The banking system had collapsed and there had been riots on the streets when the parents of a young child decided to return to their homeland.
Stéphane Sessègnon was four, and Benin, where they had come to work and build a new life, was no longer stable. The infant mortality rate for children under the age of five was among the highest in the world. Less than a third had access to health care. Sessègnon headed for Ivory Coast, but it says much for the quiet determination – and he is at times painfully shy – that he now sits, as he tentatively admits, as the most high-profile sportsman from the country of his birth.
Given a different personality, he would be emerging as Didier Drogba has in the country where he lived for the following 12 years. Yet it is only towards the end of an hour's worth of questioning the Sunderland forward that the strength of feeling for the country of his birth becomes apparent.
"No, no," he insists, "politics is not for me. I am not Drogba. I understand the responsibility with what I have as the captain of Benin. I might be the most famous footballer from Benin.
"There is lots of responsibility which comes with it. It's really important for me to show a good image. It is a very small country and it maybe doesn't have all the riches that it needed to support its population but when you are there it can be touching. There has been a lot of changes politically and elsewhere; even compared to five years ago there is more stability.
"One of the big problems in African countries is the finance. I believe as long as there is peace it is the most important thing."
That is relative, given the instability in Benin, where they have lived under both Islam and Christianity, control from the state and only since 2006 have there been fair and free elections.
Aged four he left. At seven he decided to become a footballer, and at 16 he had to return so that he would be eligible to go to Belgium (he played in the Benin Premier League for a season with Requins de L'Atlantique).
From there the gates to Europe opened, first in the suburbs of Paris with Créteil-Lusitanos, then Le Mans and finally, in 2008, when Paris St-Germain took an interest, as, curiously, did Arsenal and Newcastle United, the latter of which he confirms.
"Yes, Newcastle were interested but it was really important for me to play in Paris," he says. "I had supported them since I was little."
He cost PSG €10m, but a fallout with Antoine Kombouaré, the new coach, alerted Steve Bruce. For £6.7m Sessègnon moved to Sunderland in January 2011. "It was the tirelessness and willingness of the people at Sunderland to get me that played a big part in my decision to come here," he adds. "It wasn't easy when I came here. It was a culture change. But there is a family bond here, they helped me settle.
In here is the story of a footballer different to anyone else Sunderland may have had in their modern history. His creative spark helped keep the club in the Premier League last season. He signed a new contract to end continued speculation that he would leave. This season he has started the campaign slowly and Sunderland have failed to find their rhythm, although the defeat against the champions, Manchester City, in their last game was their first.
"My relationship with the supporters was one of the factors that made me renew my contract," he says. "We all know the importance of the game between Newcastle and Sunderland [on Sunday]. It is a pleasure to experience it. I have a bad memory of the last time we met [a red card when his arm struck Cheick Tioté]. I would like to put things right."