While undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, Emmanuel Adebayor showed in Togo's opening two games at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations the attributes that once made him one of the continent's top players. Having enjoyed a career spanning 15 years at the highest level, the veteran striker is currently a free agent and will have impressed watching clubs with his performances in Gabon.
After being released by English Premier League side Crystal Palace at the end of last season, Adebayor was close to returning to French Ligue 1 with Lyon. However, his intention to represent Les Eperviers at the Cup of Nations did not find favour with the French club and they decided against offering him a contract.
This left the 33-year-old without a club, and although he has kept fit by playing in informal matches back home in Togo, he decided that this would be insufficient preparation for Africa's top competition. “If I feel that I am not ready to go to the competition, I will not," he said in November. "This is a national team and it must go to the Africa Cup of Nations with players who are fit and ready. Maybe I will go to support my team-mates, but not to play.”
Yet, such is the standing of the former Arsenal, Manchester City and Real Madrid player within the national team that coach Claude Le Roy not only called him up for the tournament, but gave him a place in the starting line-up - not to mention the captain's armband. And although Togo failed to win either of their opening two matches – drawing 0-0 with Côte D'Ivoire and losing 3-1 to Morocco - Adebayor played a big part in keeping his team in contention for a place in the next round ahead of their final group match. Les Eperviers go into that game, against Congo DR, knowing that a two-goal win will see them through, irrespective of the outcome of the other match.
Appreciation from all quarters
The goalless draw against Les Elephants, in particular, showed why Le Roy was so eager to have Adebayor in the squad. Belying his age, the striker put in a tireless performance full of powerful running, reminding not only the small number of Togolese fans in the stadium of the qualities that saw him become the African Footballer of the Year in 2008, but the entire crowd. When he was substituted with a few minutes remaining, fans from all sides applauded.
Le Roy, for his part, was in awe of his captain's inspirational performance. “He came back from nowhere and his performance was unbelievable," said the Togo coach. "He takes the ball and gives us a lot of solutions. He is very important for us. He gives us a lot of confidence, and the opponents are always scared of him.”
Adebayor's influence within the team also extends far beyond the field. “I am the one who makes jokes when it is necessary, but I can also put my foot down if serious work is required,” he explained.
While he is recognised as the team's leader by his colleagues, his insistence on never shying away from speaking his mind has not always gone down well with officials. “My father taught me to always say what I think," he said. "At times, that can lead to problems, but I always sleep well.”
Even without a club, Adebayor cuts a contented figure. “Why should I not be happy? I was in Cabinda in 2010 (when three people were killed in an attack on the Togo team bus ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Angola). I could be sitting in a wheelchair or be dead and then nobody would be thinking of me. But now, I am here in Gabon and playing at the Africa Cup of Nations. Surely, that is enough luck?”
The striker's performance in Gabon will not have gone unnoticed, of course, and he admits to dreaming of a return to the English Premier League. “I am confident that I can still play at that level. I am blessed with golden genes. Physically, I would certainly be able to handle the pressure.”
At the moment though, his sights are set solely and squarely on helping Togo reach the next round in Gabon. He is upbeat about their prospects as well, saying: “I am looking forward to our last group game and I have a feeling that it will not be our last in the competition.”