Monday 13 June 2016, 09:26

When the Sparrowhawks took on the world

The date is 15 May 2006 and Germany is all but ready to host the FIFA World Cup™. That day, at exactly four in the afternoon, the Togolese national team touched down in Stuttgart, the first of the finalists to arrive for the tournament. On board with the players were nearly 70 reporters and 15 TV crews, among them staff from Japanese and Brazilian stations, ready to report on the Sparrowhawks ahead of their maiden world finals appearance.

The African nation had made its FIFA World Cup competition debut back in 1987, when its U-20 side stepped out at the FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. Nineteen years on, however, the seniors took their first steps on the biggest stage of them all.

“It’s really stayed with me,” said Assimiou Toure, speaking to about that northern summer a decade ago. “It’s one of the biggest things that’s ever happened to me, and if it hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be what I am today.”

Togo’s big day finally came nearly a month after arriving in Germany, when they took on Korea Republic in Frankfurt on 13 June. Making a start that showed they were anything but overawed by the occasion, the Sparrowhawks took the lead just after the half-hour mark, with Mohamed Kader penning another page in their fairy tale.

Second-half goals from Lee Chunsoo and Ahn Junghwan brought the Togolese back down to earth, however, and ended their hopes of registering their first World Cup points. More woe was to follow as Togo suffered 2-0 defeats to Switzerland and eventual runners-up France and bowed out of the competition early.

Despite it all, Germany 2006 proved an unforgettable experience both for a side spearheaded by Toure, star forward Emmanuel Adebayor and the captain Jean-Paul Abalo, and for their six million compatriots. “The atmosphere was amazing in Togo. People gathered round every TV set to watch our games,” said Toure. “Most African people are crazy about football and we gave the sport a huge boost in Togo by getting to that World Cup.”

The fact I was born in Germany made everything so much more special. It was like playing at home for me.

In reaching the world finals, the Togolese showed they could take on the best, and if there was one reason why one of the youngest teams in Africa went home early, then it was their lack of experience. Sadly for them, they have struggled on the international stage since then, failing to make an impact in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018, with the only bright spot being a run to the last eight of the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

As for Toure, the route he took before fulfilling his World Cup dream was slightly unusual. Born in Togo 28 years ago, he was brought up in Germany and ran out for Die Mannschaft at U-18 level. It was then, in early 2006, that he received a call from Togo’s German coach Otto Pfister.

“Obviously, I gave it some thought but I finally decided to play for Togo,” said the defender. “I felt I might not get another chance like that, though it goes without saying that I hope Togo reach the World Cup again one day. The fact I was born in Germany made everything so much more special. It was like playing at home for me, and after we got knocked out I started supporting Germany, of course.”

The hosts eventually finished third in that World Cup, while Toure returned to Bayer Leverkusen’s reserve side. His subsequent attempts to further his career were hampered by a string of injuries, including a lengthy layoff for a broken tibia and fibula, which led to him being sent out on loan to a number of clubs. Toure’s international career has also suffered, with only 15 caps having come his way to date.

Frenchman Claude Le Roy is the man in charge of the Togo side at the moment, and, as he told, he is determined to see the Sparrowhawks soar once again. “Togo are anything but lesser lights in African football,” he said. “The country has reached the African finals on a few occasions and it made the 2006 World Cup too. It has some very good footballers, and the potential is definitely there.”

It remains to be seen if Toure can work his way back into the national side. For the time being, he is happy just to recall that unforgettable summer of 2006 and a landmark achievement that will always occupy a prominent place in Togolese history.