x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Benoit Assou-Ekotto is straight out of the left field

He plays for the money and drives a Smart car, Assou-Ekotto is not a typical footballer, writes Ian Hawkey

Tottenham’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto, right, is ‘an outstanding left-back’, according to his manager Harry Redknapp.
Tottenham’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto, right, is ‘an outstanding left-back’, according to his manager Harry Redknapp.

Just under a year ago, Tottenham Hotspur were being acclaimed across Europe as the club in possession of the best left-back in the world.

Gareth Bale, the Welsh express train, had just scored a hat-trick against the then title-holders, Inter Milan, in the Champions League.

Predictably, stories quickly appeared of imminent £40 million (Dh228.8m) bids for Bale, from Real Madrid; from Barcelona; from Inter themselves.

Bale remains at Spurs, highly valued, not quite as consistent or injury-free as would be desired of a 22 year old whose admirers claim him as the best in the world in his position.

There is a question, too, about what is Bale's best position. His glamour performances against Inter last October and November were produced from a midfield, or winger's, role.

That is where his career is evolving and where his speed and strength seem best utilised.

It also makes sense because of the balance of Tottenham's squad. Bale may or may not turn out to be the best left-back in the world one day. At the moment, he is probably not be the best left-back at his club.

That title, as more and more Spurs devotees will assure you, belongs to Benoit Assou-Ekotto, an important figure in the development not only of Bale, but of Tottenham over the past five years.

Beneath the eye-catching hairstyles, and the sometimes surprising candour of his opinions, is a skilled interpreter of the role of the modern full-back: tenacious in the challenge, quick to look for counter-attacking opportunities and with a strong burst of speed when required.

"He's an outstanding left-back," Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager, said.

Redknapp was saying similar things soon after his late 2008 appointment to a Spurs job that has had several different occupants during Assou-Ekotto's time there.

The player moved to London, at 22, in the summer of 2006 when Martin Jol was the head coach and Damien Comolli, the Frenchman, was the director of football.

Comolli had monitored Assou-Ekotto's progress through the youth ranks at Lens, where he made his French Ligue 1 debut just after his 20th birthday.

Two seasons later, Assou-Ekotto was being spoken of as a future France full-back, although with Patrice Evra and Eric Abidal established by then with Les Bleus as the main competitors for that role, it was assumed he might have to be patient. And it was widely assumed that his ambitions extended to representing France. A wrong assumption, Assou-Ekotto has since claimed.

His father is from Cameroon; his mother is from France, where he was born, in Arras, and although he was first capped by Cameroon only two years ago, he has insisted in interviews that, though he had a choice about who he would play for internationally, his instinct had always been the African country.

He told The Guardian earlier this year that at the age of 14, "I'd already decided I didn't have a bond with this nation [France]".

That is the sort of frank comment to a reporter for which Assou-Ekotto has acquired a certain fame. He is not a loudmouth, but when he does speak publicly, he tends to create quite a stir.

He is critical of what he has called "the hypocrisy" of many footballers in claiming long-term loyalty to clubs. He says he dislikes the ritzy nights out favoured by many of his fellow professionals.

He does not have many friends within the game, he says, although Queens Park Rangers' Adel Taarabt, with whom he shared the experience of an apprenticeship at Lens, is one.

He once told a newspaper he played football mainly for the money he earned from it, although he was careful to add that did not mean he did not enjoy the game.

He certainly grew up wanting to be a footballer; his father had played at a high level in Cameroon and his elder brother, Mathieu, now 33, has enjoyed a long career as a defensive midfielder around various clubs in France, Belgium and Holland.

Although the younger Assou-Ekotto appears settled at Spurs, he has had ups and downs.

Under Jol, with the team struggling, there had been difficult times. Under Juande Ramos, the following season, he was not the fixture in the first XI that he has become under Redknapp, who at one stage preferred Bale at left-back but concluded that the Cameroonian was the far sounder footballer defensively.

Last May, Tottenham fans voted Assou-Ekotto, and not Bale, their Spur of the Season. It is not quite their highest accolade - the Player of the Season went to Luka Modric - but it celebrates "effort, attitude and performance".