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Emmanuel Adebayor: Football's Unloved Maverick

It's often said that football embraces its mavericks – but the eccentric and enigmatic Emmanuel Adebayor is an exception.
Photo by PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Disliked footballers are often described as "divisive". But in the case of Emmanuel Adebayor, his influence has broadly been one of joyous unification. Up and down the country, fans who'd otherwise be engaged in various acts of mutual loathing have found themselves united in their contempt for a man routinely held up as football's worst ills made flesh.


Adebayor hasn't been especially busy lately, but September has already been a more eventful month than most. First came the breakdown of a proposed transfer to Aston Villa and two days later, when Spurs registered their domestic and European squads for the coming season, Adebayor's name was nowhere to be seen. Then came the revelation from the Togo manager, Tom Saintfiet, that his star striker had simply not responded to his latest international call-up. The following week, Saintfiet declared the player's career with the Sparrow Hawks to be over.

Then, to conclude what had been a months-long staring contest in north London between Adebayor and Daniel Levy – during which the striker, quite brilliantly, demonstrated to his boss exactly who was more content to see out the stand-off by showing up to training every morning in a chauffeured Rolls Royce – the Spurs chairman finally blinked. Adebayor was released from the club's employment, sent skipping gaily down Bill Nicholson Way with the remaining value of his contract en route to his bank account.

To willingly torch two careers – club and international – in the space of a fortnight takes some doing; there's a certain aptness in the fact that Adebayor's most hectic schedule in a long while consisted of much administrative closing of avenues to play football, and precisely no playing of actual football. The popular analysis was that Levy's pay-out represented the logical conclusion to the past half-decade or so of Adebayor's career: being handed a briefcase full of cash in exchange for the promise of not showing up to work any more.


It's a joke that sums up the pervasive line of thought on Adebayor. You don't need to look far to find a solemnly disparaging newspaper column on the striker's Seinfeldian levels of self-interest. Speak to most fans about him and the descriptives of choice will be some variation on "mercenary" or "money-grabbing". The nouns tend to have less syllables. Money is a thorny issue among football fans, and no more so than in the case of Adebayor.

It's customary, now, for the sport's bigger stars to sign a new contract with roughly the same frequency Donald Trump dispenses nuggets of misogyny. Sporting a Blair-like grin during their ceremonial signing, and having spent their past weeks seeing their name mysteriously linked with many of the continent's top sides, the player will invariably cite an unbridled fondness for the club as the reason for their renewed commitment, all the while dancing merrily around the fact that the new contract also means a huge salary increase.

There's nothing outwardly wrong with this – no pay packet, however absurd, permits the removal of a worker's rights, and it would take a real contrarian to deny a footballer's entitlement to case out his employment options and pursue his highest market value in wages. The grating aspect is how it's all done under the pretence of loyalty: never will a footballer publicly cite money as a factor.

Which brings us back to Adebayor. "We all play football to get money," he said during a characteristically drawn-out round of contract negotiations in 2011. Four years later his stance hasn't changed much: "A lot of people say I always play for contracts — at the end of the day, we are all footballers. This is my life, this is my work."


In football, though, one man's honesty is another's hired-gun scumbaggery. The popular mindset wants to hear of players' commitment to their badge rather than their bank balance – although it's funny how so many of the most famous one-club men started out at trophy-hoovering clubs in the first place, and not many top-level footballers (with the odd Basque-tinted exception) do their jobs for free.

Adebayor's status as a shameless mercenary hit its all-time peak at around 4.35pm on 12 September 2009, as he scampered the length of the Etihad pitch to celebrate his goal against Arsenal in the most incendiary way imaginable. The subsequent coverage might have been dominated by irate moralisers, but that celebration remains an act of unmatched magnificence. If you accept the notion that the Premier League is essentially an enormous pantomime, then you'll quickly conclude that Adebayor's knee-slide was the most glorious contribution to proceedings since the curtains came up in 1992.

Beyond that, though, is the fact that the striker had spent the last hour and a half being subject to unrelenting abuse from substantial sections of the away end – much of it flagrantly racist – and so to give it the big 'un in response was fair enough, thank you very much.

It's no stretch to say that it's not just oafish chants through which Adebayor's public image has been shaped by prejudice. As well as his insatiable thirst for cash off the pitch, his other oft-cited sin is his laziness and unreliability on it. Adebayor is no workaholic, but it's worth taking a moment to consider the other strikers who've been slapped with the 'lazy' tag in recent years – Kanu, Daniel Sturridge, Nicolas Anelka, Yakubu, Mario Balotelli – while appreciating that the same tendency in a Berba or a Zlatan offers a shortcut to fawning cult-hero status, and draw your own conclusions.


There's also the fact that his goalscoring rate has actually hung at almost precisely the same frequency (roughly the 'one in two' rate of popular approval) for the last 11 years. Play him regularly and – whisper it – Adebayor is actually a pretty reliable centre-forward, and far from the worthless Augustus Gloop figure his reputation would have you believe.

As Diego Costa showed at the weekend, there's plenty of merit in a pantomime villain, but much of the feeling towards Adebayor seems to have veered long ago into genuine vitriol, with his latest contract-protection antics at Spurs drawing the usual responses. It's a classic case of hating the player while letting the game play on freely in the background.

Clubs rarely hesitate to play the loyalty card in public when they need to keep the fans on their side of a PR war, and you never have to look far during a high-profile transfer saga to find a disgruntled pundit deploring the lack of loyalty on show from today's bling-bearing brats. Loyalty is a two-way street, though, and there's nothing unreasonable about a player expecting to receive the full value of his contract once all parties have signed it off. And hey, if he has to buy a Rolls Royce, hire a chauffeur, and resort to petty acts of wind-uppery in the process, all the better.

It's not just his instinctive flair for the theatrical through which Adebayor has helped demonstrate that top-level football is, in the grand scheme of things, trivial nonsense. Five years ago, the coach carrying him and his Togo teammates to the Africa Cup of Nations was attacked by gunmen, leaving three passengers dead and many more injured. He has spoken at length about the trauma he suffered and his difficulty in dealing with it, and given the enormity of the event it's genuinely astonishing how little regard is paid to it in Adebayor's numerous media appraisals.

If Adebayor's life is proof of the essential triviality of football then there's an irony in the fact that his wage-collecting antics provoke such a strong response. It's often said that football embraces its mavericks – but it seems that's only true if they come packaged along certain lines, and behave in a certain way.