Freddie Kanouté: the languid striker who became one of Europe’s deadliest

Freddie Kanouté: the languid striker who became one of Europe’s deadliest

As much as he’d like to deny it, Harry Redknapp’s reputation as a wheeler-dealer is well earned. Harry always had a predilection for desperately rifling through the bargain bin of the transfer market, but his time at West Ham was particularly egregious when it came to signings. A quick glance at Redknapp’s record during his time in east London at the turn of the century reveals a patchwork quilt of despair.

Among the more prominent members of that (not so) carefully curated rogue’s gallery are Paulo Futre, who spat his dummy out and kicked off because John Moncur wouldn’t give him the number 10 shirt; Florin Răducioiu, Romania’s Euro 96 star striker who spent a year picking splinters out of his arse on the bench as sentient elephant seal Iain Dowie was deemed a better option; and, of course, renowned caravan-dweller Marco Boogers.

Harry did, occasionally, manage to find some players who were worth taking a punt on, however. By the end of the 1999/00 season, West Ham were a bit short on numbers upfront and Redknapp somehow managed to convince Frédéric Kanouté to sign for them, initially on loan. Kanouté had been a promising youth prospect for his hometown club Lyon but had found the step up to first-team football steep and at the age of 23 needed a change of scenery.

Looking back, it’s odd to behold Kanouté in his youth. He’s one of those guys who looks so good with a beautifully shiny bald head that seeing him with any hair at all is jarring and when he signed for West Ham he immediately appeared slightly out of place – all cheekbones and jawline and exuding an air of impossible Gallic charm, contrasted with West Ham’s ramshackle squad of journeymen misfits and shiny-faced youngsters.

Imagine Kanouté turning up at Chadwell Heath for his first day of training. Imagine how he felt when he sat down in the changing room and was subjected to the unintelligible garbling of pasty midfield goblin Steve Lomas for the first time. Imagine the look on his face when he rolled a simple five-yard pass to Neil Ruddock, decked head-to-toe in XXL FILA gear, and watched as he took a lumbering first touch and proceeded to try to murder one of his teammates with his own shins. Imagine the bollocking he gave his agent on the phone when he got home. Imagine.

Still, things weren’t all bad. The striker’s ability wasn’t entirely incongruous at the Boleyn Ground as, alongside the emergent talents of Michael Carrick, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard, the trickery of Trevor Sinclair, and the elemental force of Paolo Di Canio, a bright new era for West Ham seemed imminent at the start of the new millennium.

Kanouté endeared himself instantly with a debut goal and his contributions helped his new team finish a creditable ninth in the table. When they ditched Paulo Wanchope over the following summer, the club clearly felt the loanee had shown enough in his handful of appearances to warrant a longer deal, so they signed him permanently.

With ‘Arry a strict adherent to the early-2000s 4-4-2 dogma, Kanouté spent most of his time up top with Di Canio, and it was as part of this duo that he began to really make his mark. He was the calculated, nuanced ego to Di Canio’s tempestuous, unrestrained id; when the pair found the right balance, they caused all sorts of problems. They elevated each other, too. Alongside the Italian, Kanouté had two consecutive seasons as West Ham’s top goalscorer (with an admittedly modest 11 goals both times), while Di Canio enjoyed some of the most productive goalscoring seasons of his career with the big man at his hip.

There was almost always an elegance to watching Kanouté play, a grace to the way he shifted his weight and carried himself, gliding across the pitch, his studs barely leaving an imprint on the turf, despite his long limbs and gangly frame. That languid fluidity manifested itself in the way he used the ball, too – a pass deftly flicked round the corner, a near-post finish caressed past the goalkeeper, a delicate piece of control with his back to goal.

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He wasn’t the most natural of goalscorers but that unflappable composure and slick movement in the box meant that the goals would come if a claret shirt could find him. But frequently they couldn’t – that ability to elude defenders all too often extended to his teammates – which allowed matches to bypass him almost entirely. Fredi was a player to embroider and decorate games, not grab them by the scruff of the neck.

