WORDS BY WILLIAM SHARP | @SHILLWARP
The cult hero is never the team’s most talented player. They’re never the top goalscorer or the captain. They’re the one that fans learn to love. The one whose place in the folklore of their club or country comes with an elucidatory asterix; they’re the one that requires a little explaining. At Arsenal, for some seven seasons spanning the mid-to-late-2000s, that player was Emmanuel Eboué.
As it would have for any player, becoming the first-choice right-back at Arsenal was always destined to be a task of extraordinary difficulty for Emmanuel Eboué, based solely on the size of the club in question and the subsequent expectations of those who watch them. Thanks in no small part to the far from serendipitous timing of his emergence, however, the size of the Ivorian’s job was turned from great to gargantuan.
Passed down to him by fellow African footballer Lauren, who himself had the duty bequeathed by defender Lee Dixon, Arsenal’s right-back position had, by the time of Eboué’s arrival, been locked down for almost two decades by a noble lineage comprised of two of the finest full-backs ever to play for the club.
Dixon had arrived alongside Steve Bould, the pair prized from Stoke City in 1988, and soon helped to forge the most successful defence in Arsenal history; ensuring not only lasting recognition in the form of a fabled back-four but a litany of trophies to the tune of four Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup for good measure. When Dixon hung up his boots, in 2002, his heir, Lauren, had already set about picking up where the Englishman had left off and within two seasons had etched his own mononym in the club’s history having become famously ‘Invincible’ as an integral element of Arséne Wenger’s magnum opus of an Arsenal squad.
The established reputation of the club’s right-back position was never likely to be upheld to the same standards and Eboué inherited something of a poisoned chalice. To his credit, and his good fortune, he did so with a smile and occasionally a dance. If the Ivorian couldn’t win the hearts of the Arsenal faithful through ability alone, he’d at least give it a shot using his personality.
Much of Eboué’s charm developed over time, fermenting in the years since his departure from Arsenal. In truth, it is often only a long while after three points have first been relinquished and another three have been won, allowing the frustrations of the former failure to subside, that one can begin to gaze back in retrospection and see, in a slightly more rosen shade than before, the funnier side of the indiscretions that initially caused such rage. In December 2008, though, few were laughing and it wasn’t quite rage but a cocktail of emotions that caused Eboué’s darkest hour at the Arsenal.
Returning to the bench as Arsenal hosted Wigan Athletic, following an enforced five-week absence, Eboué was thrust into an unfamiliar position on the left of midfield, shortly after the half-hour mark, as Frenchman Samir Nasri was himself curtailed by injury. Eboué was by now used to the midfield, having transitioned further forward in order to remain useful ahead of the club’s new first-choice right-back Bacary Sagna, but in this game he could hardly have looked more out of place.
Eboué was sloppy in possession and erroneous in his positioning. His tackles and attempted interceptions were landing a beat too slow each time and, going forward, far from an outlet, his runs were becoming a hindrance. He looked and played as though he were nerve-wracked. Arsenal had established an early lead, thanks to a sixteenth-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor, and the one player on the pitch who appeared most likely to return parity to the duel was Eboué.
As the game ebbed closer to its finish, time enough remained for Eboué’s pièce de résistance: with what The Guardian’s Richard Williams called “a burst of ill-directed enthusiasm” Eboué relieved unsuspecting teammate Kolo Touré of possession and gifted it immediately to an opponent who sprung forwards into a fortunately fruitless counter-attack. Thousands of Arsenal fans launched into a barrage of boos, aimed at their own misfiring Gunner.
Eventually, as stoppage time approached, Wenger hooked Eboué, sending on Mikael Silvestre in his place. As if the dishonour of being a substituted-substitute wasn’t enough, the boos continued as he departed the pitch. Perhaps only by the grace of the footballing gods did Eboué’s humiliation lack an own goal or a sending off, yet, even so, the boos continued to provide a soundtrack to his early exit as the tears rolled down the Ivorians face.
In the game’s wake, his teammates, his manager, along with select journalists and pundits, leapt to his defence. Those who poured scorn on him on that evening soon realised they’d gone too far. Context told the story of a collective of fans booing far more than just a single underperforming player; they were booing a period of stasis, a dearth of quality and a diluting of ambitions. But their howls of contempt were aimed at only Eboué and their actions were unforgivable. To his credit, Eboué forgave them anyway, such is the kind of man he showed himself to be, and later the cheers from the Arsenal faithful when he scored on his next appearance against Wigan, the following season, were voiced with an intended air of apology and empathy.
Emmanuel Eboué often gave the impression of a man who knew full well he was in over his head, cast adrift far further into the deep end than a swimmer of his ability and experience should ever have been allowed, but was content to furiously swing his arms and kick his legs anyway, in willing defiance, hoping for the best. Occasionally he’d somehow slot into a rhythm and hold his own, allowing onlookers at the pool’s edge to be deceived, to confuse him with a genuinely talented swimmer. Often, though, lifeguards would be forced to dive in after him and bail him out, for his and his club’s sake.
The figurehead of an unwanted and unshakable zeitgeist, Eboué encapsulated the Arsenal of the latter 2000s; a frustrating devolution from the once unbeatable unit of yesteryear into a fragile cohort of nearly-men. Furthermore, Emmanuel Eboué operated in a sad Sisyphean reality at the nucleus of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby he was endeavouring to win the Premier League in an assortment of Arsenal squads perpetually doomed never to win the league on the basis that they were playing alongside the likes of Emmanuel Eboué.
But, throughout his days in red and white, for every error or miscalculation there were moments of fallibility underpinned by genuine honesty and, if not integrity, then at least a well-meaning endeavour that endeared people to him. Diving against Barcelona in the Champions League final to win the free-kick that his team resultantly took the lead from. Being sent off against Tottenham for kicking out at a rival in frustration. Conceding a 102nd-minute penalty to throw two points away at home to Liverpool, after Arsenal had taken the lead from their own late penalty only four minutes earlier, effectively ending the club’s pursuit of league-leaders Manchester United. These were moments of infuriating foolishness but, with the benefit of a little hindsight, we see them sketched anew as the accidental or misjudged errors of a man simply attempting to make the most of what he had, just as any man would, and failing with sympathetic sincerity.
And through it all there was the dancing, seared into the minds of all of those intent on remembering the good times as vividly as the bad; the wiggles, the thrusts, the awkward sambas and the impromptu cha-cha-chás, sometimes alongside a teammate or two, sometimes alone, swaying not to music but to the joy of the game. For years, Eboué unintentionally represented everything that was lamentable about Arsenal football club’s first-world decline. For his entire career, though, Eboué purposefully attempted to uphold everything we love about the game and for that he deserves fond remembrance.