The African Clique: Real or Imagined?

Emmanuel Eboue

Amy Lawrence’s article in the Telegraph last week spoke of the African clique that had developed in the Arsenal dressing room of Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Alexandre Song. She implied, but didn’t say specifically, that the players had been sold because the clique had become “too exclusive for comfort.”

She was attacked on Arsenal forums and message boards but the fact is that she didn’t say the players were sold solely because of the way they had cut themselves off from the rest of the team. She posited that the deals solved Arsenal’s three major dressing room problems: the Adebayor-Bendtner relationship, the Toure-Gallas relationship, and the “general discord” of Eboue, who “managed to alienate the club’s fans.”

While the first two of these problems are undeniable, it seemed, to this supporter at least, that Eboue came out of the booing incident with a better relationship with the supporters than he has had in his entire time at the club. The Toure-Gallas problem is a bit more tricky or, at least, revealing. Arsene has surely known, as most supporters have, that the Gallas-Toure center back pairing has never been consistently successful and never seemed a partnership that was destined to work in the end. Inevitably, Wenger was going to be forced into a tough decision. Did Man City make that decision easy for him by coming for Toure? Well, yes and no.

Toure seemed an obvious choice to be made captain following Henry’s departure but instead it went to the as-yet-underperforming William Gallas. At the time, it was understood by many supporters as a way to try to shake Gallas out of his doldrums and get him to replicate his form with Chelsea by giving him more responsibility and a defined leadership role.

Kolo ToureYet, looking back now, with Fabregas subsequently being named captain after Gallas’s failure at the post, it looks like Wenger never seriously considered Toure to be permanent captain material. How much of this was down to his involvement with the African clique?  No one can have failed to notice that they all distinctly celebrated each others’ goals together as if they had all scored. Perhaps, that was more telling than it was entertaining. You can’t be a captain of the entire team and a member of an “exclusive” dressing-room clique at the same time.

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that Toure had lost his way and was entering the final year of his contract at 28 years old. Considering Arsene’s usual policy of dealing with aging players, the Toure move makes total sense regardless of any of the other factors including the “clique.” But, even still, it seems possible that it may have played some role, however slight, in Wenger’s decisions this summer

A bigger factor may have been Wenger’s eagerness to minimize Arsenal’s exposure during the horribly scheduled and too-often-played African Cup of Nations. Because Arsenal don’t have the deepest squad in the first place, the biennial tournament has become a real nuisance to the club, especially with the Confederation of African Football unwilling to even consider rescheduling their tournament. Do these moves signal a move away for Wenger from African footballers until the Confederation of African Football capitulates to the demands of UEFA and the clubs?

The CAF have proven the most stubborn of all the FIFA regional federations by insisting on hosting their tournament every two years in the middle of the club season. CONCACAF also holds their confederation tournament every two years but it is held during the summer. The Africans say that they cannot move the tournament to the summer because of the heat, but holding it in the winter is the only way they can continue to hold it every two years and continue to increase the confederation’s coffers.

Toure and Eboue have proved big losses over the last two campaigns disrupted at crucial times by the Cup of Nations. In 2006, Arsenal lost away to Everton and Liverpool, drew Bolton at home, and lost their first ever match at the Emirates to West Ham. They were also knocked out of the FA Cup, all during the Cup of Nations. In 2008, they fared far better in the league, winning four matches as Senderos had his best run in the side since the Champions League knockout stages of 2006. But they were also knocked out of the FA  and Carling Cups in embarrassing defeats by rival clubs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Kolo Toure with the Ivory Coast National Team

Now, of course, the Cup of Nations is not solely to blame for these results as we were only missing a few players, but, it seems more like a move that signals Arsene’s cooling on African footballers. A club that is fighting in four competitions and paying players 10s of thousands of pounds per week cannot afford to have key players leave in the middle of the season to go risk injury while Arsenal are still paying them. The 2008 Cup of Nations had a long-term impact on the club because Kolo Toure had a strong first half of the season but suffered an injury while away at the tournament and never again regained his form for the club.

The Eboue move is still not completed, though the Senderos move to Everton is, and talk seems to have cooled a bit. Lawrence wrote that Song was “indispensable” but I would argue that Eboue is very much so, as well. With no other cover for Sagna at right back and considering his versatility, Arsenal cannot do without Eboue at the moment either.

So while it seems that there was clique, however “exclusive,” it is not apparent that it played a major role in Arsene’s transfer decisions regarding those players involved as there were other mitigating circumstances which warranted and justified the sale of each of those players individually.