Kolo Touré has lived through some strife at Manchester City these past few months but now he finds himself in a place which puts football's many passing storms into proper perspective.
Angola, where Touré and his native Ivory Coast compete in the African Nations Cup from Sunday, is still dealing with the land mines and the legacy of the humanitarian crisis resulting from the civil war which raged for 27 years until 2002. Few of the countries seeking to lift the trophy over the next three weeks have a better appreciation of what that means than his own. The Ivorians' own five-year armed conflict between rebels and those loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo saw hundreds die between 2002 and 2007 and Touré's comfortable life in England has unfolded amid particular anxieties for his younger brother Ibrahim, one of the many young footballers seeking a career path amid the dangers – at the ASEC Mimosas and Toumodi clubs.
The Ivory Coast national side are known as Les Elephants and it has certainly been hard for him to forget his homeland. Touré is not talking about Manchester City when he says that he prays the newfound stability will hold, in a year of long-awaited democratic elections.
"Every time I go back to my country it's the same place," he reflects ahead of a tournament which Ivory Coast prepared for with a hard-earned 1-0 win in Tanzania on Monday night. "There's no big, big problem. It's the same people going to nightclubs and enjoying themselves. I think people are enjoying themselves more than before. They just think about enjoying life because they've been through a really bad time and now things are much better. They've just realised how life is so important."
The backdrop has made the need for success in the tournament all the greater for the national side and its coach, the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic. The star names like Touré (Kolo and brother Yaya, of Barcelona) Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou – all nurtured at the fabled Academie Abidjan set up by Jean-Marc Guillou, an old friend of Arsène Wenger – are perhaps the most naturally gifted of the African nations. Yet collectively they have always faltered, allowing the better organised Egyptians to win the last two tournaments. Silverware matters like never before in this of all years for a side ranked 16th in the world and second to Cameroon in Africa. "It's going to be really important for everyone to have a choice [at the polls] and 2010 is a big year for us," Touré acknowledges. "If we do really well in the African Nations that can help the elections go well and we're looking forward to doing well."
That's quite a big "if" because if the Ivorians' World Cup draw wasn't hard enough – Portugal, Brazil and North Korea await in South Africa's Group G – they are facing a western African dogfight in the Angolan city of Cabinda, where the tournament's tough Group B is about to unravel. Michael Essien's Ghana, some observers' favourites for the tournament, stand in their way and after that there's the prospect of the 6ft 3in striker who is sitting to Touré's left as he sits down to discuss the tournament. Emmanuel Adebayor's Togo are the Ivorians' opponents on 19 January, with Burkina Faso making up the group.
Even Adebayor acknowledges that Togo, ranked 70th in the world and 13th on the African continent, have barely a prayer of making it through to the knock-out stage. "I think we don't have much opportunity because our group is the toughest one but as a player you've just got to believe," he grins – a fair reflection of how Togo and Burkina Faso are the likely whipping boys of the group. Adebayor also believes it is time for some of his own compatriots to begin sharing the responsibility he has shouldered for so long. "[The responsibility] was really difficult at the beginning of my career but I've been doing it for three or four years now so I'm used to it," he says. "I'm happy because everyone likes the way I behave and they like me as a footballer. But I don't like it because everything is on me and I'd like to have some players besides me to make a difference."
Touré's most diplomatic assessment of his Manchester City team-mate's chances are that, "Togo have Adebayor who is their best player and the rest are not well-known," though the striker's loyalty to his continent suggests we can expect more of his ebullience in the yellow shirt of Togo in the next three weeks than we have seen in the sky blue of Manchester in the past four months. Adebayor, for one, will not be pining for the Premier League, though the re-arranged dates for City's Carling Cup game with Manchester United mean that he may be back for the Old Trafford second-leg, eight days after Togo's group stage wraps up. "It's always difficult to leave your club," Adebayor says. "But I'm from Africa, I'm very proud of being African and to be honest I don't have any choice. [Africa] has given me a lot of things and I have to give something back which is to be up there and doing my best for them."
Touré is the one with the real job to do. There is a sense in Africa that the Ivorian golden generation's time may be running out before they have clinched international silverware of any description. Halilhodzic has focused on bringing organisation where before there was only glitz since his appointment in 2006 – "we needed some organisation and teamwork and team spirit, which this manager has brought to us; we love to work for each other and try to do the best for the team, not for each player," Touré acknowledges. But Angola may be their best opportunity for some time with Ghana, winners of the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt last October, looking an increasingly formidable force.
"At the moment we have a great team but we've never won anything and there is pressure, I can tell you," Touré admits. "In 2006, in Egypt we lost [on penalties] in the final and in 2008 in Ghana everyone was expecting us to win and we failed against Egypt again [losing 4-1 in the semi finals]. Here we have to be really careful and concentrate and do our best because it can be a big problem for us if we don't go through and win this cup. We know it's going to be really difficult."