There were some especially good days at the Boleyn, though. A hat-trick of assists against pre-petrodollar Man City, featuring a jinking run down the right side of the box, cruising past players with his rubber band legs, before dinking the ball up for the greatest of indignities for City: a stooping Ian Pearce header. The opening goal, a first-time shot finished with a flourish, and an elegant, reclined posture, in a draw with Arsenal. A crucial second goal against Chelsea to secure a 2-1 victory – scored by mugging off Yung JT, evading his lunging tackle with the most basic of sidesteps before drilling a low shot from the edge of the box past tubby Aussie coke fiend, Mark Bosnich, into the bottom corner.

And everything seemed to be on an upward trajectory until the disastrous 2002/03 season. That Too Good To Go Down™ side garnered a lot of attention, for a variety of reasons, but Kanouté became the forgotten man. He wasn’t part of that laughably terrible back line (James, Dailly, Breen, Brevitt) or a player with cult hero status (Repka, Di Canio) nor a member of Tony Carr’s golden generation of youngsters (Cole, Carrick, Johnson, Defoe), so he faded into the background somewhat. Although some of that was due to a groin injury, which left the striker on the treatment table for four months and limited him to just 12 starts and five goals as his side were relegated.

That absence opened the door for Jermain Defoe, who grasped the opportunity to dislodge his fellow forward, meaning Kanouté’s time on the pitch was restricted when he returned from injury. That was partially a product of their differing styles; at the time Defoe was a boisterous, disruptive presence, whose energy meant he had a more tangible contribution to fans. He’d gladly pursue lost causes, pester defenders, and scamper after Gary Breen’s aimless diagonals, while Kanouté’s more phlegmatic approach saw him attempt to vex defenders by drifting deeper or to create space for his teammates with intelligent movement.

Unfortunately that’s more difficult for supporters and managers to appreciate when you’re that deep in the shit. When you’re circling the Premier League drain, a nippy young striker who will chase crisp packets for you will always be the more popular option.

West Ham were flushed with a record points tally for a relegated side and a fully fit Kanouté for more of the season might have saved them, but there was little time to contemplate that as he was quickly off to Spurs.

It was a case of another quick start for the striker as he came off the bench to bag the winner for his new side against Leeds. With his back to goal, he cushioned the ball out of the air before contorting himself in some sort of squat-pirouette, swivelling and dispatching his shot in one movement. A few games later, he added an absolute peach in an emphatic win at Goodison Park by ruthlessly slapping home a swirling, dipping 30-yard drive after a headed one-two with Gus Poyet. Things seemed to be going smoothly but, by January, there was a sizeable spanner in the works.

A new FIFA statute was introduced which meant players could change the nation they represented internationally as long as they hadn’t already played for another nation in a competitive game; it’s this ruling that allowed Diego Costa to play for Spain despite turning out for Brazil in a couple of friendlies and, more recently, allowed Wilfried Zaha to swap allegiance to the Ivory Coast.

That meant that Kanouté, who had been capped by France at under-21 level, was eligible for Mali through his father. The West Africans didn’t hesitate and immediately called Kanouté into their squad for the impending African Cup of Nations in Tunisia. Needless to say, Tottenham weren’t too happy that their new centre-forward was ditching them for a month in the middle of the season.

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David Pleat was particularly incensed. Tottenham’s seemingly perpetual caretaker manager had been installed until the end of the season after Spurs binned Glenn Hoddle for picking up four points in their first six games. Ever the diplomat, Pleat barely managed to disguise his contempt when he was asked about Kanouté’s decision: “He’s 26, he’s a man, he has his own views. I don’t know where Mali is; I’m going to have to ask someone. We signed him as a French international. We didn’t sign him as a Mali player. This is the point.”

Unsurprisingly that didn’t go down well with the Malian FA, and Pleat’s remarks – coupled with Tottenham’s decision to properly throw their toys out of the pram by putting in an appeal to FIFA seeking confirmation that he was truly eligible to switch allegiance – caused a fairly standard club versus country row to take on a bit of an ugly tinge.

