x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pro League: Al Wasl's Achille Emana digs in his heels after poor Ahli stint

Ignored at Al Ahli, the Cameroon international is keen to revive career by proving his pedigree once again, writes John McAuley.

Achille Emana is feeling more involved at Al Wasl, with the coaching staff relying on him to play mentor to younger players. Jake Badger for The National
Achille Emana is feeling more involved at Al Wasl, with the coaching staff relying on him to play mentor to younger players. Jake Badger for The National
Achille Emana, showered and changed after Al Wasl's latest training session, strolls into the club's meeting room. Around him, teammates fill plates of food, dutifully stocking up after heavy labours in the April heat.
Although only recently a Wasl player, Emana and colleagues have clearly bonded: one is ribbed for blanketing his fare in spicy sauce - "ooooh no, too, too hot" jokes the Cameroonian, puffing out his cheeks - while Ahmed Ibrahim, the Iraqi defender, is duped into apologising for aggravating a shoulder problem borne from judo days long gone.
Bent double in mock pain, Emana erupts with laughter, Ibrahim joining him. His latest ally has always had a mischievous streak.
At 17 and with dreams of football fame and World Cup glory, Emana left his native Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital, to forge a career in Europe. Valencia, of Spain's Primera Liga, would be first to promise riches. The problem? His mother valued academics over artistry.
"After Roger Milla scored those goals at the 1990 World Cup, everyone started seeing football differently, thinking it could be a real life," Emana says. "But my mum kept saying one thing: 'go to school, go to school, go to school'.
"Then my grandfather said, 'if you need to go to football, go. I'll say you're with me. If your mother calls, I'll tell her not to worry, you're in school'. It was our secret."
The secret lasted two years.
"Then I called and said, 'mum, I'm here in Valencia. If you can come tomorrow, I'll pay for your flight. She said I was crazy, that she knew I was with my grandfather. But I said, 'tomorrow, you have a ticket for a flight. Come and I'll show you my house, all my things.'"
Predictably angry, Mother Emana soon came around. Her son, the eldest of three footballing boys and a dynamic attacking midfielder, had made it to the big time. Decision vindicated.
Valencia proved only a stepping stone, though. Having served as a youth-team player at the Mestalla, in 2000 Emana signed for Toulouse in France, and within 12 months was a regular starter. He quickly helped the club gain promotion to Ligue 1.
By now he was a full international, too. Yet, just as his prospects soared - Emana was linked with Marseille and Lyon - tragedy hauled him back to earth.
In the summer of 2003 and with his country contesting the Confederations Cup in France, Emana watched from the bench as Marc-Vivien Foe, a key component of the side, collapsed in the 72nd minute of the semi-final against Colombia. Foe, a powerful runner who at the time played with Manchester City, slumped in the centre circle; no one was near him.
"When I saw him fall down I thought nothing," recalls Emana, who was instructed to warm-up by coach Winfried Schafer. "Marco was so strong you'd never think he'd have a problem."
But the situation was grave. Not responding to attempts at resuscitation, Foe was stretchered off, medics spending 45 minutes trying to restart his heart. He was pronounced dead in the Stade de Gerland's medical centre, the cause later discovered to be a hereditary condition that increased in risk during exercise.
"When I was told he was dead I didn't believe it," Emana says. "It was very difficult to take, especially because the first time I was called up to the national team Marco was the one to take me and offer me water, to welcome me into the side.
"He treated everyone the same, like a friend. Never did he think 'I've money, I'm the big player here'. Never. If you needed to eat, Marco would share with you, eat at the same table as you."
Emana was an unused substitute in the final against France. Understandably, the occasion was wreathed in emotion, the action on the pitch limited. Both teams had made it clear the match should not take place.
"At the moment I heard he died, I cried and, of course, I didn't want to go to the final," Emana says. "But we played for Marco. It's still hard to speak about it because he was a very important person in Cameroonian football.
"He was a very, very important to me, too, like my father was to me, so I will never forget this moment. He may be gone, but always he stays in the memory."
