Former Ivory Coast international Didier Zokora is one of the pioneers of the Elephants’ Golden Generation that eventually won silverware at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.
Although Maestro, as he is popularly known, was not a member of the Afcon-winning squad, he figures on a proud list of the footballers who kept alive the dream of making Ivory Coast a great nation of modern football.
At a young age of 14, he left his family and friends to study at the famous Abidjan-based Asec Mimosas football academy, which produced the likes of Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou.
“I spent five good years there, hardly seeing my family and learning football. It was tough, but our dreams to become professional footballers made the labour seemed less difficult,” Maestro told ACLsports in an exclusive interview.
Passing out as one of the best graduates, the now 37-year-old had mastered the basics of his defensive midfielder position, according him, and time was ripe to move on. He was among the first youths from the facility to sign a direct contract with a European club.
“I was very happy to join Racing Genk in Belgium. It was a dream come true. I was becoming a professional at last, after playing one season with Asec’s senior team in Abidjan during which we won the Caf Super Cup. It was as if everything was unfolding for me positively.”
Interestingly, it was at Racing Genk that Maestro scored his only two career goals. After four seasons in the Jupiter League, he moved on to Saint Etienne in France where spent two more seasons before making his big break to Tottenham Hotspur.
“When they came for me I was like wow, time to reach the top has come because every player’s dream then was to play in the Premier League. I felt honoured, not to mention the financial portfolio attached to the opportunity. It was awesome. I believe my work rate at the 2006 FIFA World Cup weighed hugely on the deal. I learnt a lot in the EPL. I thought I was solid enough but no, I realized I had to improve.”
While back home, many pundits were predicting a bigger breakthrough for Maestro from Tottenham, things slowed and eventually grounded for the Ivorian international.
After signing a fresh four-year deal at White Hart Lane in 2008, he barely kicked football there before transferring to Spain, joining Sevilla.
“My later days at Tottenham weren’t palatable. I think they were no longer interested in me. Not that I wasn’t good but when those paying you keep paying you and don’t want you to work, what would you do?
He later moved on from Sevilla to Trabzonspor in Turkey where he suffered racist abuse for the first time on the pitch, according to him. During a match against Fenerbahçe in April 2012, Maestro claimed midfielder Emre Belozoglu called him ‘a fucking nigger’, which sparked a nationwide debate in the country. Emre was eventually punished with a two-match ban by the Turkish football body.
However, the Ivorian still holds a positive view towards the people of that country, despite more reports of racism issues in football.
“I cannot say because I suffered such incident in Turkey the entire country is a racist country. Turkey is a great football nation and people out there love the game despite the colours of those playing it. However, some individuals out there need to grow up and understand the world. They must accept people from other cultures and regions, that is the way to becoming a great and diversified nation.
“I don’t have any grudges against Emre Belozoglu. I have long moved on from that incident. However, I would advise our young African brothers moving there to be careful but not afraid. They need to concentrate on the sport and shouldn’t be distracted by such incidents. It wouldn’t happen every day.”
Germany international Mesut Ozil recently announced his decision to quit the team, citing discrimination as reasons. Zokora, who spent three years in Turkey, where Ozil’s parents hail from, has his own interpretation of the situation.
“As for Mesut Ozil, I think the row about his photo with Turkish president shouldn’t have come up. I don’t see anything wrong there. Ozil is not a politician but a sportsman, and he is of Turkish descent, so having a pose with an official of that country is just normal. He should be judged by his performance on the pitch and not by a mere photo he took with somebody,” he said.
“Well, it is very contrasting now. Some people are accusing Turkey of racism, whereas the authorities of that country are accusing Germans of racism towards Ozil. How do you equate that? I think criticisms that goes beyond the pitch towards a footballer is uncalled for. Hit him for what he did or didn’t do on the playing field and spare him for good when the game ends.”
Maestro has returned to his homeland Ivory Coast where helps in the development of grass roots football, in his capacity as administrator of one of the local topflights called AFAAD.