PARIS (AP) – Of all the players Manchester City recruited to build a team capable of challenging at the very top, the signing of Yaya Toure made the biggest statement of them all. Signing a player in his prime, who had experience winning the Champions League with Barcelona, felt like a massive message.
City were so intent on attracting a player like Toure, they shattered records to produce a salary package that hit a reported 350,000 dollars per week. It makes him one of the best-paid players in world football. There had certainly been nothing quite so eye wateringly expensive ever before in the English game, and many a critic lined up to declare such a sum was obscene.
There is a lot of talk about money when it comes to football, and about Manchester City in particular these days, considering how extravagantly they have benefitted from their benefactor in Abu Dhabi. But in the past couple of weeks, as City close in on their first title in 44 years, the club's faithful followers have been pretty clear: they don't give a hoot if a player cost a dime or a billion. Whatever Yaya Toure has in his bank account, City would argue he is worth it after delivering the goals that took his team to within touching distance of the Premier League trophy.
Two beautifully struck goals at Newcastle, in a match that promised to be so challenging, prompted euphoric scenes. City fans could be forgiven for going sentimental given the years of disappointment that had long felt like City's lot in the grand scheme of things. Plenty wept openly at St. James' Park. The man himself took it all in stride.
Gnegneri Yaya Toure was born in Bouake, the second largest city in the Ivory Coast. He joined the fabled ASEC Mimosas Academy at the age of 13, and when he reached 18 he was transferred to a modest club in Belgium, Beveren, who had a partnership with ASEC. Players moved from the Ivory Coast to Beveren on a kind of conveyor belt. The club was, in theory, their stepping-stone to the major leagues in Europe. At one point, Beveren played with a team that was almost entirely Ivorian.
Beveren also had a connection with Arsenal, and Toure was watched closely by Arsene Wenger, who invited him for a trial at the club in 2003. "Yaya Toure played for us in a pre-season game as a second striker and he was completely average on the day," the Arsenal manager recalled recently with a wry smile. Toure missed the best chance of the game, and returned to Belgium.
When Kolo Toure was a member of Arsenal's "Invincible" team, the class of 2004 who went an entire Premier League season unbeaten, he used to freely admit that his little brother was a better player than he was. Most people thought Kolo was just being generous and humble. But it turns out, Yaya really is quite a stunning player.
There was always something intriguing inside that massive frame, but he needed patience before his talent could really blossom. He took the scenic route to the top. In a nomadic period, he moved from Metalurg Donetsk in the Ukraine, via Olympiakos in Greece, to Monaco in France. Though no heavyweight club had taken a chance on Toure during this span, in stepped Spanish giants Barcelona in 2008.
Despite winning the Champions League, two La Liga medals and a Copa del Rey, once Sergio Busquets emerged as Pep Guardiola's preferred choice in the defensive midfield role, it appeared to suit everyone when Manchester City turned up with a hefty offer. Barcelona made a profit of around 27 million dollars when they sold him.
Is Toure a defensive midfielder? Not exactly. That has been an extra bonus for City as they have allowed Toure to wreak havoc all over the pitch. His forward surges and his pure skill on the ball make him a terrifying man for the opposition to try and track.
A sign of his commitment was that he played for City less than a week after the Ivory Coast lost the final of the African Cup of Nations in February. It is not unusual for players to come back from that competition requiring a period of rest to recharge their batteries, or looking jaded. Not Toure.
Roberto Mancini had taken him to one side before City took on Newcastle. "He was saying I have to deliver, because it's an important game with important players," explained Toure. "I always believed I came to this club to make a story."
Toure has become a protagonist with critical goals. He was the scorer who delivered City's first trophy under the current regime with last season's FA Cup. And now he has made the difference in a critical game in the title race. Yes, City needs to beat QPR next weekend to make sure, but even in this most unpredictable of seasons virtually nobody anticipates the Loftus Road gang being a road block.
"He is a fantastic player," Mancini said of Toure after his memorable pair of goals this weekend. "He has experience, he has won trophies at Barcelona, and he has brought that to us. We bought him for that reason."
Toure, the enigmatic talent who traveled around before finding the limelight, has become a giant in the Manchester City story.