Samuel Eto’o once attempted to walk off the pitch during a stormy La Liga match between Barcelona and Real Zaragoza after being subjected to endless monkey chants by a section of the latter’s fans.
It took a lot of pleading from his teammates and the opposing players for the Cameroonian striker to turn around and stay on the pitch and help his team to a 2-0 victory. That was on February 25, 2006.
Nearly seven years later in January 2013, Ghanaian combustible forward Kevin-Prince Boateng sensationally walked off the pitch after being subjected to the same treatment during a friendly match between AC Milan and fourth-tier side Pro Patria. Of course the match was abandoned as all AC Milan players trooped out of the field.
Last week, towering Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure of Manchester City became the latest victim of this racial bigotry by CSKA Moscow fans during a Uefa Champions League match in Moscow. A miffed Yaya’s reaction was a thinly veiled threat to the World football body, Fifa, that if they failed to tackle racism in football head-on, black players would boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“It’s a real problem here, something that happens all the time, and of course they need to sort it out before the World Cup. Otherwise, if we are not confident coming to the World Cup in Russia, we won’t come,” Yaya was quoted as saying in the wake of the incident.
Of course this is a matter football authorities would rather sweep under the carpet. Fifa President Sepp Blatter’s response was ambivalent.
“A boycott has never been any solution,” Blatter scoffed. (READ: Russia on defensive after Toure's racism claim)
On Tuesday, in Nairobi, when Yaya - whose national team is named The Elephants - was officially installed as the Unep Goodwill Ambassador against elephant poaching in Africa, the reigning African Footballer of the Year took a more diplomatic stance on the subject.
“I would not like to dwell on that (racism) today. I hope an amicable solution will be reached and the responsible authorities will do what is required,” Yaya told a packed conference room at the Unep Headquarters in Gigiri, Nairobi.
Understandably, this was neither the place nor the occasion to bring up matters of racism.
Clad in a navy blue suit, shiny black leather shoes, a white shirt and light purple tie, one would have been forgiven for mistaking Yaya for a diplomat.
No, the imposing Ivorian midfielder is not swapping his football career for diplomacy. Not any time soon. Instead, the giant box-to-box midfielder was in town to add yet another feather to his decorated cap.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Unep Executive Director Achim Steiner, the Bouake-born expressed his delight on his new appointment.
“I am a very happy and proud African. I am happy to be here to help fight poaching and to use my celebrity status to curb ivory trade,” he said.
In Kenya, like most African countries, ivory trade is illegal. Kenya banned ivory trade in 1989 after the number of elephants dwindled to about 16,000 from as many as 167,000 in 1976. But with poaching on the rise, elephant population in Kenya is dwindling at an alarming rate.
According to government records, 34 rhinos were killed in Kenya between January - August 2013, a 17 percent increase from 2012, leaving the total rhino population at 1,205. During the same period 190 elephants slaughtered compared to 384 last year, putting the total population at 40,000.
“I became a Unep Goodwill Ambassador to spread the message that this poaching and other forms of wildlife crime is not only a betrayal of our responsibility to safeguard threatened species, but a serious threat to the security, political stability, economy, natural resources and cultural heritage of many countries,” Toure said.
Giving his honest account of Kenyan football, Yaya paid glowing tribute to long term former Harambee Stars skipper and AC Ajaccio striker Dennis Oliech and Southampton’s holding midfielder Victor Wanyama.
“Of course we know Oliech (Dennis) because he has played in France for a long time. Wanyama (Victor) is also fitting well in the English Premier League and we expect him to improve.”
Renowned for his great vision, passing ability, and imposing physical presence, the Ivorian said he is relishing a midfield battle with Wanyama when City play Southampton in the league.
The midfielder, however, predicted a tough season ahead for his Manchester City side in the English Premier League, singling out Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United as the biggest threat.
Yaya, who hails from a humble background, has fond memories of his early years playing football with bare feet on the streets of Abidjan alongside his elder brother Kolo Toure, currently with Liverpool.
He never lost focus though, and always kept his eyes on the ball. His burning ambition for success saw him turning professional at the tender age of 18 years when Belgian club Beveren signed him in 2001.
Yaya has since played for clubs in Ukraine, Greece, France, Spain and England including a hugely successful three-year stint (2007-2010) with Spanish giants FC Barcelona.
But despite the success and riches that the game has brought him, Yaya cuts the figure of a humble down to celebrity. “Aspiring young players need to be focused and work hard,” is his simple advice to the upcoming players. Regarding his future with the Citizens, the Uefa champions league winner, said: “I am 30 years now and I want to continue playing. I still have a few years ahead of me.”