Touré, for one, wishes that the tournament took place in summer, preventing his prolonged absence from Eastlands at a time when Roberto Mancini is seeking to strength a porous defence and the Italian's former central defender Ivan Cordoba – still at Internazionale – is on the radar. "If something can happen and [the tournament] can move, it would be fantastic because we're caught between two important things in our lives," Touré says.
But the depth of his affection for his homeland mirrors Adebayor's for Togo. Touré was aged 12 when he sold newspapers by the side of the road and shined shoes for less than a pound a time, to help his family ward off the poverty he was born into. He speaks of the experience often and it is a reason why his son and daughter, both under five, know the value of possessions. "I tell my little girl that if she wants a present she has to work hard to get it and that nothing comes easy in life," he said in a memorable interview he gave in Manchester last year.
While Drogba is the nation's captain, Touré is the more reflective individual who, on Fridays at Arsenal, would always be last out to speak to the press because he had nipped to prayers first and has now settled on a mosque in Manchester's Stretford district. But he has been a bedrock of the Ivorian side since his debut in 2000 and his performances in the 2-1 defeats by Argentina and the Netherlands in the 2006 World Cup (another "group of death") helped the side prove their ability to press the world's elite. That was also the year of the 24-penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final of the African Nations Cup, when Cameroon were defeated 12-11. The Ivorians have never done things the easy way.
The more disciplined squad which has been established since then views two international tournaments in the space of the next six months as an opportunity, with an awareness that success in the first will boost Ivory Coast's belief that they really can do some damage in South Africa come June. "To play in the African Nations four months before the World Cup can be an advantage," Touré says. "We're going to use that because we have some more time together and we're going to gel much more than we used to and that can help us to be a strong team in the World Cup."
In Angola, Touré will discover a land whose internal conflicts have been even more unsparing than his own country's and where footballers have grown accustomed to flying to games where possible because land mines have made journeys by road too dangerous. He has empathy. "I think Angola had more [troubles] than us but it was still the same political problem. It's going to be really important for this country [Angola] to be successful in this competition and to show that however bad a time you have had you still have some people who can organise things and make it work really well."
His own country has looked to football to salve the pain of conflict since 2005, when the broadcast of the Ivorians' thrilling 3-1 win in Sudan in October 2005, sealing qualification for the 2006 World Cup at the eleventh hour, was used for a televised message urging warring factions from the rebel-held north and Government-backed south to lay down arms. It was to prove a false dawn but perhaps not so this time around. "Football is so powerful and we football players wanted to bring the country together back then because we are from different parts of the country," Touré says. "We've shown people there that even if you don't come from the same part of the country you can still walk together and achieve things."
Absent friends: British-based players in Angola
Includes games played for club this season
Algeria (Winners 1990)
Nadir Belhadj 37 caps, Portsmouth: 15 games.
Hassan Yebda 2 caps, Portsmouth: 14.
Hameur Bouazza 10 caps, Blackpool: 15.
Madjid Bougherra 34 caps, Rangers: 16.
Rui Marques 13 caps, Leeds: 6.
Reda Johnson 3 caps, Plymouth: 7.
Cameroon (Winners 1984, '88, 2000, '02)
Andre Bikey 16 caps, Burnley: 22.
Geremi 107 caps, Newcastle United: 9.
Landry N'Guemo 45 caps, Celtic: 25.
Alexandre Song 15 caps, Arsenal: 27.
Daniel Cousin 19 caps, QPR: 3.
Ghana (Winners 1963, '65, '78, '82)
Michael Essien 45 caps, Chelsea: 22.
Richard Kingson 58 caps, Wigan: 0.
Ivory Coast (Winners 1992)
Souleymane Bamba 10 caps, Hibernian: 17.
Aruna Dindane 51 caps, Portsmouth: 14.
Didier Drogba 61 caps, Chelsea: 24.
Salomon Kalou 23 caps, Chelsea: 20.
Emmanuel Eboué 25 caps, Arsenal: 18.
Abdoulaye Meité 20 caps, West Bromwich Albion: 14.
Kolo Touré 70 caps, Manchester City: 20.
Nigeria (Winners 1988, '90, 2000)
Dickson Etuhu 5 caps, Fulham: 16.
Nwankwo Kanu 73 caps, Portsmouth: 19.
John Obi Mikel 24 caps, Chelsea: 19.
Seyi Olofinjana 45 caps, Hull City: 14.
Danny Shittu 15 caps, Bolton: 0.
Aiyegbeni Yakubu 46 caps, Everton: 22.
Joseph Yobo 65 caps, Everton: 17.
Emmanuel Adebayor 38 caps, Man City: 15.
Moustapha Salifou 33 caps, Aston Villa: 0.Reuse content