To make matters worse, shortly before leaving for Tunisia, Kanouté bagged a hat-trick in an FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace, as if to demonstrate just what his club would be missing out on. Regardless, away he went, leaving Spurs in the lurch.

The 2004 AFCON was a successful debut tournament for the forward as he nicked goals in group games against Kenya and Burkina Faso, as well as in the quarters against Guinea before Mali were soundly pasted 4-0 by Morocco in the semi-finals. Although his team fell at the penultimate hurdle, Kanouté picked up the golden boot for his tally of four goals and left North Africa in better form than he arrived in.

It heralded the start of an impressive international career – considering his late start – but it soon became clear that his desire to play for Mali had caused his relationship with Tottenham to sour considerably.

When he returned, he found that net-bothering goal imp Jermain Defoe had been signed to fill in during his absence, following Kanouté’s footsteps from east London to take his place once again. The second half of that season proved difficult, as he struggled to build bridges with the club and failed to reclaim his place as first choice striker. With his time on the pitch limited, he failed to build on his positive form for his nation and didn’t score a goal after returning.

His former strike partner’s arrival at White Hart Lane threw an aspect of Kanouté’s early career into sharp relief: he was always the other man.

Even an impressive debut performance in England couldn’t afford him centre stage. He made an instant impact, appearing like a claret blur as he dashed his way around the pitch and he managed to grab himself a goal in a game against Wimbledon on 26 March 2000. That date alone might not mean much to you, but you’d instantly recognise the other goal the Irons scored that afternoon and understand how it underscores Kanouté’s status in English football as the bridesmaid but never the bride.

The winner from that game is a goal that requires italics. That goal. The best ever Premier League goal. Di Canio’s kung-fu-inspired, scissor-kick thunder bastard at once ensured the Italian the undying adulation of the Boleyn Ground fans, cemented him a permanent place on episodes of Premier League Years for the rest of eternity, and robbed Kanouté of the headlines his performance deserved. The West Ham fans might have been filling the air with chants of “sign him up” during the match, but afterwards all anyone remembers is Paolo.

On the face of it, the move to Spurs freed him of the constraints of his more popular colleagues and allowed him to join a side that lacked a bit of star power – one where he could establish himself as the main man. That proved to be short-lived. His decision to play for Mali gave Defoe another opportunity to usurp his position and, when he returned from Africa, he was forced to content himself with sitting on the bench plucking his second fiddle. It was the second time the younger player had shunted Kanouté to the sidelines, but Jermain wasn’t the only one undermining his position.

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By 2004, Thierry Henry was already casting a long shadow over North London from N5. Henry was already a World Cup winner and had played a pivotal role in France’s Euro 2000 win. He’d claimed a league and cup double with the Gunners, before adding a second FA Cup to his collection in the season that West Ham were relegated.

The Frenchman was coming off the back of consecutive thirty goal seasons and, at the end of Kanouté’s first campaign at Spurs, he’d made it three in a row, scooping the European Golden Boot award as Arsenal went through the season unbeaten. Therefore, when Tottenham signed a 25-year-old, then-French striker – who bore more than a passing resemblance to Henry –  Kanouté was always going to suffer by comparison.

But the connection between the two goes back much further than that, much deeper than the uncanny physical similarity and the shared good looks. Born just two weeks and 300 miles apart at the end of the summer of 1977 to families from opposite ends of France’s colonial reach – Henry’s father was from Guadeloupe, Kanoute’s from West Africa – Thierry and Freddie are almost exact contemporaries.

Their early careers echoed each other, learning their trade at French clubs with respected academies and both playing youth level international football for the nation of their birth. At that point, though, they diverged rapidly, with Kanouté’s career becoming a distorted version of Henry’s; a reflection seen in a hall of mirrors.

