is that he could not get out of bed in the morning; that he ate like a horse and drank like a fish, but Fanta, not alcohol. There were repeated descriptions of Toure being ‘different’, ‘introverted’. But most of all they recalled the sheer scale of his ability and the certainty that Yaya Toure would make it.
Considering that Gnegneri ‘Yaya’ Toure landed in Beveren, a small, white, Flemish-speaking town west of Antwerp, just turned 18, having been raised on the French language in the back streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, certainty was the last thing Toure had. He had little money, one pair of shoes and few clothes.
Main man: Yaya Toure (left) has been the driving force at Manchester City
But here in Flanders, they say that even as a teenager, the boy who won the European Cup with Barcelona and who has done as much as anyone to shape this season’s Premier League title possessed a sense of himself that set him apart.
Today Toure stands out — a dynamic midfield force, experienced in victory and ready to lead Manchester City to their first league title in 44 years on Sunday, his 29th birthday. Back then he was prepared to stand out.
‘I picked them up every day, Yaya and two friends,’ said Anouar Bou-Sfia, who played with Toure at Beveren. ‘Yaya had an attitude — he knew he was going to be the best. He knew. He was very kind, but he knew.
‘Where they lived was on my way to the stadium and there were many days when Yaya had to be woken up for training, but you could see he was different. Compared to the others he was more intelligent and mature. All the others had that crazy African mentality — they were young boys suddenly in Europe — but not Yaya. He didn’t like the cameras, the papers, he was very shy. He wouldn’t go out like the others. He was straight Muslim. I’m Moroccan, I’m Muslim.
‘Sometimes on the pitch he could be crazy. But most of all, he was unbelievable. I played with him for two-and-a-half seasons but for a lot of that time I was on the bench. So I watched him, I brought my friends just to watch him. He was so good.
‘Look at the first goal he scored at Newcastle on Sunday, he made it look easy. Just look at the way he did that. He won the Champions League at Barcelona playing beside (Gerard) Pique in central defence. He made it look easy.
Back in the day: Toure (back, centre) during his time with Beveren in Belgium
‘I think he looked bored sometimes playing for Barcelona. It all comes easy. In Beveren he had that — in France they call it nonchalance.
‘Yaya didn’t show much. I did the translating for all of them, took them to the supermarket, took them to buy boots because they didn’t even have boots. I never knew what was in Yaya’s head. But he knew.’
Yaya Toure’s career path looks like crazy paving. He came to Beveren in 2001, part of an African experiment in Belgium designed by former France midfielder Jean-Marc Guillou, a man close to Arsene Wenger.
Guillou had established an academy in Ivory Coast — from which Yaya’s elder brother Kolo went directly to Arsenal.
No go: Toure had an unsuccessful trial with Arsenal
In KSK Beveren, Guillou found a small, drifting club needing investment. So he bought it, with help from Arsenal.
Belgium’s generous naturalisation laws meant that Guillou now had a vehicle. Any transfer fees for players sold on would be split, Beveren getting around 30 per cent.
Another Jean-Marc — Bosman — a Belgian, had created a new economic climate in football with his landmark freedom of movement court victory in 1995.
The Freethiel Stadium on Klapperstraat, where Beveren still play, albeit in a new guise, saw an overnight influx of Africans. Belgian football had become a hub. There were 23 Africans at Beveren, most from Ivory Coast.
Often there were 10 black players in the team. Locals became bemused, suspicious and tense. The players were only earning around 250 a week. But they had cars, and no driving licenses. What’s more, the African players spoke French.
But suddenly Beveren were good. They reached the Belgian Cup final in 2004 for the first time in two decades.
But by the time of that final, Yaya Toure had been and gone. Two years later Guillou departed too, the Belgian authorities dismayed by the new arrangement and the role of Arsenal. /05/09/article-2142022-0F03BFE500000578-727_634x385.jpg” width=”634″ height=”385″ alt=”Young at heart: Toure (centre) as a boy playing for Jean-Marc Guillou's ASEC Mimosas in the Ivory Coast” class=”blkBorder” />
Young at heart: Toure (centre) as a boy playing for Jean-Marc Guillou's ASEC Mimosas in the Ivory Coast
‘But as a man Yaya left an impression. They both do, really humble, lovely people. And they love football — we’ve heard about the Neville brothers’ obsessions, the Toures are like that.’
Danny Stuer was in his gym on Tuesday afternoon. Yaya Toure knows it well. Stuer was the fitness coach when Toure was at Beveren.
