/ 18 January 2006

Togo’s secret weapon prepares for the limelight

Deep in provincial Germany, Mohammed Coubageat Sherif Toure has prepared hard for the biggest year of his life — the almost unknown centre-forward of the Togo national team will play in both the African Nations Cup, starting on Friday, and the World Cup finals.

Far from the gleaming stadiums of the major European leagues, Sherif turns out for SV Concordia Ihrhove, an amateur side languishing in Germany’s seventh division.

”Sherif is a treasure for us,” said Geerd Hundling, a member of the club’s board. ”The fans love him. I think 100 of them come just to see him play. And he’s a great model for the young players.”

Ihrhove are especially grateful to Sherif for not quitting a sinking ship when they were relegated for finanical reasons from the fourth division several seasons ago.

His 11 goals helped his club top their division at the halfway point this season.

Sherif first came to Germany in 1998 and has played for a wide variety of clubs, some grander than others.

Spotted by scouts playing for Togo against South Africa, he secured a trial with Bundesliga top-flight side Hanover when he was still 16.

He earned an amateur licence, then played three matches in the Bundesliga in the 2000-2001 season, but failed to break into the first team and was transferred to Ihrhove.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse shortly before joining up with his Togo teammates for the African Nations Cup in Egypt, Sherif admits it took him some time to settle in at the club, based in the town of Frise, home to 4 000 people in northwest Germany.

”It was hard at first. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t know anyone. But it’s better now. The people at Ihrhove are very good to me and everyone knows my name around here.”

While he has remained loyal to the minnows, the devout Muslim is praying that a good performance in Egypt and then in Germany at the World Cup in the summer can catapult him back into the big time.

”I think about it a lot. At Hanover I played alongside [German internationals] Sebastian Kehl and Gerald Asamoah and I ask myself why I’m not a professional.

”Perhaps I haven’t had the luck, or a good manager, but that’s life. I’m not jealous. If I do well at the Nations Cup, all that is going to change, God willing. I must be confident and my time will come.”

He says he has always dreamed of playing in France, where he would join up with a couple of family members — his brother, Kader Toure, plays for Sochaux while his cousin, Mamam Sherif Toure, wears the colours of Metz.

When the Nations Cup is over, the attention of the football world will turn to the World Cup in Toure’s adopted homeland.

Togo, surprise qualifiers for the tournament for the first time in their history, are drawn in the first-round Group G, which includes 1998 winners France.

For France, the draw is an uncomfortable reminder of their defeat to another African side, Senegal, in the opening match of the 2002 tournament.

”France are going to be tough. It is a big adventure for us. We will try to play the best we can and not disgrace ourselves,” Toure said.

Apart from winning a professional contract, he admits that he nurtures another burning ambition. ”I want to score the first World Cup goal of my career against France,” he says, with a laugh. – Sapa-AFP