Didier Zokora: Lament for brother spurs the Maestro of Ivory Coast

Didier Zokora's hero is Nelson Mandela, but his inspiration is his little brother who drowned at 14. He tells Jason Burt about pride, passion and a presence that is always with him
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The Independent Football

Didier Zokora rolls up the sleeve of his zip-up top to show his right forearm. Along it, in large lettering, is tattooed the name "Armand". "He was my little brother," Zokora explains. "I called him Armando." Every weekend Didier and Armando, together with a group of friends, would go to the beach in Grand-Bassam in Ivory Coast to relax. "We would go in the sea or just hang out," Zokora says of those long, hot days.

One weekend the Zokora brothers had much to celebrate. Both were promising footballers and had just been offered professional contracts with their country's biggest club, ASEC Abidjan. Again they went to the beach. "But Armando didn't really know how to swim properly," Zokora remembers. He was caught in the waves and drowned. Armando was just 14.

"That day was the hardest day of my life. I never stop thinking about him," Zokora says. "That's why I have his name on my arm. He was a footballer, too. Now every match I play is for him."

Nine years later and Zokora will compete tomorrow in his ninth game for Tottenham, the Premiership club he joined during the summer for £8.2m from St-Etienne after playing so impressively for Ivory Coast in the World Cup. Before kick-off he will sit in the home dressing-room, roll back the sleeve of his Spurs shirt and gaze at the tattoo. "And I will kiss my arm," Zokora says. It is the 25-year-old midfielder's only pre-match ritual.

Driven - it's a much-used term in sport. Every successful sportsman, we are told, is driven. Some, such as Zokora, have something else. It is there in his eyes. "It made me want to do more," he says of his brother's tragic death and how it made him even more desperate to succeed in football. He had to fulfil the dreams of two careers. "You have to make the most of chances you get in life. I did everything I could to make it happen, because it will never happen for him. As I said, every match I play, I think of him. Every match I play, it makes me stronger."

And he is strong. Zokora is built like a boxer and has fought hard to achieve his success. He talks about his love of "engagements", which means much more in French than just winning tackles and the physical side of football. It is about getting close to your opponent, meeting them in almost military combat. He engages with them. Reports of matches in which he plays frequently talk of his power, strength and determined running, often carrying the ball 50, 60 yards, riding challenge after challenge.

It all started on the dusty streets of Abidjan, in the district of Yopougon. Zokora is a proud Ivorian. He is also a product of the famous ASEC Mimosa football academy, established by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international. Locally, it is known simply as the Academie Guillou. "I went to the academy when I was 13," Zokora says. "I spent six years there - with Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué, Didier Drogba. It's all I wanted to do. Since I was little, I've only ever thought about football. It's my one vocation. And apart from football, I really don't know what else there is in life. Only football."

His memories of the academy are filled with happiness. "It was just football and school," Zokora laughs. "Football, school, football, school, nothing else. We learnt everything from the basics, like how to pass, how to dribble, etc. After six years there I could only see my future in football because it had been all I had known since I was little. I grew up with it, going to school at the academy. It was part of my evolution."

Zokora also grew up with another thing. A slogan. Across the academy entrance, Guillou had written, "You can only become big if you know how to stay small". Zokora nods when reminded of those words. "It's always stayed in my head. I keep it there. It's true. To become big, famous, well known, or a great player, you have to know your roots, stay humble and honour the smallest details."

There is no danger that Zokora will neglect his roots. He speaks passionately about Ivory Coast, the political and military upheavals there, the problems suffered by his countrymen but also about inequality, racism - he has spoken out about the chants he has endured in football stadiums - and the need for tolerance. He is Christian, his wife, Mariam, is Muslim. In sport, his hero is Patrick Vieira. But his true hero is Nelson Mandela. Zokora plans "to contribute to football and youth back home" and is hoping to eventually found his own academy for young footballers.

His roots remain in Abidjan. Zokora's parents, five brothers - including one, Arnaud, who is now at the academy - and one sister still live in the city, close to where Didier was born. He has managed to buy them a bigger, safer home. But he also misses them. "At the moment things are calm over there in the Ivory Coast," Zokora says of a country that has been ravaged by civil war. "Life is better, it's going well for my family. For me, it's not that easy because my family are in Abidjan. I often wish I could see them. It would make my life even better. But we all know that I'm here for my football." His success has helped. "Yes, very much so. It strikes a chord with them and Abidjan is quite poor. Every parent there wishes that their son will become a professional footballer. I play football, and I have talent, so my parents want me to make the most of it."

That meant moving to Europe. In 2000, he signed for the Belgian club RC Genk and went on to play 126 games, representing them in the Champions' League, including a memorable draw at home to Real Madrid. It was after that match that clubs around Europe started to take notice. Auxerre, Lille and St-Etienne all tried to sign him. Zokora opted for the latter, and his reputation kept growing.

