The Ivorian reached such a high level of performance in 2013/14, that this season was always likely to be inferior by contrast. He, like almost all of his Manchester City teammates, is experiencing a post-Championship hangover and the decline in his form is naturally a topic of debate.
The treatment of Toure is very unsettling, though. Typically, criticism of struggling African players is delivered with a certain tone and articles discussing their substandard performances always contain the same loaded phrases – phrases, by the way, which never seem to be applied to their European counterparts.
When Toure’s agent, Dimitri Seluk, declared that his client’s ethnicity was precluding him from major individual honours, the world ignored him. Seluk, in agent terms, is part of the tedious modern generation: overly-keen to see his name in print and never shy of a Sky Sports News interview – it was easy, therefore, to dismiss him.
Truthfully, though, Seluk was making the right point, but just within the wrong context. Toure’s lack of a Ballon d’Or is less about his origin and more to do with his peer group: his career has coincided with that of two of the very best players of all time and his lack of Champions League success during his prime, Manchester City years is an obvious mark against him.
Last week, two articles neatly book-ended the disparity between how Toure should be perceived and how he ultimately is. Football 365’s Daniel Storey wrote thoughtfully about how the death of Toure’s brother could rightly be considered to have contributed to his form and then, on Saturday, The Mail published a piece simmering with nastiness and constructed from old cliches about laziness, avarice, and apathy.
One writer basing a conclusion on a well-publicised personal trauma, another ignoring it in favour of something easier, something based on a set of assumptions.
Toure has had a bad week. He was sent-off for a flagrant display of unnecessary aggression against CSKA Moscow and had been part of a curiously inept team performance prior to his dismissal. Manchester City were dreadful; with the exception of Sergio Aguero, every member of that side let their manager and supporters down, but only Toure has been the object of the kind of article that The Mail were willing to publish over the weekend.
There’s a pattern here: with English players, the default response to a poor performance is to identify a valid excuse or to be generally indifferent. With an African, though, bad form is far too often used to validate ugly assumptions.
When Wayne Rooney doesn’t play well, it’s because he’s unfit or because he’s being used in the wrong forward position. When Yaya Toure doesn’t play well, it’s because he’s over-paid, over-indulged, and he doesn’t care enough.
There was another example of this last week with Emmanuel Adebayor. Everything at Tottenham is rotten at the moment and there are very few players at White Hart Lane who could honestly claim to be fully-invested. But, following the recent game against Aston Villa, it was Adebayor who was singled out, again by The Mail, and it was the Togalese who was the ‘disgrace to football’.
Adebayor is one of the most mysterious characters in the game and precious little is really known about his life or personality away from the field. Yet, bizarrely, he is the player we seem to feel most comfortable making assumptions about. Adebayor’s public profile is a paradox: on the one hand he is described as an enigma, yet on the other his character is continually and brutally assassinated.
How strangely easy it is to label someone who we know nothing about.
Toure, like Adebayor, has – to a degree – facilitated this process. The ‘Birthday Cake’ nonsense at the end of last season was laughable and it was a poorly-constructed attempt to do…something. But that didn’t shape anybody’s opinion of him, it simply validated existing beliefs. Yes, he has tried to renegotiate his contract regularly during his time in England and, yes, he has tried to hold his club to ransom during that time, but that’s football now: the very best players in the world, irrespective of their ethnicity, use their status for leverage in a way that is unpalatable to the watching public.
Theo Walcott is, once again, renegotiating his basic wage with Arsenal less than two years after signing an extension. That passes without comment, but had Walcott been born in Liberia rather than London, one assumes that that probably wouldn’t be the case.
This is one of those problems which, until you start looking for it, you don’t really notice. People who describe African players in such terms aren’t necessarily being actively racist, but they are a product of a worrying, game-wide belief system that refuses to relinquish its stereotypes.
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