Stéphane Sessègnon: Benin's shy icon on Wearside
Sunderland striker, who is excited about Sunday's derby, tells Martin Hardy about his responsibilities in his west African homeland
The banking system had collapsed and there had been riots on the streets when the parents of a young child decided to return to their homeland.
Stéphane Sessègnon was four, and Benin, where they had come to work and build a new life, was no longer stable. The infant mortality rate for children under the age of five was among the highest in the world. Less than a third had access to health care. Sessègnon, along with his two brothers and two sisters, headed for Ivory Coast, but it says much for the quiet determination – and he is at times painfully shy – that he now sits, as he tentatively admits, as the most high-profile sportsman from the country of his birth.
Given a different personality, he would be emerging as Didier Drogba has in the country where he lived for the following 12 years, or like George Weah, a footballer who stood for the presidency, in Liberia.
Yet it is only towards the end of an hour's worth of questioning that the Sunderland forward, who after 20 months in England, is not comfortable enough to be interviewed in English, that the strength of feeling for the country of his birth becomes apparent.
"No, no," he insists, animatedly, "politics is not for me. I am not Drogba. I understand the responsibility with what I have as the captain of Benin. I might be the most famous footballer from Benin.
"There is lots of responsibility which comes with it, especially being captain of the national team. It's really important for me to show a good image. The role is to inspire people. Football is a really good way to get to know the country. It gives me a lot of honour and a lot of pleasure.
"It's never easy, the infant mortality rate is high there. We are all affected by that. It is a very small country and it maybe doesn't have all the riches that it needed to support its population but when you are there it can be touching.
"I'm definitely at home there. I spend more time in Benin than I do in Ivory Coast. I know a lot of people there, people who helped me to become what I am today, people who shaped me, so it's always fabulous to return there and especially to play for the national team.
"There has been a lot of changes politically and elsewhere, even compared to five years ago there is more stability. Before there was a coup d'état and it is working towards finding stability. It is a dream of the whole population to find that.
"One of the big problems in African countries is the finance. I believe as long as there is peace it is the most important thing."
That is relative, given the instability in Benin, where they have lived under both Islam and Christianity, control from the state and only since 2006 have there been fair and free elections.
At four he left. At seven he decided to become a footballer, and at 16 he had to return so that he would be eligible to go to Belgium (he played in the Benin Premier League for a season with Requins de L'Atlantique). "I was not scared," he says. "It is the dream of all African players to come to play in Europe. It allowed me to live a dream I have had since I was very little. It was more joy than fear."
From there the gates to Europe opened, first in the suburbs of Paris with Créteil-Lusitanos, then Le Mans and finally, in 2008, with the move he had craved since childhood, when Paris St-Germain took an interest, as, curiously, did Arsenal and Newcastle United, the latter of which he confirms.
"I had lots of opportunities," he says. "Yes, Newcastle were interested but it was really important for me to play in Paris. I had supported them since I was little. It was a chance to show myself. I had great years there. I was satisfied. The highlight was probably winning the French Cup. That was the happiest time I had in France."
He cost PSG €10m, but a fallout with Antoine Kombouaré, the new coach, before a game against Nancy, alerted Steve Bruce. For £6.7m Sessègnon, largely unheard of to supporters in England, moved to Sunderland in January 2011, something his family, initially did not do.
"It was the tirelessness and willingness of the people at Sunderland to get me that played a big part in my decision to come here," he adds. "It is true I had a couple of difficult months when I first arrived but I was getting used to my environment.
"People speculated that I didn't want to stay. It was of course frustrating, it was not coming from me. I felt very good here. Maybe it was because my family wasn't here at the time but I still felt really good here. It was nonsense.
"It wasn't easy when I first came here, of course. It was a culture change. The first month was actually quite difficult, but there is a family bond here, they helped me settle. I already knew some of the players from the French league, after that it is football, football, that is the most important thing. Everything else is secondary.
"My whole family is here now so I am more busy! I have boys who are a little bit grown up now and they are as hectic as I am in their way of life. It is great spending more time with them, it is a really important thing for me. I have an eight-year-old, two five-year-olds, a three-year-old and a two-year-old. I get some sleep."
In here is the story of a footballer different to anything else Sunderland may have had in their modern history. His creative spark helped keep the club in the Premier League last season. He signed a new contract to end continued speculation that he would leave. At £6.7m he looks good business. This season he has started the campaign slowly – he blames injury and playing for his country in the summer – and Sunderland have by coincidence failed to find their rhythm fully, although the defeat against the Premier League champions, Manchester City, in their last game was their first.
"I can feel big expectation from the fans on me," he adds. "That is logical, they expect me to perform. The fans here are almost more enthusiastic than the players themselves.
"I am a creative type of player, the passion is a positive thing, it makes me want to go higher and in search to be better, to produce more, I want to be more excellent for them. It is a good thing. My relationship with the supporters here was one of the factors that made me renew my contract.
"I get on really well with the coach. I am quite a timid person naturally so I'm not always in conversation with him but the support by the other players has really made me feel at home here, even when my family wasn't here. They were a big support for me.
"We all know the importance of the game between Newcastle and Sunderland [on Sunday] and the challenge they represent and the pressure which comes for those games, but it is a pleasure to experience it, that is what you play the game for. I have a bad memory of the last time we met [he was sent off when his arm struck Cheick Tioté]. I would like to put things right."
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