To 'Le Chaudron', as Zokora calls Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, St-Etienne's atmospheric stadium, he also brought the nickname he had picked up at the academy: "Le Maestro".

"They thought I had great technique at the academy," Zokora explains. "They said I played like a dream. I always led in games, led all the others. So they looked up to me and said, 'Him, he's the maestro'. It stuck. And now, even in the World Cup, everyone says, 'Zokora, he's the maestro'. It's become such a part of me that it now feels like sometimes it's part of my name - my surname almost. Now I'm the maestro of Tottenham. I've made a few really good steps and I want to keep it up."

He had two "beautiful" years in France but knew that, with Ivory Coast having qualified, for the first time, for the World Cup, he would have to make a decision on his future. "Some English clubs were pursuing me," he says of the interest from Spurs but also from Manchester United and Arsenal who, at one stage, appeared to lead the chase and held talks with him. "And I was lucky enough to have mates - Drogba, Touré, Eboué - who were already over here, playing for clubs. They can speak English, they can tell me how things are. I'm really lucky to have them here. It helps my interpretation of England and English football. It makes everything much easier for me. I was also already a big fan of the Premier League and knew it was a great opportunity. I love the speed of the game."

But first he wanted to compete in the World Cup. The Ivorians were drawn in one of the toughest groups - along with Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia & Montenegro - but they fought hard. "It was the best thing that could have happened. This World Cup will stay with me. I played among great players. It helped round me as a person, it helped me grow up and become more mature. And for the country it was an historic moment."

The Elephants failed to progress through the group stages. "Was I disappointed?" Zokora says. "No, because we did as well as we could have done. The tournament gave Ivory Coast a good image, it gave an African country a good image. We were in quite a hard group so it was never easy. But we played with passion - and that's all you can do." It also made a difference back home. "It brought smiles to people's faces," Zokora says. "It's a great thing, as footballers, to be able to bring that kind of joy to people and to your country. To contribute to peace."

In his orange boots, to match the team's strip, Zokora took something else. He had the names of his children - four-year-old Sarah and Nadya, who is 15 months - stitched into them. "The World Cup was an historic moment and I wanted my children there." It is not the only place he carries them. Zokora laughs before showing his left forearm. There is another tattoo with his children's names. Then he pulls at his shirt to reveal, above his heart, another tattoo: a detailed picture showing his wife's face.

At the World Cup, Zokora was visited by Damien Comolli, Spurs' sporting director. The two men had already forged a friendship as Comolli was formerly St-Etienne's technical director. It helped to seal the move to White Hart Lane. Indeed it was only once Zokora was signed up that Spurs felt able to sanction Michael Carrick's £18.6m transfer to Manchester United. Not that he has the same qualities as Carrick. Zokora is more of a defensive, explosive player but he also admits that he lacks the England midfielder's passing range and creativity. It has meant that the manager, Martin Jol, has had to reshape his team and it is taking time to bed down. Zokora, meanwhile, insists the relationship with Comolli was not the only reason he moved to Spurs.

"I really like the club," Zokora says. "It's one of those clubs that has more English players - King, Jenas, Lennon, Robinson, Defoe, Dawson. It's more like playing in England when the players come from teams in English leagues. I told myself that was a positive thing and it contributes to the experience of being in England. It's something that really pleased me." Indeed, he regards the core of young players at the club as the future of England's national team.

But surely Spurs are not as big as Chelsea or Arsenal? "They are three big London clubs," Zokora says. "And every club, every fan, thinks his is the best - that's understood. But I think Tottenham is best." Indeed, he says Touré had commended him on his decision which may not be what Arsène Wenger wants to hear. "I respect him very much," Zokora says of Touré. "And he said I'd made the right choice."

Despite the presence of so many Ivorians in England - there is also Abdoulaye Meite at Bolton - Zokora does not socialise much with them. "I only think about football, nothing else," he says. "Everything I do is about football - preparing for matches, thinking about it, watching it. We only call each other on the phone. We tell each other our news, encourage each other, have a chat. It all helps with motivation."

Zokora is serious about his commitment to his new home. Despite having been in England for just two months, he apologises for not being able to speak the language - although he clearly understands it - and promises to have remedied that "in a little while". He is undergoing intensive language lessons. He talks passionately about "potential" and ambition and about leading a young team into, he hopes, the Champions' League. Not that Spurs, after narrowly missing out on fourth place last season, have made a good start. "We have lost quite a few [games] so we need to work hard. Even though it has been a difficult start to the season, we have the team we need to do well and we have the tools to get there. This is a great club. We have some really strong players. We'll do our best."

Tomorrow Zokora will look at his tattoos again. He will think of that slogan that still sits above the entrance of the academy in Abidjan. And he will remember his brother as well.

"It motivates me," he says, again. "It's a way of being with people who aren't there. It's a channel of communication. It encourages me and makes me stronger. It's a way of bringing my life into football and football into my life. Everything comes together and makes me stronger. I know my brother is with me when I play."