Lauren and team mates celebrating Cameroun’s gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Arsenal Invincible, Indomitable Lion, African immigrant: when Lauren Etamé Mayer talks – be it about Arsenal’s chances of ever winning the league again, the future of African football, or even the state of the wider world – it pays to listen.
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t seem particularly optimistic about the latter two topics; although he is positive about Arsenal in a wide-open season when they are starting to show some of the spirit of Lauren’s team from 2004.
“Alexis [Sanchez] would fit perfectly,” he says when he’s asked which of the current team would have got into the Invincibles side. “I say that because of his talent, but also for the mentality that he has. You could compare him to the players from our era.”
Lauren is big on mentality and strength of character. His formative years were marked by his father Valentín Bisan-Etamé fleeing dictator Francisco Macías’ Spanish Guinea and taking his family across the border into Cameroon where Lauren was born in January 1977.
The second youngest of 22 siblings, Lauren then moved briefly to Madrid, and on to Seville in southern Spain. That explains why sat before me in the Madrid hotel where he is currently staying as he covers the African Cup of Nations for television, his accent is far closer to his former Arsenal team-mate Jose Antonio Reyes’ than to any of the Cameroon team-mates he won Olympic gold and two Cup of Nations with between 2000 and 2002.
“They were going to imprison him; execute him. It was a miracle escape. But it’s never been something talked about in the family. Did they climb out through a window? I don’t know they never told me,” he says recalling how his father – who had been head of telecommunications in Guinea – was passed information that there was an order for his capture.
“I have no memories of Cameroon. My first memory really is the Plaza de España in Seville. We lived in two flats, flat B and flat C, and there were a lot of bunk beds for me and the 10 brothers and sisters who moved with us. I started playing for Sevilla aged 11 as a striker.”
A quick, goalscoring, number 10 he made it as far as the club’s B-team in the Spanish second division before moving to Levante and Mallorca where Arsene Wenger saw him; not as a number 10 (he had Denis Bergkamp for that) but as a new number two, a replacement for Lee Dixon.
“To go from attacking midfield to becoming a full-back was crazy. But if you are good, and you can adapt, then you do it because you want to play.” Another one of the reasons he believes this Arsenal team can win the league is the quality of the current right-back. “[Hector] Bellerin is very, very good,” he says. “He is going to be better than all of us. He knows how to play with the ball at his feet. He reads the game. He can get forward and get behind the opposition’s defence. When he arrives he then has the ability to cross well.
He knows how to play between the lines. And he is so young. If he stays injury-free then he is going to out-do me and Lee Dixon and Pat Rice and everyone who has played in that position for the club over the years.
It was Pat Rice who helped Lauren learn his new trade. He recalls of Wenger’s former assistant: “He was the one who would be telling me to watch runs in behind me or pick-up my man. He was the one barking the orders at the defence. Wenger was more about giving you the tools so that you could resolve things. For him the most important thing was that wherever you were on the pitch you knew in a fraction of a second which was the right pass.”
The more Lauren talks about Wenger the more it serves as a reminder that back in 2003 he was already doing many of things now associated with Pep Guardiola.
“Ashley Cole wasn’t a pure defender, he started off in midfield. I started off in midfield. Kolo [Toure] was not a pure centre-back. Wenger was very keen on that and Guardiola is now. He wanted midfielders at full-back – players who had that offensive aspect to their game.”
Wenger has kept on producing teams with the same attacking panache but the mentality has been more difficult to find again.“We had good footballers but they had tremendous character all of them and that is why we achieved what we achieved. I don’t want to say that the current players don’t have a winning mentality but evidently it’s not comparable.
“If I had to pick one player to come back as it would be Patrick Vieira. He was an example both on and off the pitch. He was exactly what the captain of a team should be – he always fronted-up but with what you call “good manners”. He was aggressive but there was an elegance to it.”
Lauren says he has no immediate interest in taking the coaching path but has no doubts that Vieira will follow his vocation right to the top.“He has been very intelligent in the way he has gone about doing it. They have offered him various opportunities to manage in the Premier League but he felt that he was not ready. One thing is to coach kids and another to have the responsibility of a first team. We have seen how Clarence Seedorf failed at Milan and [Gary] Neville at Valencia. He is a great pundit but then [as coach] … When you don’t have experience you can’t just, from one day to the next, take over a big team.
“Vieira has seen that and he has decided to go slowly, first with the B-team, now with New York, and it is going well and he is getting experience and I think one day he will be the manager of a big club.”
So the future is bright for Vieira, and for Arsenal too. He urges them to renew Sanchez’s contract, saying: “I think the club have reached a moment when they should be holding on to their best players,” and he is enthusiastic about the current crop.
“I don’t remember a squad as strong as this one in a long time and I am seeing good things this season. The resistance shown against Bournemouth in the 3-3 away from home – it was not the best result but in seasons gone by at 3-0 down we don’t get back into that game if we play for three days.
“Now I look at Arsenal and it’s not just the 11 there are various players who can come in and make an impact. When [Alex] Iwobi and Lucas Perez have come in they have done very well.”
That analysis was certainly borne out by Saturday’s FA Cup demolition of Southampton. Where the optimism runs a little dry is on the future of African football. He says Fifa’s move to extend the World Cup to 48 teams will only benefit Africa if the continent ends up receiving its share of the increased revenue. And if it is then responsibly invested by national football associations.
“I don’t believe it will be that way,” he says. “Football for the poor is a very nice slogan but behind the slogan unhappily I don’t think it will be like that. The media has to monitor [the revenue distribution] and the African football associations then have to use the money efficiently to improve football at grassroots.
“If the national associations are not on top of this then Africa will always be two or three steps behind the rest of the world.”
Lauren’s story as an African immigrant to Europe is atypical because his father arrived in Spain with the means to support his family. But he can relate to the plight of those that flee because they have nothing left.
It would be remiss not to ask him what he thinks of wider world developments as it seems every day more borders are locked and visas denied.
“If you suffocate a country the people have to get out somehow. It’s terrible what we are seeing: women and children dying in the oceans.“It’s the politics of fear – they are going to come and take your job, but the reason why there is this movement of people is never discussed.
“It seems globalisation is fine when it suits and not fine when it doesn’t. If globalisation means that it’s no longer just a couple of countries sharing the pie then suddenly those countries are not interested and they want borders and barriers and you get the demagogue politics of Donald Trump.
“No one has benefitted more from globalisation than the United States but now that it is no longer solely in their interest they are going to build barriers and talk to Nigel Farage in England and it’s the politics of demagogues.”
He’s exhausted by the deviation into world affairs. “But let’s talk about the football,” he says.We close by combining the two. Lauren is now an overseas ambassador for Arsenal. “The club is doing some fantastic work in Africa. It is taking football to certain countries where the kids have the fewest opportunities to experience it and develop,” he says.
“I had the chance to go with the club to Kenya recently with a ‘coaching clinic’ developing players and also coaches, teaching the ‘Arsenal way’.
“They really are doing a phenomenal job and you can really see how the young players are developing. I was in Rwanda a couple of years ago too. And they are doing great work there as well. The clinics last for two or three weeks but periodically they send representatives to monitor progress and the work has a big impact socially and economically beyond football.”
He is back in positive mode now. He feels that working with his old club he is making a difference. “It’s good sustainable development that is needed,” he says. “It needs to start at the bottom because at the top end Africa has given football some great players over the decades. George Weah, Abedi Pele, Roger Milla, Tommy N’Kono, Kanu, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o… me.”
The last name is added with a modest smile. The modesty is not necessary, there is no question that he deserves to be on the list.
•Culled from www.indepndent.co.uk