Has Yaya Toure's reputation been tarnished to the point of no return?
Manchester City hijacked the agenda on transfer deadline day, announcing that the departing Manuel Pellegrini would be replaced by Pep Guardiola. The Spaniard's impending arrival brings a range of tantalising hypotheticals into play and promises a dose of novelty which the Premier League has needed for some time.
It's a 'good news' story – everywhere apart from Old Trafford and, seemingly, in the world of Dimitri Seluk. Seluk is Yaya Toure's agent provocateur and he didn't need to be asked twice to speculate on his client's potential future under Guardiola. The current Bayern boss was the manager of Barcelona when Toure's exit from the Nou Camp was agreed in 2010. Six years later, it remains a strangely open wound.
Seluk confirmed that he expected his client to leave the club in the summer. Accompanied with a wink and a smile of someone who adores seeing his name in print, Seluk took a chisel to Guardiola's reputation.
"Barcelona win because it's like a big family, and their structure is an example for everybody," he said. "It's not a question of personnel. Luis Enrique has done the same as Guardiola. It's not possible to say forever that it's the team of Guardiola."
Seluk likes to talk. Every year he creates the same ambiguity around Toure's future
Seluk likes to talk. Every year he creates the same ambiguity around Toure's future. Journalists are called and interviews are given: his client is committed to Manchester City, but his head is there to be turned if the right deal presents itself. The Ivorian has arguably been the most important component throughout City's team during the Sheikh Mansour years and, like anybody with agent DNA, Seluk has used that value to his advantage.
This summer, it might be different. Toure remains an elite player, but he is beyond his athletic prime and his influence is undeniably starting to wane. Depending on the availability of other, younger, world-class midfielders, Seluk could well be singing his last song to the British press. If Toure wants to leave, City are likely to pave the way. Talk will then turn to his legacy: what has he meant to the Premier League?
Toure hasn't just frequently changed the momentum in games, he's consistently done so in spectacular ways at critical moments.
Toure has always been polarising. A unique midfielder with grace and technique which contradicts his size, he was a talismanic figure in each of City's two title triumphs.
Across those two seasons and beyond, other players have scored more goals and perhaps performed at a more consistent level, but few have demonstrated such an aptitude for nerveless brilliance in pressurised situations. Toure hasn't just frequently changed the momentum in games, he's consistently done so in spectacular ways at critical moments.
His place in the pantheon shouldn't really be debatable. Unfortunately, though – and as with several African players – the criteria by which he's judged seems to accommodate a series of unhealthy suspicions.
A languid running style lent itself to opportunistic criticism; his work-rate is always questioned, his effort levels are scrutinised, and any football-based criticism of him is never more than a sentence away from veering into character assassination. That's dangerous territory, because there has always been a palpable eagerness to make assertions about what motivates Toure and a need, during periods of fallow form, to tie under-performance to avarice. That those sinister attitudes exist is not the player's fault, but they have been made more credible than they otherwise might because of the actions of his representative.
An agent is employed to protect his client and to help monetise a short career. Seluk has enabled Toure to capitalise financially on his extraordinary talent and has secured a series of contracts which will allow the player and his family to live enviably for the rest of his life. In those terms, he has done his job perfectly.
Money the motivator?
He has clubbed footballs and caressed them, barged through defenders and pirouetted around them; really, it's been an enormous privilege to watch him.
The manner in which that has been achieved is regrettable, though. Seluk is an aggressive agent and someone who is evidently not afraid of using the media or the fans to create leverage.
Whether intended or not, he has not only corroded some of the goodwill that existed around the midfielder, but also helped to sustain the pejorative asterisks with which Toure is derided.
There is no real evidence to suggest that he is any more or less motivated by money than any British player.
Nor is there anything which implies that his application is defined by anything other than professional pride, yet the perpetual agitation to which he is connected has implied that there might be. It has framed his career with a distracting context and invited many to leave a degrading remark.
In retrospect, was all the public posturing necessary? The reputation of an iconic player should never be polluted as Toure's has. Admittedly, he sometimes hasn't helped himself.
His spotlight-stealing antics at this year's African Player of the Year ceremony were less than gracious and he is, after all, an intelligent adult to whom his agent is accountable – and, not incidentally, a parent who named his son Dimitri (yes, Toure's son is named after his representative). Toure has not been at the mercy of Seluk and is seemingly highly satisfied with his job performance.
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But that doesn't take away the regret. Football is a subjective sport, but what a shame it is that there has never been a consensus appreciation for his excellence. He has been – and remains – an extraordinary footballer, a one-of-a-kind midfielder who has, in six years, produced a whole range of moments which Premier League crowds had never seen before. He has clubbed footballs and caressed them, barged through defenders and pirouetted around them; really, it's been an enormous privilege to watch him.
But the more beautiful something is, the more attention is drawn to its imperfections. In time, maybe the association will fade and Toure will be remembered for what he gave to English football rather than for what he is so commonly accused of taking. For now, the background noise remains as audible as ever.
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