Emmanuel Eboué: The man with no fear

Virtually unknown at the turn of the year, Emmanuel Eboué has emerged as a key figure on Arsenal's road to the Champions' League semi-finals. He talks to Jason Burt about his extraordinary journey from the dusty streets of Yopougon in the Ivory Coast - and his side's chances of glory in Villarreal tonight

In the away dressing-room at the Bernabeu, Arsène Wenger issues his final instructions before his young team step on to the turf to face Real Madrid in front of 80,000 fans. The Arsenal manager turns to Emmanuel Eboué. "Don't be afraid," Wenger tells the young right-back.

He need not have worried. Fear does not feature for the 22-year-old, who went on to produce the kind of signature performance that announces a vibrant talent at the highest level. "He also told me to play exactly the way I normally do," Eboué recalls. "That's what I always try to do. So yes, it worked." There were no nerves. "It was my first game at the Bernabeu so I was just happy to be playing among the likes of Zidane and Ronaldo and all those big names. It felt good to be playing alongside them. To have the opportunity was just overwhelming. I was so happy. But I was relaxed and I worked hard. God did the rest." Religious references - and thanks to God - pepper the conversation of the smiling young man from Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. Eboué, a devout Christian, is certainly blessed. He is also, he admits, simply "living a dream".

It was after the Champions' League first leg in Madrid at the end of February, which Arsenal won 1-0, that the phone calls started. "From the Ivory Coast," Eboué says. "Everyone kept calling me. They said I played a good game. It's all they could talk about. I never imagined that one day a whole country would be talking about me."

It is not just the Ivorians. Little more than two months ago, Eboué had not even started a Premiership match - his debut came just days before he played in Madrid, against Liverpool. Now he is being discussed as, possibly, the most exciting full-back in Europe, part of a defence that has established a Champions' League record of nine successive clean sheets. He is taking the growing attention in his stride. Tonight he will line up for Arsenal against Villarreal, just 90 minutes away from the European Cup final.

"Well, to be honest, this is my job," Eboué says. "And I work hard at it. My job right now is to play well, and the boss has faith in me, which has helped. All I can do is put the maximum into the game and hope for good results."

It is not just plaudits that Eboué is collecting. The defeat of Real Madrid gave him the opportunity to exchange shirts with Zinedine Zidane. "Yes," Eboué laughs. "At Highbury [in the second leg] after the match I swapped shirts. He's my idol, I love the guy."

Were there words of advice? "He told me to keep working hard and to take my job seriously -and to be respectful." The white Real No 5 shirt is now framed and takes pride of place in Eboué's home near Arsenal's training ground at London Colney. Next to it is a No 21 Juventus shirt. It belongs to Lilian Thuram, the legendary defender with the Italian champions who were conquered in the next round, the quarter-finals.

"I like him a lot, I've liked him ever since I was little," Eboué says. "It was great to meet him." There are similarities in the powerful styles of the two players, although Eboué shies away from such suggestions - "I don't know about that," he says. It is also likely that one day he will eventually make the same transition as Thuram from full-back to central defence which many regard as his natural position.

Or, maybe, even further forward. For Eboué reveals there is another player to whom he used to be likened. A certain Ronaldinho who may lie in wait for Arsenal if his Barcelona side also reach next month's final.

Indeed, on the dusty streets of Yopougon, the sprawling neighbourhood where he grew up, Eboué, then a striker, had rather an impressive nickname. He explains why. "I had this great talent for doing tricks, like Ronaldinho does," he says. "I could bounce the ball off my head, my back, shoulders, do all kinds of crazy things. So they called me 'le magnifique'." Can he still do them? "Yeah, I still sometimes do them in training."

Eboué, who has extraordinary pace, has always trained hard. In Abidjan football was his life. Every night he stayed out kicking a ball until dark. "When I was little, nine or 10, I was always playing. My family just wanted me to be in school all the time. Well, I said, 'No, all I want is football' and they said, 'Come on, get yourself back to school' and again I would always say 'no'. In the end they let me play."

It was not easy. Eboué has six brothers and six sisters who all still live in Abidjan, where his grandparents have bought a satellite dish to follow his every match. His father, who worked in the docks, died when he was 15. Fortunately, Eboué was chosen to go to the Asec Mimosa football academy, then run by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international, who discovered Ivorian stars such as Didier Zokora, Aruna Dindane - and, of course, the Touré brothers, Kolo and Yaya.

"We call it the Academy Guillou," Eboué says. "And I made huge progress there."

Guillou bought into the Belgian club Beveren and sent young Ivorian players there wholesale. Eboué arrived in 2002. "Every year, they take three players," he says. The move, he admits, was "difficult" but "there was a great sense of community there" because he had so many team-mates from his own country. "We worked through things together."

The arrangement is not without controversy. Some see it as a drain on African football and question its morality. Eboué, unsurprisingly, sees it differently. "I just wanted to get started," he says. "And I was really happy to do that at Beveren. After that, well, I was more than happy to join another club, even go back home, but in the end I came to England." And it was not, of course, to just "another club". It was to Arsenal who, through Arsène Wenger's friendship with Guillou - who has since left - had a "technical relationship" with Beveren.

"A dream," says Eboué again. It was the summer of 2004 and he was invited to play in the pre-season Ajax tournament. It was also, effectively, a trial.

"On the one hand, it was my debut so I was really stressed and nervous. I knew I absolutely had to do well if I wanted to stay at Arsenal. Yes, I was on trial and I really badly wanted to stay." But that was not his only feeling. "I was also just happy to be playing among such great players. So even if I didn't get the chance to come back. I kept that memory."

It seemed that was all he would have. Arsenal sent him back to Belgium and three months passed by. Then Wenger came to visit and watched him play for Beveren. "After a match the boss called me and said he was proud of me and he said, 'Next time I see you play, I'd like it to be for Arsenal'," Eboué recalls.

Wenger paid £1.5m and he signed in last year's January transfer window. "He's very intelligent and he knows a lot about life," Eboué says of his manager. "He tells me to focus, to give everything I have and, most importantly, to never give up."

Eboué likes England. He and his wife - who recently gave birth to their second child, another daughter - settled quickly even if there is a familiar complaint. "The lifestyle, the way people live here, I like that," he says. "But the weather. It's always changing. It's shocking."

Eboué rapidly made his debut, against Stoke City, in the FA Cup, but had to wait for other opportunities. That did not bother him, especially as he found that although Arsenal is a "big club, it's not impersonal". The banter is healthy and Eboué - known as "Manu" - is a lively, vocal participant. In the dressing-room he is known for his singing.

There are other bonuses. "The fact that I knew some of the players such as Kolo Touré really helped," he says. "He's been a father figure. And then there's Lauren, too. He became my mentor. He's very intelligent and has given me lots of fantastic advice."

He was also Arsenal's regular right-back and it was not until a knee injury ended the Cameroonian's season that Eboué was given an extended run in the team. He has seized it - bolstered by fine displays for the Ivory Coast, known as the Elephants, in the African Nations' Cup in which he started every game and scored in the penalty shoot-out in the final, which his country eventually lost to Egypt. It, nevertheless, gave him confidence.

It also helped him to deal with pressure, a pressure that will only grow as his career progresses - and with this summer's World Cup. "I'm not thinking about that yet," he says. "I'm just concentrating on the Champions' League." The prize is tantalisingly close. Arsenal arrived in Spain last night with a slender - and possibly crucial - 1-0 lead over dangerous opponents.

"I think we should have scored more," Eboué admits of last week's first leg. But, he says, facing Villarreal was as tough as Real Madrid or Juventus. "And," he adds cautiously "the hard work is by no means over." It must be hoped that when it is Eboué can then add another shirt to his impressive collection.

Ivory trade: Dazzling gems exported to Europe

* DIDIER ZOKORA Position: Midfielder. Age: 25. Club: St-Etienne.

The defensive-minded midfielder started at Asec Abidjan academy before moving to the Belgian club Genk in 2000. Four years, and 126 league games, later he signed for St-Etienne, where he has played 63 games. Should partner Yaya Touré for the Ivory Coast at World Cup.

* YAYA TOURÉ Position: Midfielder. Age: 22. Club: Olympiakos.

Also started his career at Asec Abidjan. In 2001, aged 18, he moved to Belgium's Beveren. After two and a half years, and 70 league appearances, he was signed by the Ukrainians Metalurg Donetsk, in 2004 for £1.4m. But a year later he was bought by Olympiakos.

* DIDIER DROGBA Position: Striker. Age: 28. Club: Chelsea.

Converted from a right-back during five seasons with Le Mans in Ligue 2, he moved to Guingamp in Ligue 1 in 2001. Two seasons and 20 goals later he was signed by Marseilles for £4.2m. In 2004 Jose Mourinho bought him for £24m. Has made 81 appearances scoring 32 goals.

* KOLO TOURÉ Position: Defender. Age: 24. Club: Arsenal.

A versatile gem signed directly from Ivorian club Asec Mimosas for less than £1m in February 2002. Yaya Touré's brother began on right of midfield, before playing at full-back, but is now the first-choice centre-back. In his four years at the club Touré has made 145 appearances.

* ARUNA DINDANE Position: Forward. Age: 25. Club: Lens.

Also began his career at Asec Mimosas, before joining Anderlecht in 2000. Won two league championships (2001, 2004). In 2003 won Belgium's Ebony Shoe (best player of African origin) and Golden Shoe (for the best player). In 2005 he moved to Lens for an undisclosed fee.

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