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.
“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?”
Love your site and honest opinions, be careful though. The Congo (as with many African countries) isn’t just steamy jungles, its bustling cities, evolving cultures and technologies, some more advanced than in the UK. Its like saying England is just fields and sheep.
Also remember that Egypt (formally Kemet) as been part of ‘black’ Africa for far longer than under Asian/Arab jurisdiction.
Please don’t take this as me preaching, I’m just sensitive to the way African is portrayed sometimes.
Thanks for an excellent comment Warren.
By contrasting the jungles of central Africa with the desert landscape of Egypt I was trying to point out the range of climate and ecosystem diversity.
But point very much taken.
What a well written post, thanks. Lauren taking penalties, there’s a man who doesn’t need air conditioning.
Kanu..what a wonderful player. I was at the Chelsea game where he scored that outrageous hattrick. Up to the point he scored his first goal he stank the place out, should have been subbed off. That was Kanu though.
I also saw Yaya Toure play in Arsenal colours at Barnet in a pre-season friendly around 2003. He looked the part, but for some unknown reason Wenger decided not to sign him. I think he was at Beveren when they were an unofficial feeder club. Shame.
‘Its like saying England is just fields and sheep.’
England is just fields and sheep, isn’t it?
Although perhaps even a cliche in itself, I would add “passionate appetite to succeed” that often comes from early life experiences, to your joy of the game. Whatever, in most all of your examples, they did us proud.
Will have to think about best moment from an African on the pitch, but still chuckle at Ray Parlour’s story of Kolo’s first training session, running around like a headless chicken kicking all the stars and Wenger himself.
Loved the post. Gratias!
Thanks for the comment.
“Lauren… there’s a man who doesn’t need air conditioning.” 😀
Thank you Rocky for your post and Warren for your comment.
We indeed seem to rekindle our love affairs with elite African players – the best example being Aubameyang, of course. I hope that Partey will also be one of our most influential player over the years and that Pepe’s talent will unleash soon. I have my reservations regarding El Neny but I wish him to be a good squad player for us.
In terms of our African legends, I really loved Kolo Toure. He was just unbelievable for us.
Concerning Vieira, he wears his mother’s maiden name. She is from Cape Verde and married a Senegalese and then they moved to Dakar where Patrick Vieira was born before moving to France when he was 8. I just wanted to bring the Cape Verdean element to Vieira’s life as he was raised by his mother mostly and also because I really enjoyed my visits to Cape Verde 😛
I also think that Lauren is under-rated. He was also phenomenal for us.
Love the Kanu memories, you have nailed the top 3, I am particularly pleased to be reminded of the third as it was slipping from memory but what a great memory to bring back, I remember being at the game and asking myself: how on earth did he do that?
I had to Google Map, Cape Verde, do they speak Portuguese there? So if Vieira’s mother’s was a native surely it follows that she spoke Portuguese and therefore P Vieira did as well?
I am really off on a tangent today.
Has anyone else seen the Edu interview on AFC.com, and my question is: has there ever been a time when we have felt more informed?
Cape Verde is portuguese speaking indeed
After much thought and not a little reviewing of past records, would like to add Christopher Wreh to those already named. Three vital goals in season 1997-8 against Wimbledon and Wolves at least that, without which, we would not have witnessed that first glorious Wenger Double.
And his celebration gymnastics! Much superior to Aubang!
@LBG how could we have missed ‘the cousin’ Christopher Wreh.
Celebrated the goal v Wolves in the Holte End. Then celebrated again in the pub below street level by New Street station that the IRA blew up in the ’70s.
We were getting dirty looks from a group of ugly looking Wolves fans in the pub, when an even uglier group of Birmingham City hooligans decided to pick a fight with the Wolves mob. In the commotion we sneaked out the door. Birmingham…lovely place…
I was at the Wimbledon game when Wreh scored.
I remember we all thought he’d been signed because he was a bit of a Wrighty lookalike…