LONDON -- None of the Tottenham players will be daunted by the prospect of Tuesday¹s eagerly-anticipated Champions League quarterfinal against Real Madrid. After all, three of its likely starting lineup have reached this stage of the competition before -- Heurelho Gomes (PSV), William Gallas (Arsenal/Chelsea) and Peter Crouch (Liverpool) -- while another six have represented their countries at major tournaments.
One of the latter group will be particularly relaxed: Benoit Assou-Ekotto never gets nervous before big games, only watches his future opponents in team meetings and has a bugbear about players showing too much emotion during matches (don¹t get him started on badge-kissing after scoring goals). He also admits that his peers take themselves far too seriously, and that he only plays soccer for the money.
That last revelation made headlines in the UK, when he told
The first reaction to his comments was one of shock. Here was a true mercenary, an embodiment of the ills of the modern game: does he not realize how lucky he is? Tottenham has 36,000 fans at every home game (it would be more, had the club been successful in moving to London's Olympic Stadium), most of whom would love to be in his position.
In truth, Assou-Ekotto shone a light on the nature of fandom, where fans think that if their heroes support the same team, they will play better or, and this is a peculiarly English problem, with more passion. One of his former teammates, Robbie Keane, has declared he was a boyhood fan of the last three teams he has joined, but it never helped him much (he keeps on being sold). The assumption that players are as obsessed by soccer as fans, is just that, and it¹' wrong. You may be good at your job, but you don't necessarily live and breathe it away from the workplace, do you? As Assou-Ekotto added: "If anything, I don't understand those who don't understand me."
And he does know how lucky he is. He used soccer to avoid a life of gang-crime growing up in Arras in northern France, and in February 2007, six months after joining Spurs from Lens, had a knee injury that threatened to end his career. "I was told I might never play again and that changed everything," he told SI.com one recent afternoon at his East London apartment. "It makes you realize how lucky you are, and to make the most of every moment."
His inscrutability on the pitch should not be confused with indifference. He does not argue with referees' decisions only because he has never seen them change their mind, and he has little time for those who do. "They are just doing it so the crowd see their reaction," he said.
But he does care. Assou-Ekotto played for Cameroon at the last World Cup, and was very upset last week when new coach Javier Clemente did not select him for its African Nations Cup qualifier against Senegal. The Cameroon FA overruled Clemente and called him up -- he played the full match.
He is also excited by the progress Spurs have made under coach Harry Redknapp, who described the 26-year-old defender as "a strange boy," only thinking about what music to play on his headphones as soon as a game is over. "Redknapp is cool," is the response. "This is an exciting time for the club and we are really enjoying the European matches."
The Champions League is where the left-sided partnership between Assou-Ekotto and Gareth Bale has really blossomed: the pair have combined brilliantly, notably in Spurs' 3-1 home win over holders Inter Milan in the group stages. "Bale is a fantastic player," he said. "He¹s also made it much easier for me, because if I give him a decent pass, I know he's going to get beyond his man." Spurs is sweating on Bale¹s fitness and probably isn't alone: Madrid¹s opposite pairing, of Sergio Ramos and Angel di Maria, won't want the Welshman to play.
And yet all the time, Assou-Ekotto keeps his perspective. "We footballers didn't invent the wheel and it's not open-heart surgery," he told So Foot. "You just kick a ball around -- it's hardly helping the world advance."
Just one thing: don't expect him to score on his first appearance in Spain, let alone the Bernabeu. The only goal in his eight-year professional career came on August 16, 2009, the opening-day of last season,