**Surely nothing beats being called up to play for your country. Beyond the obvious pride and prestige, for a foreign-based player, getting the nod from your national team coach usually entails a trip home – and the chance to catch up with family, see your old house and dive back into a familiar culture.
Few are the players who do not revel in such an opportunity, especially when 'home' lies a whole continent and thousands of kilometres away. Few, yes, but not all. Take Emmanuel Imorou, for example, who made his maiden appearance for Benin despite having never previously set foot in Africa.
That massive step into the unknown came in December 2009, when the then 21-year-old packed his bags for Cotonou and his greatest adventure yet. Born in the French town of Bourges to a Beninese father and French mother, the defender had precious little idea of what to expect as he embarked on his international career. "I touched down at the airport in a country and continent I didn't know," Imorou told FIFA.com.
"It was very hot and very humid. They took me to the hotel and on the way it was a total culture shock. I started to get a proper grasp of the country. For a start, the road isn't a road but a trail without tarmac. And the further we went, the more I got to see how poor the people are there. It was tough to begin with. Basically, I just felt uprooted."* *
As proud as he was to slip on the Benin shirt, the Caen left-back required time to adapt. Having spent his entire life in France, nothing had prepared him for this eye-opening experience. "I'd never been to Benin and I still don't have any real ties there," he said. "That's also why I'd taken my time before accepting to play for the national team."
First contacted by the national association before he even turned professional, Imorou needed to weigh up his options for a number of reasons. "I didn't feel ready to go to a country I didn't know, and I wasn't sure if I had a legitimate place in the team," he explained.
"But once I felt ready, had a starting place with my club and was well established, I felt equipped to make the step up. I don't regret having waited because any national team – especially an African one – comes with its own special circumstances, which can be very demanding. There are always problems that you just don't come across in Europe. You need to be mentally strong and mature to deal with that."**
Steep learning curve
One of the most flagrant contrasts between the two continents revolved around punctuality – and Imorou got a quick sense of the cultural difference during his first squad get-together, when Benin were meant to leave their hotel to travel to Angola for the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. "We'd agreed to meet in the lobby at 6.00 to go to the airport," he recalled.
"As someone who's very punctual, I strolled down at 5.45. Nobody was there – and nobody was there at 6.00 either, nor at 6.10 or 6.15. Time went by, but still nobody showed up. There were just two of us in the entire lobby. Everyone was still asleep, so I went back to my room, but I kept coming back every half an hour to make sure I didn't miss our departure. Still nobody came. In the end, we left the hotel at 14.00."
Imorou's introduction to Africa was about to take a far darker turn, however, and he was given a whole new insight when Togo's team bus was attacked in Cabinda, shortly before the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. "We were travelling when the shooting happened, so I didn't know about it until we landed and I saw worried messages from my wife on my phone," said the 27-year-old, his voice instantly more sombre. "We talked among ourselves and decided to stay and play the tournament, but we never left the hotel – except when we went to training or to matches. It was a difficult atmosphere."
The learning curve was equally steep when Imorou got his first sense of the passion felt by millions of Beninese supporters for Les Écureuils (the Squirrels). "Lots of people there live in poverty and it's tough to see that and accept it," he said. "It took me some time to adapt and understand it properly.
"I get the country now, though. When I go to the stadium and see it filled with all these people who don't have much and who cling to football, that's both powerful and captivating. I know what we represent for them and I try in my own way to help by giving out shirts – because it's the little things that make them happy – or by providing a little financial assistance when I can." **
Sights set on Russia
Of course, the greatest gift Imorou and his team-mates could provide their fans is a spot at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Benin face Burkina Faso in the second round of African qualifying, and although they will go into the tie as clear outsiders, they remain hungry to spring an upset. "We know it'll be very difficult, but a part of us says it's still possible," he explained. "Some lesser African teams have already gone through, like Togo and Angola in 2006. They managed to make it, so why can't we?"
Even recently, many of Benin's players would have answered that question by highlighting internal problems and never-ending organisational issues. For his part, Imorou remains optimistic, though he too has encountered obstacles. "There used to be no sense of unity in the national game with regards the international side," commented the former Braga full-back, who returned to France in 2012.
"For example, we never or seldom had friendly matches arranged during international breaks. It's tough to only meet up for the games that matter, because the players haven't developed a proper understanding. Also, there are often problems in terms of bonuses or plane tickets. Those might seem like little things, but they're important if a team is to be in top condition. When we join up with the national team, we do it to play football, not to worry about administrative problems."
The hope now is that at least some of those issues will recede with former Benin captain Oumar Tchomogo currently at the helm. "He knows African and European football well, and he's an important figure who has a voice in the federation and the ministry," noted Imorou. "That means he can represent us and say what we need. Things are improving and that's good because we have the players now to hope for a better future."
How bright that future could be remains to be seen. After already opening himself to new horizons once, though, Imorou will surely be hoping for another major culture shock – when he and his Benin team-mates first touch down at an airport in Moscow.