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“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Friday, January 30, 2015

Would it be blasphemy to call Yaya Toure unfit?

Yaya Toure
Africa's best footballer, not athlete
Would it be blasphemy to call Yaya Toure unfit? Well, not really.

The four-time African Player of the Year is the best footballer on the continent, no doubt. He is perhaps a model of the perfect African player, combining the continent’s unique physical gifts with a refinement you only really receive at the Nou Camp, home of Spanish giants Barcelona.

That is to say, there many talented players in the world, but few get the opportunity to play and learn at Barcelona, a Harvard of football, if you like. Toure has had this chance and has maximised it to forge a distinctive style and a successful career.

He is forceful and has the power of a truck, yet he possesses the finesse and brainpower of a swan. Toure is, today, one of the few players that can single-handedly win a match, a truly rare behemoth.
So, why hasn’t he shone at this Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON)?

It is an open-ended question with the potential for equally fluid answers.

There could be many reasons, some unknown.

For one, international and club football are completely different. Manchester City and Ivory Coast use different systems; the philosophies are poles apart and, of course, the teammates are not the same.

The pitches at the AFCON are also not the pristine carpets of the English Premier League and, perhaps, Toure’s national mates don’t quite make the space-creating runs David Silva or Sergio Aguero do.

These could all be reasons for Toure’s subpar contribution but I feel, above anything, the greatest cause is he is not fit enough for the AFCON. For Africa’s biggest test, Toure is unfit.

The demands of the AFCON are not the same. Sometimes games resemble a track meet rather than a football match. It is the tournament where physical fitness counts most. Strain on the body is high and the need for tip-top physical conditioning is paramount.

Ivory Coast is generally still trying to use Toure in a similar way to City. In the first two group games against Guinea and Mali, especially, Toure had two midfielders behind him which allowed him to be a creator and the license, if he chose, to stride forwards. Toure is still the team’s midfield fulcrum, handling most of the passing moves and set-pieces.

However, the tournament’s fast-paced gameplay has still passed him by.

Toure, of course, isn’t the leanest athlete and, since his move to England in 2009, has seemed to add a bit of flab per year. But, in England it hasn’t been a major problem. Toure is still able to dominate opponents especially because, as he has grown in experience, he has been able to pick spurts to explode within games.

However, at the AFCON he is unable to do the same.

Too physical
African football, Afcon football
Again, this could be seen as blasphemy.

How can the English Premiership be less demanding when it houses the best athletes and is played at the fastest pace? Well, for one, the conditions help. England is cold and ideal for a fast-paced game. Players don’t wear out as easily during a match. Pitches, factors in fatigue, are also perfect.

In Equatorial Guinea, where this year’s AFCON is being held, temperatures have been as high as 38 degrees in addition to sweltering humidity. Those are difficult conditions which require the utmost fitness, even more so in tournament football where rest between matches is often only two days.

Toure has not tried any less with the Ivory Coast; the physical demands of the AFCON are simply much greater.

The final group game against Cameroon was an example of Toure’s effort. However, ultimately, the encounter took the life of other matches where he has been visibly exasperated by their physical nature, being matched and, at times, bullied.

Some of that, of course, comes from the normal star mentality: ‘don’t touch me’.

But, above all, it is vexation, irritation that this is totally different to the Premier League. Men, simply, are not falling here.

So, while Toure is still trying, he is not fit enough for the relentless arena that is the Africa Cup of Nations. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the truth.

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