“He is more talented, but I am more competitive. I was a better runner. I worked hard. If he had my work [ethic], with his talent, he would win the Ballon d’Or.” These were the words of Kolo Touré, speaking to the BBC in March 2020, ruminating on the dual careers forged by himself and his dear brother Yaya.
The Ivorian’s candid reflection not only presented a perfect example of the honesty with which he has always viewed himself and his sibling and their respective attributes, but also provided a succinct summary of the key differences in the two brothers’ lives within football, painting a picture of Kolo, the hard-working one, and Yaya, the talented one. Kolo, of course, isn’t wrong, but there is far more to each of them, and their shared story, than just that.
The elder of the pair, Kolo was born in Bouaké, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, in March 1981, followed by Yaya, a little more than two years later. In addition to their sister, Aicha, the Touré boys also shared a younger brother, named Ibrahim, who tragically succumbed to cancer in 2014, aged just 28. He too was a professional footballer, a striker who played in his home nation as well as for clubs across Ukraine, France, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon.
Kolo’s footballing journey began in the early-90s, as a young teenager, picked up by Ivory Coast’s most successful and internationally renowned club, ASEC Mimosas. It was on account of his stocky frame combined with his raw speed and athleticism, and his notable commitment to all on-field endeavours, that won him a place in Les Mimosas’ revered academy; a fine footballing school that, over the years, would receive acclaim for honing a veritable abundance of Ivorian talents, inclusive of not only the Touré brothers but Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué, Gervinho and the Kalou brothers of Bonaventure and Salomon.
Yaya would swiftly follow in his brother’s footsteps just a few years later, similarly receiving his footballing education in the very same academy. For comparison, it was Yaya’s speed and strength and the sheer confidence he emanated in possession that persuaded the Ivorian club to induct him into their academy too, in 1996. Interestingly, though they’d make their names as a defender and a midfielder, respectively, the two both began life as forward-facing footballers.
The ASEC Mimosas academy in Abidjan was the brainchild of former French international footballer Jean-Marc Guillou, who joined the club in 1993 and simultaneously held the positions of director, manager, and club financier. His influence at the club was felt most keenly by its youths, as they flourished at the academy Guillou founded in partnership with the club’s chairman, Roger Ouégnin. When, in 2001, Guillou departed to become manager of Belgian outfit KSK Beveren, that link continued, its ambition growing alongside the fruits of its labour.
At Beveren, Giullou would routinely pluck the finest players from ASEC Mimosas and have them join him in Belgium, as a trial of sorts; judging whether or not the talents that made them shine in West Africa would be sufficient to see them make the grade in Europe. An established relationship with a certain Arsène Wenger – Guillou having hired Wenger as his assistant at AS Cannes back in 1983- would later see a succession of Ivorians join Arsenal that had at one time or another had come to the attention of Guillou. Kolo, however, required no such brief stay with Beveren in order to prove his worth to Arsène or Arsenal, as the tale of his legendary trial shows.
Invited to trial for Arsenal by Wenger, in 2002, Kolo took part in a match at the club’s training ground. As Ray Parlour recalled in a famous interview with talkSPORT, the trial would see a somewhat exuberant Touré crock not only Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp during the training game but Wenger too, as the Frenchman found himself on the wrong end of a two-footed Touré tackle. He was raw, a little reckless, certainly, but Wenger was enamoured by the enthusiasm of the Ivorian trialist and committed to signing him from ASEC Mimosas for around £150,000. It proved a masterstroke.
Yaya also trialled for Arsenal, a year after Kolo, representing the Gunners in a pre-season friendly against non-league Barnet. His performance was far from memorable – described by Le Professeur as “completely average” – though it didn’t detract from Yaya’s obvious aptitude.
Many falsely believe that Wenger passed on the opportunity to unite the Touré brothers at Arsenal but, on the contrary, it was solely work permit issues that hampered Yaya’s signing. For context, by 2003 Kolo had already racked up almost two dozen appearances for the Ivorian national team and had captained his country, meaning work permits provided no such issue. Yaya, meanwhile, was still a year away from making his international bow and so a switch to Arsenal was far from simple.
Eager to play, he opted not to wait for a work permit that may never arrive and instead took his talents to Eastern Europe; the younger of the two brothers endeavouring to make his name in Ukraine with Metalurh Donetsk, eventually ensuring Arsenal’s loss would be principally Barcelona and Manchester City’s considerable gain.