Since then Emana's home - presently on Palm Jumeirah - has housed a portrait of Foe, at his brilliant best, in Cameroon green. It sits alongside photos of the Emana family: his two brothers, at 17 and 23 now professionals in Spain with Jerez and Real Betis, sister and parents.
His father influenced his future the greatest. Rene Emana had been a footballer of significant distinction in Cameroon, part of a special generation - one that included Milla - that took the Indomitable Lions to the 1982 World Cup the same month Achille was born.
As Achille began garnering attention in his teens, he was tipped to follow in his father's footsteps. The pressure to emulate Rene was great, particularly on debut against the Ivory Coast in 2000, when Emana was handed the No 11 shirt - the same his father wore with such repute.
"Imagine that," he says. "Lots of responsibility."
Although the son of a famous footballer, Emana never profited from his position. Quite the opposite.
"It was big problem for me, because every time I played people said it was because of him helping me," he says. "But he never did. I always told him I didn't need it. I wanted to be there, but to work hard and get there myself."
An international career that took root 13 years ago has stuttered despite appearances in African Cup of Nations finals and the 2010 World Cup. To this day, he has acquired only 40 caps.
Emana, often unhappy with bit-part roles, has 'retired' on numerous occasions, yet Rio 2014 now forms a definite target. He believes plying his trade in the distant Pro League does not harm chances, citing Asamoah Gyan, Al Ain's gifted striker and captain of Ghana, as an obvious example.
"Most people think when you come here your career's finished, that you just come to eat good food and enjoy life," Emana says. "But I train as hard every day as I would in Europe.
"It's important not only for me to go to the World Cup, but for my family and the team I play with. It's important for the team to have someone in this competition."
Currently, that club is Wasl. His path there has been varied. After more than 200 appearances for Toulouse, Emana moved to Betis, where he finished top scorer in his first season, often celebrating by donning a fedora handed to him by the supporters - a remnant from the days of Finidi George, the popular Nigerian.
However, the goals could not prevent relegation. While top stars departed, Emana was ordered to lead the fight back into the Primera Liga. It took two seasons.
By then, perspectives had changed. Used to generate revenue for fresh blood, in 2011 Emana transferred to Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal, although it was a largely frustrating time.
"The coach, Thomas Doll, had a problem with me," Emana says. "He'd leave me on the bench for no reason, or take me out of the group. I'd never experienced it in my life."
Off the pitch, he also struggled. Without those closest to him - family had swelled to include three daughters - and with promises they'd soon join him, Emana spent four lonely months in a hotel. By the sixth, provisions were made for a switch to the UAE with Ahli.
Initially on loan, he impressed enough to secure not only the Etisalat Cup in May, but a permanent, three-year deal. Then, at the turn of this year, things changed.
"On December 26 the club gave me an award as their best player of the first three months of the season, but a week later I was told I wasn't needed any more," Emana says. "They signed [Ricardo] Quaresma, a big player with good experience, and I was shocked. I'd enrolled my daughters in school here, but now they have to stay away. It's been a difficult time."
Ahli's loss has been Wasl's gain. Under Eid Baroot, Emana has re-established himself as one of the league's most influential players, carrying the Dubai club from a bleak existence into a new light.
"The players have big confidence in the coach, and he has a big confidence in me," Emana says. "Any time we have a discussion he tells me to help the team, help change the mentality.
"We've a lot of young players and the coach needs someone to act like a big brother, to give them encouragement. That's very important to me."
Emana, who in January rejected a transfer to Turkey, suggests he would like to remain at the Zabeel Stadium beyond this season, but admits his agent is "looking for other things".
"I told him not to tell me about anything because I don't want to disturb my mind," he says. "This club is one of the biggest in the UAE, the people here have a good heart and, if the president wants me to stay, it's very good for me.
"When I left Ahli it was really hard, but now I've forgotten it completely. I want to make a name in this team and help my teammates improve every day."
For that, they must endure his taunts and his tricks a little longer.

jmcauley@thenational.ae
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