Assou-Ekotto: 'I am not just a footballer'
On the pitch, he is known as a combative defender whose marauding runs down the left flank have helped him establish himself as one of football's most enterprising fullbacks.
Off the pitch, however, Tottenham Hotspur left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto is far from your ordinary top-level footballer.
Opinionated and strong-minded, Assou-Ekotto's surprisingly candid views have often been at odds with the monotonous, if not pretentious, rhetoric that often surrounds the beautiful game.
The French-born Cameroonian international has famously admitted that he's playing the sport just for the money on offer. He's grabbed headlines by saying every player is driven by riches and has openly criticized badge-kissing peers of "hypocrisy."
The refreshingly open, yet soft-spoken, player describes football as a "very, very, very good job," but says there are more important things in life. He shies away from the celebrity lifestyle favored by many of his English Premier League colleagues and has few friends within football.
"For me it's very important to have a normal friend and not only friends in football because you can see the reality and the difficulty of the life, [which] you can forget as your job is a very good job," he explains.
Is he concerned whether some of his comments can be seen in a negative way? "I'm honest and I say what I think," says Assou-Ekotto, who is known as much for his frank comments as his eye-catching hairstyles. "If you don't like, I don't care -- I know how I speak maybe will not help me, but I don't care and I have too much confidence in me."
With a French mother and having grown up in the city of Arras, northern France, Assou-Ekotto, 28, could have played for the French national team.
But he turned his back on "Les Blues," opting instead to play for the country of his father's origin. He says he's no turncoat -- he just never had an emotional connection with Europe, unlike his strong Cameroonian roots.
"I have more feeling with Cameroon and Africa," he explains.
Assou-Ekotto says that his decision to play in Africa does limit his earning potential at club level in Europe. He claims African players don't earn the same wages as other players, partly because they have to play in the Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament, which is usually held every two years, takes many of the continent's top football stars out of action for their club teams at a critical period in the European domestic season.
"When you make a choice and play for an African [national] team, the football will be more difficult for you because you have the Africa Cup of Nations and there's not a club [that] wants their footballers to travel one month out in the middle of the season," he says. "A French player or an English player or a Belgium player or a Spain player would be all the time more expensive as an African player -- it's like that, it's a reality."
Yet, for Assou-Ekotto, the choice to represent Cameroon's "Indomitable Lions" was easy to make.
"I prefer to be proud to play for my country, even if my football will be more difficult, [than] to play for France and don't have a feeling," he says.
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Assou- Ekotto, who joined Tottenham from French outfit Lens in the summer of 2006, comes from a fine footballing pedigree. His older brother Mathieu played top-flight football in Belgium, while his dad, David, left Cameroon for France as a teenager to play professionally. Assou-Ekotto's footballing education came from watching matches with his dad, who was an astute mentor, passing on the nuances of the sport.
"Every weekend when I was about 10 I go with him to see football and to play football and then I said, it's a good job," remembers Assou-Ekotto. "I said, okay, I will focus only on the football."
Disinterested with learning in the classroom, Assou-Ekotto dropped out of school at the age of 16 to pursue his sporting ambition. But although his gamble has paid off, Assou-Ekotto says today he regrets not completing high school.
His view on the importance of education has prompted him to start BA32, a foundation promoting the idea of teaching youth in a practical and interesting way, focused on encouraging children across the globe to learn more about mathematics, science and technology.
"When I make this foundation [it] is to give the opportunity to a young boy to understand that the education and the school is very important because you know when you are young you don't see the real problems of the life; to sleep under the roof you have to pay every month," he says. "I think it is more easy to pay this kind of stuff when you are clever and when you have a good job."
Assou-Ekotto is keen for his philanthropy, rather than his sporting success, to be his lasting legacy.
"I prefer to be remembered about what I will do after football because every weekend about 40,000 people enjoy with me and my team but I hope to help more than 40,000 people after football over the world," he says. "People need help and that will be more interesting for me. People [will remember me] not just as a footballer, because I am not just a footballer."
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