Henry won Ligue 1 with Monaco, transferred to Juventus, and found himself integrated into the national team during their finest hour in modern football. He scored twice in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup on home soil, as well as scoring a penalty in the quarter-final shootout with Italy, and then, two years later, scored four goals, including a crucial strike against Portugal in the semis, as France won back-to-back international competitions.

Kanouté, meanwhile, had struggled to consistently play first team football for Lyon and failed to make an impression in the handful of under-21 internationals he featured in, while his more illustrious counterpart was off locking lips with the Jules Rimet trophy. They only played one youth international together, in the second leg of a qualifying round play-off for the under-21 European Championships in 1999.

The team sheet for that game is brimming with big names of the future: Gattuso, Ambrosini, Zambrotta and Pirlo for the Azzurri; Sagnol, Gallas, Kanouté and Henry for Les Bleus. The Italians ultimately won in extra time, but if you wanted any indication of the difference between the two strikers, you could simply look here: Henry scored inside the first minute of the game, while Kanouté was subbed off in the 85th minute with France in need of a goal to progress.

Their paths wouldn’t cross again for a few years until they both ended up in the Premier League. Henry arrived in London before Kanouté and the man from Lyon never had a chance to catch up with him. The comparison between the two was made explicitly – and perhaps inevitably after the new West Ham signing elected to wear the number 14 shirt – by the British press and Kanouté was touted for a potential France call-up during his good spells at the Boleyn Ground, although it’d never amount to anything concrete.

Perhaps it is an unfair comparison to make. Beyond the superficial similarities and oddly entwined careers, the two were fundamentally different players. Kanouté was a little bigger, a little bulkier and didn’t quite have that nightmare-inducing, dignity-stealing turn of pace that characterised Henry at his peak.

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It’s easy to understand why Thierry stood out more. He was more capable of floating wide to find space, of ghosting past defenders and of making his own chances, whereas Kanouté thrived more centrally and was more reliant on those around him, functioning as part of collective where Henry was more of a standout individual.

And, of course, the quality of those around them had its part to play. Henry glutted himself on the silver service provided by Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès and Dennis Bergkamp, while Kanouté had to subsist on the All You Can Eat For A Tenner buffet offered up by Trevor Sinclair, Michael Brown and Sean Davis.

Despite the significant points of departure between the two, there is still that undeniable duality. Perhaps more than the rest of us, footballers find themselves stuck in the realms of what could have been: their actions on the pitch have such immediate and direct consequences that it is easy to fall into contemplation about how different things could be. What if I’d taken that chance? What if I hadn’t made that transfer? Why didn’t I just foul him?

To have that hypothetical manifested so clearly in the career of another player in such close proximity to him must have been a source of frustration. There’s even a case to be made that the presence of Henry contributed to the way Fredi’s time at Tottenham collapsed; the lack of opportunity to play football for France caused the Spurs man to seek international recognition with Mali, which was the catalyst for the deterioration of his spell at White Hart Lane.

For his part, he was typically sanguine about his decision, citing the broader benefits he could bring to African football, as he told Gulf News: “I honestly don’t regret choosing to play for Mali as I saw the bigger picture. I hav  been a fan of African football and I wanted to bring something back to Mali and participate in the development of their football. In that way, what I could have brought to France was actually quite limited.

“Today when I go back to Mali, the way I am received and the way doors are opened for me, I wouldn’t have got that in France. Playing for France would have given me more exposure to possibly go on to play for bigger clubs but helping football get better in Mali was the best thing for me.”

It might have been for the best that things didn’t work out for him at White Hart Lane. He was there during the peak “Lads, it’s Tottenham” era and he sort of embodied that; a silky, urbane, mildly injury prone, technically astute player who went a bit missing when things got a bit rough and perhaps didn’t have an elite, win-at-all-costs mentality.

A succession of overwhelmingly mediocre managers didn’t help matters. He signed for Glenn Hoddle and made appearances for David Pleat, Jacques Santini and Martin Jol – a list of names that reads like the least charismatic line-up going on the after dinner circuit. You try banging in 20 goals a season when all you’ve got are Martin Jol’s jowly, guttural grunts to motivate you.

Although he mentions the idea that playing for France could have granted him the chance to play for a bigger club, choosing to play for Mali – in a weird sort of way, courtesy of Henry’s excellence – resulted in the move that revolutionised Kanouté’s career. A second, unspectacular season at Tottenham came and went but by the start of the following season, he was on the move to Sevilla.

Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo – Monchi to his mates – is probably football’s worst kept secret. In the 17 years since the former goalkeeper was appointed Sevilla’s Sporting Director in 2000, he has overseen his club’s rise from the Segunda División to being perennial contenders for Champions League places and occasional title challengers. A lot of that success can be attributed to his efforts: in the 110 years prior to his appointment, Sevilla won four trophies; in the 17 years since, they’ve won nine.

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Throughout his tenure, he’s generated around €117 million in profit from the sale of players. An extensive scouting network picks up players on the cheap, polishes them up for a season or two, and then sells them on. He’s never bought anyone for more than €15 million, has sold Carlos Bacca, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Dani Alves and Kevin Gameiro for over €30 million each, and has sold youth academy products Sergio Ramos, Jesús Navas and José Antonio Reyes for a combined fee in excess of €75 million. He’s been something of a Rumpelstiltskin figure for his club – consistently spinning straw into gold.

Sevilla’s recruitment policy under Monchi has been predicated on finding players who are undervalued, both financially and personally. You need only look at some of their more recent signings to get an inkling of this: Samir Nasri, Stevan Jovetić and Steven N’Zonzi. All players who had been overlooked or underappreciated – especially after their time in England – and all of whom have flourished in the white shirt of Sevilla.

In this regard, Kanouté is a stereotypical and prototypical Monchi transfer: an obviously talented player who was going through an underwhelming period in his career. When he was brought to the Sánchez Pizjuán for €6.5 million in 2005 he seemed to fit right into Monchi’s Rescue Home for Unloved Players and would go on to become one of the Sporting Director’s greatest successes.

Something obviously just clicked. In the Andalusian sun, Kanouté was suddenly Vesuvian, going from long dormant to erupting goals. Admittedly, the first season yielded a modest league total as he acclimatised to his new surroundings and had to contend with Javier Saviola and Luís Fabiano for a starting place, but he blossomed in the UEFA Cup, bagging a pair of goals in games against Mainz and Beşiktaş in the early rounds and then scoring a vital equaliser and assisting Fabiano in a last-16 tie against Lille.

But it was in the final that he made his biggest impression. With Sevilla holding a precarious 1-0 lead over Middlesbrough, Juande Ramos made his move, bringing off Saviola and entrusting the Malian forward to see his side across the finish line.

Ramos’ trust was well placed. When Kanouté stepped onto the pitch, Sevilla hadn’t won a trophy in 58 years; when he stepped off it, they’d trounced their opponents and lifted a European cup for the first time in the club’s history. The striker had made a real difference, too.

A little over 10 minutes were left on the clock when Sevilla’s number 12 galloped into the box, onto Navas’ square pass and clattered a right-footed shot towards goal. The ball bounced back off Mark Schwarzer’s chest into the path of Enzo Maresca, who tapped the rebound in to curtail any hopes of a comeback. Maresca then doubled his tally before reversing roles with his fellow attacker in the 89th minute.

Hungry for the hat-trick, Maresca hit a trivela from the right side of the area that Schwarzer patted down into the centre of his six-yard box. Kanouté was the first to react, tumbling backwards as he knocked the ball in, gleefully hammering the final nail into Middlesbrough’s coffin. Maresca was named man of the match but he owed a debt of gratitude to Kanouté for that award.

It was the beginning of a habit of scoring goals on the big occasion. He’d go on to score once against Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup, a hat-trick against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, the winner against Getafe in the 2007 Copa del Rey final – pouncing on some hesitant defending on the halfway line and then surging forward to calmly slot the ball under the goalkeeper – as well as Sevilla’s second against Espanyol in the 2007 UEFA Cup, before going on to successfully score in the penalty shootout.

