An aspect to the Thomas Partey signing that has not been much commented on is the way in which it contributes to restoring an African core at Arsenal.
Although we have had individual African players in the team and squad pretty much continually in the modern era, it has been some time since they formed a significant contingent.
The most celebrated cohort were part of the Invincibles team of 2003-4 and included dead-eyed Lauren from Cameroon, the mercurially gifted Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu and Kolo Toure, a teak wardrobe fitted with a Ferrari engine. And that’s not even counting the peerless Patrick Vieira who, although born in Senegal, moved to France aged eight and therefore counts as a Frenchman.
Until about 2009 our African representation remained strong, with players like Emmanuel Eboue, Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor coming in and overlapping with the likes of Kolo and Kanu as their Arsenal careers wound down.
We would regularly have three or even four Africans taking the pitch at the same time during that period.
In the years since we have seen other Africans come and go, with varying degrees of success – Marouane Chamakh (Morocco), Alex Iwobi (Nigeria), Gervinho (Ivory Coast) – but we never again had a solid crew from the world’s second biggest continent. Until now.
With the arrival of Partey it is entirely likely that we will see four Africans together in our first team at some point this season: Aubameyang, Partey, Pepe and Elneny.
Crucially, they are not just bit part players, Auba is our captain and best player, Pepe is our costliest ever signing and is starting to show what he’s capable of, Elneny is a tidy and reliable central midfielder who looks to be another of Mikel Arteta’s extraordinary reclamation projects and Partey… well, let’s just hope he is all that we think he is.
Does any of this matter?
On one level, talking about “Africans” is a ludicrous generalisation. Africa is massive and full of countries with people and climates as diverse as it’s possible to imagine: what does someone born in the steamy jungles of the Congo have in common with a lad who developed his skills kicking a rag ball in the shadow of the pyramids?
Yet we still have a sense that there is something a bit different about African football. It’s tempting to fall into the patronising language of “exuberance” and “joyfulness”, but we have all moved past those kind of adjectives (I hope). The days of African national teams arriving at the World Cup and playing in a manner as naïve as it was entertaining are long gone.
Yet there is something indefinable about African football. It remains different from European football in the same way that we recognise South American football as being different.
The best explanation I can come up with is that many African players seem to have a strong sense of enjoying playing the game, and playing it in a progressive manner (even the defenders).
It may all mean very little given how international the game is these days, but I am quietly pleased at this new-old development at the Arsenal.
Perhaps readers might like to share their favourite moments from our previous African heroes. My own would be two involving Kanu: first, his hat trick against Chelsea in 1999, the third of which was an astonishing shot from right on the goal line half way between the corner flag and the Chelsea net. Second, a goal he scored (in Europe, I think) where he was one-on-one with the ‘keeper but more or less just let the ball roll into the net without touching it, having completely bamboozled the goalie with his body movement.