Present on every playground, soccer is undoubtedly the number one sport in Togo. People kick the ball around with the same frenzy, whether in Lomé, Sokodé, Aného, Kara or Badou.
When school and work are completed, that’s the signal to start playing soccer everywhere. Also, omnipresent in the conversations, the stars of the different European leagues are part of endless discussions where reason often has to battle with the flow of emotions.
In spite of all this passion, the Togolese soccer leagues do not produce many high level players in comparison to the geographically close countries of Ghana or Ivory Coast, for example.
Very few Togolese players have left a lasting mark on African and European football history. Traces of such players can be found in France, but only sporadically and since the 1960’s. First with Gilbert Moevi with the “Girondins de Bordeaux,” second with Frank Fiawoo who played for “l’Olympique de Marseille,” then with Othniel Dossevi (the first African player in the history of the legendary Paris Saint Germain football club) and his brother Pierre-Antoine shortly thereafter with Tours.
Undoubtedly, the first player to put Togolese soccer on the continental map was Edmond Apéti Kaolo also known as “Doctor Kaolo”(1).Doctor Kaolo led his team, called the “Lomé Shooting Star”, to the final of the African Champions Cup in 1968. He also scored 4 goals during the African Nations Cup in 1972. Three of those four goals were made in one match against Mali, a team led by the legendary Salif Keita (final score 3/3). Sadly, the raise of Doctor Kaolo was tragically interrupted by his untimely death in a fatal road accident at the age of 25, shortly following the 72 African Nation Cup.
After his death, the Togolese football association sought a new star who would also be able to impersonate the hope of all the football apprentices of the country. Although a few players, like Bachirou Salou, will have more than respectable football careers in Europe, the Togolese national team was to remain for a while in the anonymity of miserable performances. It was only at the beginning of the decade 2000 that a new star would finally emerge with Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor.
Emmanuel, who was the exception in a national team where most of the players play for second class teams, became the player who made the greatest contribution to put Togo back onto the soccer map.
Nonetheless, even if the national team had the chance to benefit from the talent of such a player, it also had to deal with his outbursts and the amateurism of a federation following the example of a country where nepotism is king. Three dates summarize this last period quite well.
First, October 8th 2005, the date of the first and only qualification of Togo for the World Cup. Whereas this qualification should have served as a trampoline for all of Togolese football, in reality this qualification only exacerbated the internal quarrels and highlighted the greed of the federation leaders (conflicts over unpaid bonuses etc..). Nothing was done to prepare the players to be in good condition before the World Cup and unsurprisingly the competition was a disaster for the team. Three games — three defeats. In comparison, four years later in 2010 the neighboring Ghanaian national team failed in an epic penalty session in the quarter final after a very good preparation.
The second date, January 8th 2010, was the date that the bus carrying the Togolese National Team was ambushed by machine guns in the enclave of Cabinda during the African Nations Cup.
Whereas all of the otherfederations took the necessary actions to ensure that their teams would fly over the Cabinda enclave and not drive through, the Togolese federation decided to make the team travel through the danger zone by bus. The result: 3 people died, 9 people were injured and the federation as always acted with plenty of class by leaving the goalkeeper of the team, Kodjovi Obilalé, who was injured during the attack, to face his destiny without any assistance.
Hospitalized in South Africa following the attack, it was fellow player SheyiAdebayor who provided the special attention to bring Obilalé’s mother to South Africa to be with her son, something that the federation did not consider doing naturally. Due to the complications linked to his injuries it was established that Kodjovi Obilalé would never recover the full functionality of his legs, a fact that forced him to prematurely end his career. Besides Sheyi Adebayor, few kind souls like Samuel Eto’o would provide financial help to Obilalé whereas the Togolese federation still pretended to not owe him anything.
The third and last date was September 7th 2010. Whereas the national team played a qualification game on September 4th in Botswana for the African Nations Cup in 2012, a friendly game was organized against the Bahreïn selection on September 7th. Not worried at all about the proximity of these two dates, some people working for the federation or previously part of the federation sent a team of players to the match who were not even Togolese in order to ensure the federation received the $200,000 USD payment for the match. It’s no surprise that the fake Togolese team lost the game 3-0. But this time, by losing with such a high level of trickery, the world started to think that the joke had become too big.
And how to not ask questions when the Togolese federation has been able to organize a first league championship during the last two years but nonetheless received funds from the FIFA through the intermediary of “FIFA Goal Project”(2). Lacking the opportunities that a decent league is supposed to provide, the young Togolese football players try to find by themselves a door that will help them to demonstrate their talent and leave their country.
The youth selections should help in that sense but again chaos rules. The federation does not track the young talent present in the Togolese territory. So each time that a youth selection is supposed to start qualifications in order to participate in a competition, extremely brief scouting days are organized to detect talent. One of the problems is that even before the beginning of these detections some players are guaranteed a place in the selection based on criteria which do not involve only their soccer skills (powerful agent, important family). Another fact is that some players live in areas where the roads are in very bad shape, causing them great difficulties in their attempts to attend the detection days. The end result is often that the final team that is assembled is not the best one that the country can offer.
In front of this sadly comic situation, the Togolese too often must hustle as best as they can to fight against destiny and its projects. This principle is symbolized by the fact that the Togolese have been kept alive by small clubs that lack money but are full of volunteers with patience and energy.
AC Merveilles football club is a good example of this reality. Highly passionate, but with an obvious lack of financial resources, this club located in Lomé tries to help the Togolese youth to develop their talent hoping that they will have the chance to take the direction of the European leagues and/or African leagues of a high level.
In addition to the structural difficulties of Togolese football, the small clubs such as AC Merveilles have to deal with the greed of unscrupulous agents. In my brief discussions with the club’s leadership, they too quickly reveal stories of dream sellers coming from time to time, promising success and glory to the most gifted kids.
In the best case, the story stops there but in the worst case, these crooked agents go until the point to bring some of the kids abroad (to Cameroon, Nigeria) but do not pay the kid’s trip. Instead, the family has to take on this big responsibility. Once the tests are finished and if the results are not the ones expected, these agents generally disappear as quickly as they first appeared.
In Togo right now many Hawks are waiting to take off and spread their numb wings. With their eyes glued to the screens showing the Europeans games week after week, they look to their African brothers who have made it in Europe. Seeing them from time to time during the games of the national team, they observe them, they watch them hoping that one day they will also have the chance one day to return home with this feeling of accomplishment by looking back and thinking about the dusty playgrounds where they learned the skills that helped their family to escape the misery.