10 August ~ Before Yaya Toure stepped out at Eastlands for the first time as a Manchester City player against Valencia on Saturday night, already five weeks into his reported £220,000 per-week contract, he might have taken a moment to reflect on his career so far. If so, perhaps he remembered the club where he and many other Ivorians cut their teeth in Europe. KSK Beveren, the team instrumental to the success of half of the Ivory Coast's "golden generation", succumbed to their long-term financial woes at the end of last season, opting not to reapply for their Belgian Pro Licence and incurring automatic relegation to the third division.
Arsenal struck up a partnership with Beveren in 2001 when Jean-Marc Guillou, a member of France’s 1978 World Cup team and to whom Arsène Wenger was assistant at Cannes, was appointed as manager, becoming sporting director a year later. His vision was to transform his modest new club by exploiting the highly successful academy he had founded with his old Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas in 1994, making Beveren the stepping-stone into European football for its finest graduates.
Arsenal were the main beneficiaries. While sending youth team prospects like Steve Sidwell and Graham Stack to the Freethiel Stadion for competitive experience, they had first pick of Beveren’s burgeoning youthful African contingent. Yaya Toure slipped through the net despite playing a pre-season match for the club against Barnet in 2003, but Emmanuel Eboue succeeded, signing four months after he and Marco Ne joined Arsenal for the Amsterdam Tournament in 2004.
By the time Toure departed Belgium, shortly after that trial, Beveren had 14 Ivorians in their squad, including Boubacar Barry, Arthur Boka, Gilles Yapi-Yapo and Koffi Romaric. This drew inevitable criticism from rival clubs, the media and Sepp Blatter, who labelled the scenario a “deviation in football”. The club reached the Belgian Cup final in 2004, losing 4-2 to Club Bruges – where Igors Stepanovs was Beveren’s single starting non-Ivorian. That summer, the club signed Gervinho, now starring at Lille.
Guillou left under a cloud in 2006, after Beveren themselves called for more Belgian representation and shortly before FIFA’s investigation into the partnership with Arsenal, from which no wrongdoing was found. His departure signalled the end of the link between the clubs, and also the steady stream of acquisitions from Abidjan. As a parting shot, Guillou claimed the club’s debt would double in his absence. He wasn’t far off – Beveren struggled to meet the criteria for the licence that the Belgian FA introduced in 2001, to trim the Jupiler League and increase professionalism by disqualifying clubs with unsafe stadiums and excessive debt. Poor results saw them relegated in 2007.
Their decision to drop to the third tier last April was soon followed by the Ivory Coast squad announcement for the World Cup – six players who were affiliated with Beveren before scattering across Europe travelled to South Africa. Away from the millions they earn from the clubs they represent now, the "golden generation" still have yet to achieve anything by way of international trophies. Their individual success, though, remains the lasting legacy of a bizarre five-year project gone wrong for Beveren, cast a long way down Belgium’s football ladder and without an Ivorian in sight. Chris Towers