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Scoring in Europe would be a recurring theme of his time in Andalusia, registering frequently in both the Champions League and the secondary continental competition. During their successful defence of the UEFA Cup in 2006/07, he even had the satisfaction of netting in both ties against Tottenham in the quarter-finals.

It wasn’t just big occasions he dominated – it was big opponents too. In 15 games against Barcelona, he scored second times and in 15 against Real, he netted six. A previously decent scoring record suddenly became astonishing. He managed to get into double figures in every season but his last, to score 20 or more goals in four out of seven seasons, and to register double figures in the league in every season except his first and last.

Kanouté’s most prolific was his second season for Sevilla, where he scored 21 times in the league (30 overall) as he spearheaded a title challenge that would eventually fizzle out and see his club finish in third, just two points behind the big two. By the time he left in 2012, he’d scored 89 league goals, making him Sevilla’s top scorer of the 21st century – a record that is still intact five years later.

So, what happened? Why was he suddenly so effective? How did he go from being bang average to banging in goals? Was he just a late bloomer? It would make Kanouté an anomaly as players who fit into that category are usually those who have slipped through the net and only managed to make it into the professional game at a comparatively old age; there are few solid, mid-tier pros who suddenly develop into the one of the best players in their position in the world after the age of 27.

Was it a case of Kanouté being the genuine leading man for the first time in his career? With Saviola’s loan move expiring at the end of the 2005/06 season, Kanouté was able to claim a regular place in the starting line-up alongside Fabiano and was able to assert himself as a first choice player, as a focal point for his team, as a central, integral cog in the machine. Kanouté’s talent was always there, but perhaps it was latent as he had always been forced to complement his teammates rather than playing to his own strengths.

Was it the discovery of new-found confidence? Strikers, more than most other footballers, are labelled confidence players, depicted as psychologically fragile beings, players who trade exclusively in the currency of self-belief and can only be at their best when they’re fully assured of themselves. It didn’t ever seem to be an issue for Kanouté in England. In fact, he seemed at times he seemed to straddle, and blur, the line between supreme self-conviction and arrogance, which was the source of frustration for fans when he was having a lean spell – his ability to be unflustered was mistaken for not caring.

It might well have been a confidence issue, but rather for his teammates and his managers, rather than Kanouté himself. The Malian’s game didn’t drastically change when he moved to Spain. Instead he tweaked and adjusted it. There was more considered movement, more patience with being uninvolved in build-up play, and less of a tendency to go foraging for the ball – perhaps a product of knowing that his teammates were good enough to provide him with chances. In exchange for that belief, his teammates were assured of his ability to negotiate the penalty area to find space and to get on the end of their delivery. Maybe that’s what made the difference: the faith of those around him.

Or perhaps it’s simply the quality of those around him that made the difference. If you put a good player in the right conditions at a club where they are made to feel important, where they are loved, where they are happy, play them alongside talented teammates – and give them a good manager to oversee things – that player can thrive and succeed. Who knew? Football is a laughably simple game sometimes.

Since retiring, Kanouté has continued the charity work that consumed much of his free time during his playing career, as well as running a footballing consultancy. His charitable work has predominantly been centred around providing services to improve the circumstances for at-risk youth in Mali and has been largely informed by his faith; Kanouté has been practising Islam since his early-20s. He’s frequently spoken with clarity, compassion and eloquence about the necessity for footballers to use their public profile to promote good causes and engender charitable giving, going as far as to say that his philanthropic legacy is more important to him than his footballing one.

Fredi’s been a shining example to all players, both of how to use your influence off the pitch to impact the world positively and how there’s always another level to reach on it. Whatever the exact reasoning behind his resurgence, there’s no denying that Kanouté’s time at Sevilla represents one of the most staggering late bloomings, the most sublime metamorphoses, the most impressive career reboots, of the modern game.

By Tom Mason @Mase159

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