Yaya Toure started his life in the backstreets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with a fairly modest ambition. It was to own a pair of soccer boots in any kind of repair. This afternoon, on his 29th birthday, he has a rather loftier aim.
The inspiration of Manchester City in the final phase of the Premier League race, Toure believes that victory over lowly Queen’s Park Rangers will not only deliver the club’s first title in 44 years, but also mark the opening salvo in a campaign to supplant Barcelona as the world’s most dominant team.
Such a project would have seemed risible as recently as two years ago, even though City’s patron Sheikh Mansour was already deep into an investment that is currently heading towards the $2-billion mark.
There were several reasons for this and not least the appearance of Toure, a defensive midfielder for Barcelona, as one of the two or three most expensive players in English football. At a salary of more than $640,000 a week, the first impression was that the big man was overpriced, overweight and, worse still in a dressing room which so often seemed to be involved in open warfare, maybe under-committed.
This was an impression that received considerable oxygen from reports that in one of his first games he received a minor injury, took some brief treatment, then drove home without much concern about the result. So was this indeed another mercenary swimming along in an extremely rich gravy train?
It was soon enough exposed as not so much a theory as a scandalously casual misapprehension.
City’s drive to within an inch of the title has been assisted by some outstanding individual talent. Joe Hart has emerged as England’s finest goalkeeper by some distance. Vincent Kompany, the club captain, is a centre back of stunning accomplishment and in Sergio Arguero, son-in-law of Diego Maradona, and David Silva the team have forwards of the highest class. Even Carlos Tevez, generally reviled for his refusal to go on to the field in a Champions League game in Munich and then a long defection to the golf courses of Buenos Aires, has made some valuable contributions to the final push.
But it is big Yaya who has come to most dramatically represent the appearance of a potentially great side.
Last season, he pushed City to their first significant trophy in 35 years when he scored the decisive goals in the semifinal and final FA Cup victories over Manchester United and Stoke City.
This time he has come near to carrying on his back a sometimes fractious team to the verge of the title, last weekend scoring both the goals at Newcastle for the win that today puts City in such a commanding position.
His first goal was a dramatic explanation for manager Roberto Mancini’s habit of pushing him forward at pivotal moments in the tightest games. As tension at Newcastle, Aguero rolled the ball into Toure’s path. The resulting shot was exquisite, an in-swinging drive that curled just inside the far post and gave resourceful goalkeeper Tim Krul no semblance of a chance.
Toure has been so hugely influential in the last strides of the season there has been a mounting case for recall of the Player of the Year trophies handed to Arsenal’s Robin van Persie by his fellow players and the soccer press.
That may sound a little harsh in view of the brilliant and consistent striking of the Dutchman, a performance of consistent menace to rank with some of the best of his great compatriot Marco van Basten and certainly the key factor in holding together an Arsenal side which made such a catastrophic start to the season. However, Yaya has come forward as not so much a player of the year as a player of a new era.
It opens up the possibility of a glorious climax to the journey which took the young African first to Beveren in Belgium, then the Ukraine, Greece, France and Spain before his arrival in England.
He came as just another big-money football traveller. Now he stands at the centre of extraordinary ambition. At a time in professional sport when financial rewards, obscene to many in an economically imperilled world, often seem to run so far ahead of achievement, he is not only a superstar but also a revelation.
“I want to be part of something great,” he says. It is a feeling that the champions-elect of England must surely, and humbly, reciprocate.