To Ivorians he was "the Child of Mankono" or "The Dribbler". A few years later, his magical left foot earned him the nickname the "Black Diamond". Youssouf Falikou Fofana, the former leader of the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire and AS Monaco, is now the sporting director of ASEC Abidjan, the club where it all started for him. With FIFA.com, he looks back over his career, gives an insight into his current role, and talks with relish about Côte d'Ivoire's miraculous qualification for their first FIFA World Cup finals. Fofana remains as passionate and committed now as he was during his illustrious playing days.
FIFA.com: Côte d'Ivoire qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals when everyone had given up on them. Tell us how you felt.
Youssouf Fofana: We had a 10% chance of qualifying and we grabbed it. That's football! In sport, while you're still in with a chance, you've got to keep believing.
What will this qualification mean for Ivorian football and the country in general?
It is a joyful time for the Ivorian people - the first in a long time. I think it will enable the national team to move up to the next level by finally competing on the world stage. The players will benefit from the unprecedented media attention. The resulting increase in revenue will enable the Ivorian Football Federation to help the clubs. We also hope this success story will help bring an end to the political crisis the country is currently going through, which is badly affecting us all.
What contribution did Asec Abidjan, where you are sporting director, make to the qualification achieved by Côte d'Ivoire?
As a club which develops and supplies young professional footballers, Asec has done its bit. All the current national team squad came through the Asec system. We are very proud of them. This is the reward for the courage these players showed in leaving for Europe. They are a credit to our country. This success will encourage us to continue to develop and prepare players to compete at the highest level.
What must Côte d'Ivoire do to achieve success in the FIFA World Cup finals?
They must prepare well. Firstly there is the CAN in three months' time. We must approach it in the right frame of mind and look to get to the final. This is feasible with the players we have at our disposal. They must take this tournament seriously and believe that they can win it. The World Cup is in eight months, which gives them plenty of time to prepare. Anything can happen in the meantime!
What have you been up to since you retired?
I have been the sporting director of ASEC-Mimosas for the past four years. I am responsible for team signings. I try to instil in the young players here what I learnt in Europe. I enjoy my work. I try to do my best, but given the problems our country is experiencing, it's not easy.
You decided against a future in Europe and against a career as a coach. Why?
For an African playing in Europe, the first thing he thinks about when his career ends is to return home. Having spent years abroad, you miss your family and your country. When you are in your own country, you feel free and can do what you want. Elsewhere it's different. I therefore came back home and have made a commitment to my club. I'm happy here.
Indeed, ASEC Abidjan has been a constant in your life…
Yes, I began my career with them at the age of 12! I made my first-team debut at a very young age. I left for Europe when I was seventeen and a half. I didn't spend many years at ASEC because at 17 I was already in the junior and full international sides. It was easy for me to leave as I had already been spotted. I didn't have time to play for other Ivorian clubs, but, in any case, ASEC is the best club in Côte d'Ivoire (laughs)!
If you could relive your career, would you change anything?
You know, the '80's were a very different time. I spent eight years at Monaco - practically my entire career. I think that hindered me somewhat. If I could do it all again, I certainly wouldn't stay at Monaco for so long. I would have liked to experience other European clubs…
Let's move on to the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire. How would you compare your generation with the 2005 team?
We didn't have as many quality players as the current team, but we had whole-hearted, committed players with lots of desire. The current crop of players have a different mentality. I have the feeling that some of them think they have already reached the top of their profession, which is wrong. In football, you must never rest on your laurels. This was one of the strengths of the Cameroon side. The defeat we suffered against the Indomitable Lions was a lesson to both players and management alike. Jacques Anouma, the President of the Ivorian Football Federation, said after this defeat: "We have good players, but we don't have a team". The players realised that in sport nothing can be taken for granted and that you must constantly give of your best. They applied this adage in the final game.
Didier Drogba seems to have replaced you in the hearts of the Ivorian supporters. What are your views on him?
He's like a little brother to me. I met him when he was in France with his uncle Goba Michel, who played with me in the national team. When his uncle retired, we lost touch. He deserves his success because he's put in the hard work to get where he is. He has made a huge contribution to the national team's success. He is their leader. I hope he carries on in the same vein. I think he will. What I admire most in him is his humility. That's very important. He doesn't have a big head. I'm not surprised by his success.
How do you view African football at present?
Nowadays, all African national sides are made up of expatriate players. There are two types of football in Africa. On the one hand, there is international football and, on the other, the national championships, which is not of the highest standard. Most of the national federations focus their attention on the national side, where the players invariably play in Europe in various first, second or third division clubs. The federations concentrate all their resources on them to the detriment of the national championships. They overlook the fact that the expatriate players who play for their national side all emerged from teams who play in the national leagues.
And yet, when players are properly developed, results are achieved…
Yes, just look at Togo. Five or six years ago, no-one would have bet on them and yet they have just qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals. Even Cape Verde was at one point leading its group. The club directors are fighting to survive yet they help the national sides by bringing young players through. In Côte d'Ivoire, 70 to 80% of the players from the national teams, Seniors, Juniors and Youths alike, come from ASEC-Mimosas.
Following the final round of qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup finals, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, Angola and Tunisia qualified. What do you put that down to?
Those being touted as favourites at the start of the qualifiers, sides like Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria, failed to qualify. Nowadays, reputations count for nothing. It's what you do on the pitch that counts. The countries who qualified deserve their success. There is nothing random about football. Those countries prepared properly - simple as that.
You don't seem to have much involvement with football's governing bodies, such as CAF or FIFA, unlike certain former greats of African football. Why is that?
Without being in charge, I work for one of the great African clubs, ASEC-Mimosas. The rest is a question of time. You have to take one step at a time. At the moment, I'm involved in Ivorian football. I don't want to go too fast. If you're referring to my friends Abedi Pelé, George Weah or Kalusha Bwalya, I must point out that we're from different cultures. We have a French-speaking mentality, which is different to an English-speaking mentality. In Côte d'Ivoire, as in Senegal or other French-speaking countries, we are only just starting to bring former players into the national federation to provide assistance. We are still lagging behind in this respect.
What contribution can a former player make by joining the technical staff of the national team following his retirement?
You only have to look at the Cameroon national side. There are a host of former players working for the team: Abega, Milla, Omam Biyick, Bell, Nkono and Tataw for example. It is not the same with Côte d'Ivoire and this explains why Cameroon have achieved better results on a more consistent basis. Who's the coach of Zambia? Kalusha Bwalya. In Senegal, it's Amara Traoré. In Nigeria, you have Amokachi, Siasia and Eguavon. Every African national side has its quota of former players, not necessarily as coaches, but as assistant coaches or members of the technical staff. In Côte d'Ivoire, there's only Alain Gouaméné, who is the goalkeeping coach. This explains everything. Until we grasp this, we will really struggle. In football, you must appoint professionals who have served their time in the game, those who can really make a contribution to the national team. As former players, we have been involved in big matches, we can offer advice. We don't want to usurp anyone's position, but our experience could be useful. After all, it's in the country's interests that the national team prospers.