Club records show that Toure was 12st 3lb when he made his debut. He was already 6ft 1.5in. Today Toure is most commonly judged to be 6ft 3in.
But he is almost two stone heavier than when he was a teenager. And as Stuer said: ‘He got muscle, pure muscle. When Yaya came he was tall but he was not strong. He did a lot of weight training here so he gained muscle. He was weak. After a few months he got stronger and stronger. He liked to work. He was able to protect the ball. And he got more flexible, which is not easy for someone his size.
‘They were all skinny. They didn’t have weights in Africa, they didn’t have training. All they had was a ball. The boys came from Ivory Coast to a strange country, different food. And they were put in an apartment and given some furniture and that’s it. Incredible.
On the verge of glory: Toure at City
‘When one of the mothers came over, they would eat properly. But otherwise it was junk food and that’s not good for a top player.’
Valy de Meerlen, a Beveren volunteer then, said the smooth power we know Toure for now was coming through. ‘He had that sort of hip wiggle, then whoosh, he just went through teams.’
Although Toure said in a Sportsmail interview that he had done ‘stupid things’ in Beveren, no-one recalled that. In fact Stuer said the opposite: ‘Yaya was introverted. He was a little bit on his own, not spontaneous, always quiet. He loved to work. He’d come here to this gym and he was professional from the beginning. Others were not, to them it was all a game.
‘After matches Yaya didn’t go out for beers. He just wanted to go home. He watched TV, football and more football.’
As an example of Toure’s individual determination, Stuer added: ‘He lived with others in the beginning but they would go out, come back late and disturb him. So he asked to live alone. The club did that.
Maybe he went to parties behind my back. Others did that, they put on weight. From what I know, Yaya was different.’
In Beveren they noted the African boys would go to Liege or Brussels for parties. ‘They speak French there,’ was one comment.
After two-and-a-half seasons and 70 games for Beveren, Toure was sold for 2million. At the new Waasland-Beveren club there are shrugs when the question arises of where that money went.
Two rivals, Anderlecht and Club Bruges, both wanted Toure but not at that price. So, aged 20, he moved to Ukraine and the second club in Donetsk, Metalurh. It was not the career trajectory of someone who was going to star for Barcelona but Toure has said the move did him good. ‘Football is actually a job; in Ukraine I learnt that.’
Next came another sideways move — to Greece and Olympiakos. Club Bruges may have declined to pay €2m but their manager, the Norwegian Trond Sollied, had joined Olympiakos. Toure was signed and won the Greek title and cup. ‘I saw a diamond, something special, when he was at Beveren,’ Sollied said. ‘He did not have the same extreme power he has now, or score many goals. But he was not in such a good team.
Spanish sizzler: Toure (left) also enjoyed a successful spell at Barcelona
‘Getting him to Greece was a sensation. Physically he was more mature, he was a harder man after Ukraine. We knew we couldn’t keep him long. He was sure about himself. I think his brother helped him. They could share experiences.’
After the 2006 World Cup, AS Monaco, Wenger’s former club, bought Toure for around 4m, though there was a dispute stretching back to Donetsk about who owned his contract. Another sideways step.
But after only one season in France, it would be Barcelona. Along his circuitous way, Yaya Toure has garnered nicknames like ‘colossus’ and ‘human train’ but Pep Guardiola described him as ‘a diesel player’ — takes a while to get going but then never stops.
It feels like a summary of Yaya’s zig-zag journey to the top. As Stuer said: ‘When the African boys were messing about, we’d say to them, “What Is Beveren your final destination You’ve come all the way from Africa and you’re stopping in Beveren” Some saw it as a beginning. Yaya saw it as that.’
Geordie in Belgium: Jonny Rowell
The Belgian connection
Where once there were 10 Africans in the Beveren line-up, today there is a mix. Included is Jonny Rowell, a 22-year-old Geordie, who was in the same Newcastle United youth team as Andy Carroll and who then played for Hartlepool.
The midfielder moved to Belgium two years ago to play for Olympic Charleroi in the third division. He joined the reconstituted Waasland-Beveren in the second division last summer.
‘When Yaya Toure was here it was a different club,’ Rowell said. ‘There are still some African players here but they’re not in Yaya’s category. One of them is on loan from Chelsea, Emmanuel Sarki.’
Rowell has suffered injuries but went on as a substitute last Sunday in the first game of a play-off mini-league to see if Beveren can win promotion back to Belgium’s top flight. His side won 4-1 against Ostend. Tonight is the second game, at Westerlo.