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African All Stars

Controversy aside, retiring Yaya Toure was a generational footballing icon

03:47 GMT+3 11/05/2019
Yaya Toure Manchester City
The Ivorian has called it quits, and despite a less than savoury ending, his legacy and unique blend of qualities will be appreciated more with time

 At the age of 35, Yaya Toure exits the stage a veritable legend of African football, a player who, at his very best, bent games to his will like few others.

Yet, in taking so long to arrive at the decision, in the drama, in his agent's lack of discretion, there might be enough of a cloud there to obscure what was a fantastic career.

In all walks, it can be a tricky business separating the artist from his art – and Yaya was an artist in the truest sense, capable both of jarring percussion and silky strumming – and so it proves for the former Manchester City man.

For all his achievements, his goals and his swagger, there is no proper sense of adulation attached to him, either at club level or internationally.

To focus on that would however deprive one of the true heft of his legacy, and perhaps he is one of those whose stock will rise even more as time passes.

When all the other stuff – the petulance over confectionery, the disdain for his African contemporaries, driving under the influence of alcohol, his impolitic lashing out at the Confederation of Africa Football – recedes in the memory, what will be left is the essence of a truly brilliant player, one objectively in the top echelon of Africa's all-time greats.

He remains, to date, the only player to be voted African Footballer of the Year four times in a row, almost entirely peerless in the early 2010s. Before that time, however, he had been in attendance as one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game – Barcelona’s 2009-2011 vintage – began an unprecedented charge to greatness, playing at centre-back in the 2009 Uefa Champions League final.

It was in Manchester that he truly began to show the full range of his technical ability. Sergio Aguero has that orgasmic moment of wild abandon against Queens Park Rangers in 2012, and David Silva’s metronomic brilliance has underpinned the club’s rise as a force in England, but it was Yaya who sent City on its way, crashing home the winner in the 2011 FA Cup final to bring the first piece of silverware for over three decades.

In that sense, an argument can be made that there has been no more influential player in sky blue this side of the millennium. That duck broken, the club could then begin to aspire to bigger things.

But beyond being merely the symbol of their new estate, Yaya played an even more prominent role in establishing the club at the top, starring as City clawed back an eight-point disadvantage to win their first title in 44 years in 2012, before then equaling the record for the highest goal-tally for a midfielder in Premier League history, with 20 in 2014.

The finishes were as diverse as they were eye-catching: free-kicks with remarkable top spin, lolloping runs from the middle of the pitch, curlers, headers, goals swept home from right around the penalty spot. Having started out wanting to be a forward, before then being shunted further back to the point of playing as a centre-back, he seemingly had come full circle.

That 2014 triumph, however, proved an oddity in that it is arguably the one significant success of Yaya's career that feels absolutely his. It is a problematic concept in a team sport, but that title win, more than any other, had his stamp on it in an indelible, tangible way. 

As earlier stated, that first FA Cup triumph was more a symbolic achievement for City, and it is impossible to deny that the domestic cups have lost much of their cachet. Lay that at the door of modern football, and its economics.

Even in captaining the Ivorian side which finally ended the wait for an Africa Cup of Nations triumph, there was the sense that Yaya had begun the climb down from his highest level in 2015.

He certainly was not at his best in Equatorial Guinea, even as he scored in the semi-final defeat of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was overshadowed by Wilfried Bony.

Perhaps that explains why such an evidently great player can leave one feeling a little cold. There was a guarded quality to him, even in his best moments, that often saw him come across as difficult, and Dmitry Seluk's constant interference burnt more than a few bridges at Manchester City toward the end.

Notwithstanding, his was a rare enough mix of grace and power, capable of an incongruous gentleness – it calls to mind Stephen King's hero in 'The Green Mile', John Coffey – that does not come along often.

There will be other goalscoring midfielders, but none quite like Yaya.

It's not in the 'what', but in the 'how'.