Thierry Henry has always said that one of the best stories about Kolo Touré at Arsenal will go into the book he writes one day.
It dates back to the occasion, in the winter of 2002, when the defender turned up at the club for a trial, proceeded to plough exuberantly into Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams in his desire to make an impression and, after Martin Keown had urged him to calm down and stay on his feet, hared towards a high ball near the training ground touchline. Arsène Wenger was moving to control it when Touré upended him too. "Good tackler isn't he?" Wenger said, wincing as he applied an ice pack to his ankle afterwards. "I like that. We sign him." He paid £150,000 for him to the Ivory Coast's ASEC Abidjan, if only for the value Touré would give to training sessions.
Seven years ago and yet in many ways a lifetime. Touré is the conciliator, now. When Emmanuel Adebayor was sprinting to the Arsenal fans for what will be this season's defining goal celebration a week ago, Touré went in hot pursuit. The images of him behind the striker as he slid to the turf don't tell what those present witnessed: Touré was trying to haul him away.
The grace under pressure which has persuaded Mark Hughes to make Touré club captain at Manchester City will be needed more than ever this weekend. This Manchester derby is an occasion to challenge all the encounters with Manchester United in his Arsenal years, even the so-called "battle of the buffet" after Sir Alex Ferguson's side had ended Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten run in 2004. You always imagined that Touré would have had a grandstand view of the moment that a pizza came flying through the air in the tunnel and hit Ferguson flat in the face, though he claims not. ("I heard that but I didn't see anything.") But that October afternoon informs his appreciation of the one-time defining rivalry in British football as he prepares to help City make their own battles with United the next. "It was two great teams, who both wanted to be the best in the country and they had to fight," Touré says. "That's why the battle happened that day."
The years watching Wenger's battles and gradual rapprochement with Ferguson have also taught Touré something about the British game's most venerable manager and the bluster which can sometimes conceal his anxieties. "I think he is just very worried about what's happening here," Touré says of Ferguson's attacks on City. "He knows that the players we have brought here are not just top quality, but really professional and want to put this team on the top of the table. That is the mentality here. It's like if you are the best at school and then another boy arrives – a new boy who is really good at every subject. You don't like it, do you?"
From the lips of any other City player, this would sound like another of those carefully calibrated jibes which have been batting back and forth since Hughes embarked on his £121m summer spending spree. But Touré has never been one for the off-field sound and fury which so dominates the game these days. He is one of football's reflective sorts, an individual of deep religious conviction who, on Fridays at Arsenal, would always be last out to speak to the press because he had nipped out to prayers first. The mosque he has settled on in Manchester is Stretford's. It stands near Old Trafford – one temple whose structures he is looking to undermine.
Touré's story before British football is the template for the African footballer fairytale: the individual who scratched what meagre living he could before he was spotted by his country's Academie Abidjan, the fabled youth football factory which has bequeathed the Premier League Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel Eboué, and sent his own brothers Yaya and Ibrahim on their way to to Barcelona and Al-Ittihad of Syria, respectively. The Elephants of Ivory Coast is the name Ivorians have coined for the young footballers who have made it abroad.
"I've done things that no other player has done," Touré reflects. "I have sold newspapers by the side of the road, cleaned the shoes of people for less than a pound. I was 12 at that time. I had to do it in order to eat because my family was really, really poor. I've always been someone who has wanted to fight and to scrap for every penny I could." It is a reason why family – there are six brothers and two sisters – feature hugely on his landscape and 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 says.
The big time took a while arriving. Touré was 20 before that memorable trial in north London but by then he was established as an Ivorian international, which made him eligible for a work permit and eased the transition to Arsenal, where a memorable substitute's appearance on the left wing for Wenger's Invincibles in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge revealed his potential, before a central defensive role became his own.
Down the seven years with Wenger there was no encounter quite like United, though. In all, Touré faced them 24 times in a Gunners jersey, and found victory hard to come by. There were only six. His eyes light up at City's Carrington training complex, though, when asked to select his favourite among those occasions. "The one [in September 2006] when Ade scored and we beat them 1-0 at Old Trafford. It was a really exciting game, there was big tension and at the end we got the goal to win the game."
Touré badly wanted Adebayor to be there to join battle this weekend, too, and has views, of course, on the kick at Robin van Persie which means he will be missing for three games. "You can see Robin came in with two feet for the first challenge, and when that happened I think Ade was looking for a place to land. Obviously Robin was in the way, and that's just what happened. At the end of the game they shook hands. I was there. They talked to each other and Ade apologised to van Persie."
The defender bats away suggestions that Hughes has pinned up Ferguson's jibes in the dressing room. The motivation clearly comes from what defeating United in their own back yard would say about City's title pretensions. "Beating Arsenal [last weekend] was important for us but beating United at Old Trafford would really make people sit up and take notice. And that is what we want to do: to show that we mean business and that we really can be up there at the end of the season."
Even today, Touré will divorce life from football in certain material ways. Ramadan runs until Sunday and, the player insists, will make him stronger. "I will eat on the morning of the game and, don't worry, I'll still have the usual power," he says. "You can do it when you believe so strongly in something."
The same goes for his convictions about his new club's potential. You might not find Kolo Touré making the most noise ahead of 1pm on Sunday but the force he provides is the stronger for it.
Q&A: Rio Ferdinand
Which is the biggest rivalry – City or Liverpool?
Liverpool. City, now they are challenging the top four, come into it. But your rivals are teams around you [in the league].
Is it true you went in disguise to Anfield in 2006 to watch a game with United supporters?
Yeah! I went with John O'Shea. I walked through Stanley Park with a scarf around my head and my hood up, hoping nobody would recognise me. A policeman pulled my hood off – a few Liverpool fans started shouting but the police ushered us in!
If United play Real Madrid in the Champions League, will you welcome Ronaldo?
I've been speaking to him on the phone. I think it's in the stars it will happen. You want to play against the best players, and he is the best. He will get a hello and a shake of the hand, but if he needs to be kicked, he will be kicked.
Extracted from an interview in the current issue of Sport magazineReuse content