The Londoners would in time come to rue the circumstances that made the non-signing of Yaya Touré a genuine missed opportunity, though they’d undoubtedly get their money’s worth in Kolo Touré, a player who’d scale the English game, reaching heights even the most optimistic of Arsenal fan would scarcely have dared dream for the enigmatic Ivorian.
Touré began his Arsenal career viewed very much as a utility man, the 21-year-old able to function reliably in a number of positions; central midfield and right-back, most often. Wenger saw a budding centre-back in Touré, though, and slowly but surely aided the Ivorian in transitioning into the ideal foil to Sol Campbell, Arsenal’s rock at the back. Together they flourished, forming a formidable partnership that laid the foundations for Arsenal’s Invincibles season, remaining unbeaten throughout the 2003/04 league campaign.
Kolo would outlast his first defensive partner in an Arsenal shirt. As Campbell moved on to Portsmouth, Touré formed a first-thought unlikely kinship with Philippe Senderos and it was that particular duo that, in 2006, aided Arsenal in setting the Champions League record for most consecutive clean sheets; ten games without a single goal scored against them, encompassing 995 minutes total. Though he was to be denied the Champions League, losing to Barcelona in the final, he would eventually depart Arsenal in 2009 with his fair share of silverware to his name, notably a pair of FA Cup winners’ medals.
During this time, Yaya Touré found himself embarking upon something of a one-man tour of Europe that would eventually see him lay his hat in Manchester. Yaya impressed in Ukraine, earning a move to Olympiacos, after which he spent a single season in Monaco. It was then he was bought by Barcelona.
At Camp Nou, Touré would prove himself an integral cog in Pep Guardiola’s unstoppable tiki-taka machine that swept the continent, taking it for all it had, collecting an unprecedented sextuple across the 2009/10 calendar year. Though Touré was often played out of position – even being relied upon to fill the team’s injury-related gap at centre-back in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United – he did more than enough to stake his claim as one of the most feared ball-carrying, box-to-box midfielders anywhere on the planet.
Eventually, tired of being underused and underloved at Barcelona, Yaya swapped the Mediterranean for Manchester, joining the burgeoning Abu Dhabi revolution. And it was in Manchester that Touré hit his spectacular peak, adding pace, power and purpose to an ever-improving squad.
As the 2000s became the 2010s, Touré played his very best football, dominating the midfield in a fashion the Premier League had been denied the privilege of seeing since Patrick Vieira had departed north London. The image of Yaya reclaiming possession in the midfield, galloping into his opponents’ half, shrugging off half-baked tackles and attempted fouls, before reaching the edge of the area and deftly swathing a sweet, curled effort off of his right instep and beyond the grasp of the despairing goalkeeper is an enduring one. His opponents will tell you, it happened often enough.
At Manchester City, Yaya would not only play with his brother Kolo, a delightful throwback to their early days back home in Abidjan, but he’d also play against him for the first time. The two wore sky blue side-by-side for three years- as Yaya joined a year after Kolo and stayed for a further five seasons beyond his sibling’s exit in 2013- until the elder of the two elected to transfer to Liverpool.
On 1 March 2015, after what seemed like a lifetime gleefully chasing, supporting, and wholeheartedly encouraging one another, the two finally lined-up on opposite sides. On the day, Kolo’s Liverpool came out on top of Yaya’s Manchester City, claiming a 2-1 triumph.
Beyond their exceptional spells in English football, Kolo spent a single season in Scotland, winning a domestic treble with Celtic that came with the added bonus of being the Ivorian’s second unbeaten league title, while Yaya would eventually depart Manchester City, with a brief return to Olympiacos preceding a season’s sojourn in Qingdao, China.
At the time of writing, Kolo is currently a first-team coach at Leicester, supporting his former manager Brendan Rodgers, while Yaya is without a club having returned to England from China in August 2020.
When reminiscing over the Tourés’ time in Europe, it is hard to imagine many siblings having a greater impact or leaving a greater legacy than the brothers from Bouaké. Kolo’s move to Arsenal is hailed, to this day, as one of the most astute signings made by any Premier League manager, while Yaya remains one of the best players ever to grace the very same division.
Certainly, neither was the first Ivorian to depart their home in search of a football career on European soil, and neither of them shall be the last. What they are, however, are two of the most successful and enduring Ivorian exports, two of the most adored foreign players in Premier League history, and two shining examples- for any Ivorian, any African, any footballer from any nation- who showed precisely how to pursue a career worth remembering.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp