Glenn Moore: Touré's shining example lights way for Wenger

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The Independent Football

Ibrahima Bakayoko, Landry Zahana-Oni, Olivier Tebily ... Until the arrival of Kolo Touré it is fair to suggest that the Elephants of Ivory Coast, as their footballers are known, had not exactly trumpeted their talent where the English game was concerned. Bakayoko scored a spectacular goal for Everton at Ashton Gate but otherwise did little, Zahana-Oni was briefly seen at Luton, and Tebily, though promising at Sheffield United and now established at Birmingham City, was known as "Bombscare" during an intervening spell at Celtic because he made his fellow defenders panic.

Touré, though, has put his West African nation on the Premiership map and is understandably proud to have done so.

"When I was still in Africa I followed Bakayoko [a success in France] and other Ivorians in Europe," Touré said when we met up. "Now I want to show English people they can find good players in Africa and Ivory Coast."

This afternoon, Touré will return with Arsenal to Stamford Bridge, the ground where he first came to prominence last season, albeit in a misleading role. Having made several brief substitute appearances, he was again on the bench when Edu was injured after half an hour. Touré replaced him on the left flank only to see, in quick succession, a Gianfranco Zola free-kick elude David Seaman then Patrick Vieira dismissed. Touré's response was to charge around causing chaos on Chelsea's right and inspiring his team-mates before ultimately heading Arsenal's equaliser.

"It was my first big game," Touré recalled. "I scored and it was a big time for me." Chuckling as he is reminded of his extensive celebrations, he added: "I was really happy. It is always nice to score and if I can do it again this week it will be great. Chelsea will be tough but we have a team to beat them and if we are organised and concentrate, we should do so."

Another Touré goal is, though, unlikely as, after playing as an all-action midfielder, then a rampaging full-back, Touré has settled at centre-half. His subsequent form has been so impressive that he is a contender for both the African young player of the year and the PFA version.

It has also solved a huge problem for Arsène Wenger, who feared he would have to rely on Martin Keown forever - or spend heavily to replace him. That the Arsenal manager has been able to lavish the entire transfer budget on Jose Antonio Reyes shows that Touré is at centre-half to stay.

Apart, that is, from when Lauren is injured and Touré deputises at right-back. It is not a change he wishes to make a habit of. "I think my future is at centre-half," Touré said. "That is my position." Expressing surprise that no one seemed to know this, he added: "Before I came here I played there for five years. I played there for Ivory Coast."

Indeed he had, establishing himself in the Elephants as a teenager, which suggests one of the more surprising aspects of Touré's rise is that it took so long. All around him, team-mates such as Aruna Dindane, the Anderlecht striker, were heading for Europe. Did he not wonder if he would be left behind for good?

"No, because I was only 20 but had played 18 times for my country, which is something. I was also playing in the African Champions' League. A lot of teams looked at me but they didn't know if I could adapt and be happy here, if I will like the weather. But I was confident I would meet the challenge. I showed the boss I can do it."

The delay was significant as it made Touré eligible for a work permit, enabling Arsenal to sign him. Most of Touré's young compatriots have to take a more circuitous route, one which is causing some controversy.

For Touré is one of the lucky ones. His talent and application may come from within but he is fortunate to have been signed by Arsenal. Not only does the club have a tradition of looking after its players, but it has a paternal manager who cultivates togetherness. That is important to a man who has five brothers and three sisters.

"Arsenal is a big club but it is like a family," Touré said. Looking around the training complex, where we share a deep black leather sofa in the lounge area, he said: "I am always here. Sometimes I am the last man in the restaurant. I like to be here. I am so proud to play for Arsenal, I love the spirit, the calm.

"When I arrived, lots of players made me welcome: Martin Keown, Stathis Tavlaridis, Patrick Vieira. Patrick invited me to his place. He is a nice guy."

But for every Touré, there are many players dumped on unsuitable clubs by unscrupulous agents. Those who fail to make the grade are left, though often still in their teens, to fend for themselves. It was to protect such players that Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, outlawed the continental transfer of players under the age of 18. "It is," he said, "time to fight against the exodus of young players from Africa."

The problem, as Touré highlighted, is that there is little choice for the ambitious footballer. "It is good for players to come to Europe," he said. "In Africa we do not have the structure to pay a player well and make him happy to do his job well.

"The pitches are really bad. That is also a problem. It is why all young players in Africa want to come here. You only play football for 15 years and you have to do something."

The need to maximise earning potential is not just personal. As soon as he arrived at Arsenal Touré began sending a chunk of his then-insubstantial salary back home. In Abidjan, the builders were constructing a new family home. "All African players do this," Touré said. "It is normal. When you have money you have to think about your family, not just yourself."

Touré's family includes two other footballers, Yaya and Ibrahim. Which brings us back to the exodus of African footballers. All three brothers, after playing their initial football in the streets - "When we grew up we did not have Playstation or anything like that," Touré said - attended the Académie Abidjan, an acclaimed football school set up 11 years ago by a Frenchman, Jean-Marc Guillou, and his local partner Roger Ouegnin. Guillou previously managed Monaco and is an old friend of Wenger.

For many years the academy was an outstanding example of its type, the boys being schooled academically and being taught that "greatness comes with humility", a motto which Touré clearly absorbed. Students graduated, as Touré did, to ASEC Mimosas, which became one of the continent's most formidable teams.

Sadly Guillou and Ouegnin fell out, prompted by Guillou (for whom Touré has only praise) arranging the wholesale move of Ivorians to Beveren, Arsenal's "partner club" in Belgium's Jupiler League.

It is relatively easy for young African footballers to gain permits to play in Belgium and Beveren have taken full advantage. Their team in last weekend's defeat by Westerlo featured nine Ivorians, all academy graduates, the oldest of them aged 24. There was also one Belgian and a Latvian who was sent off (Igor Stepanovs, currently on loan from Arsenal). For these young Ivorians, Beveren is a gateway, but there is concern at home that some will take up Belgian citizenship and be lost to the Elephants.

Ibrahim Touré remains in Abidjan but Yaya was also at Beveren. Linked to Arsenal in the summer, he was sold to the Ukrainian side Metalurh Donetsk for €2m (£1.35m) in January. "It is very different there but it is good for him," Kolo said. "It will make him macho, stronger."

Kolo Touré needs no toughening up. A devout muslim, he lives a quiet life off the pitch, spending time at home in Enfield with his wife, Aoure - "I love her," he tells me twice - going shopping or visiting the cinema in Wood Green. On it, however, he relishes the physical aspects of the English game.

"I like it," he said, his eyes sparkling. "I am looking always for the ball, not the man. If you are not looking to kill me, I will not look to kill you. I do not want to tackle like a crazy man. But if some player acts like he is fighting, or bossing, you have to do something. If someone wants to give me a kick I will show him I am not his woman."

Chelsea's strikers have been warned. Play hard, but fair.

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