Sunday afternoon I watched 26-year-old George Elokobi and his 89.9kg of pure muscle charging down the left flank for Wolverhampton Wanderers. They were playing against Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s (and Sebastien Bassong’s ) Tottenham Hotspur. It was an end-to-end game which finished in a 3-3 draw.
Elokobi’s power, drive, passion and the Cameroon flag on his wrist-band caught the eye. Though he looked tired and was sometimes outplayed by Tottenham’s Gareth Bale (when the latter came on as a substitute) towards the end of the encounter, Elokobi was not ready to give up. It is part of his personality that has seen him progress from non-league football to a regular place in a starting eleven of a professional club in one of the world’s biggest leagues.
Cameroon-born Elokobi is an example of the stories of fortitude, sacrifice and belief that make football so beautiful. An inspirational tale for aspiring footballers in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa. Growing up in Cameroon was the first test of his fortitude, writes Stuart James in an *article published by the Observer newspaper before the game against Spurs.
“I lost my dad [to diabetes] when I was 11,” Elokobi says. “And then my mum came over to England for her studies. She got her qualifications and they offered her a job, which she accepted. I was living with my grandmum [in Cameroon], because I lost my granddad in the same year as my dad, in 1996. It’s been a tough time that I’ve been through. But it makes you stronger.”
While it was difficult for Elokobi’s mother to leave him behind, the decision was made with his best interests at heart. “My mum was working really hard [in England] to pay for my school fees and I’ve always been thankful that she gave me the opportunity to study at one of the best boarding schools in Cameroon,” Elokobi says. “I owe a lot to my mum. I look after her now. And I look after my extended family in Cameroon. That’s what Africans do.”
Elokobi was reunited with his mother at the age of 16, when he joined her in London. He enrolled at college and studied business, IT and sociology but his real passion has always been football. Inspired by Roger Milla’s performances at Italia 90 – “everyone wanted to be him in Cameroon” – Elokobi was always kicking a ball when he was younger, and he went on to captain his college team before he came to England and took things more seriously.
He joined non-League Dulwich Hamlet’s youth scheme, and he laughs as he recalls his first training session. “I had raw talent but I didn’t know positional play whatsoever. The ball was there and I was trying to get it because I knew I had the ability to get it off the boys but the coaches were saying: ‘No, this is where you have to be.’ I also didn’t used to talk on the pitch. In Cameroon, we just play – we don’t talk or give information like ‘man on’ or ‘turn’.”
Elokobi, though, was determined to learn, and he was rewarded for the extra hours he put in after training when Colchester signed him in 2004. He spent three and a half years with the Essex club – the highlight being the chance to play alongside Teddy Sheringham – before joining Wolves in a £300,000 deal in January 2008, the year Colchester were relegated from the Championship. Everything was going perfectly until the third league game of the following season, when he snapped his cruciate ligament at Ipswich.
“It was bad – one of the worst knee injuries you can have,” Elokobi says. “I damaged my knee in three different places. Some people don’t understand what I went through until I tell you now. I was given a 50-50 chance of playing again by the surgeon. One in 10 people come back and play at the highest level. All I know is that I was mentally strong. Sometimes you just have to say: ‘I’ll be the one in 10.'”
That he returned for the final game of the season, way ahead of schedule, hardly came as a surprise, although the following campaign had its problems. “Last season was still part of the rehabilitation,” he says. “I had to get rid of the scar tissue on my knee. I had to test it, twisting and turning against speedy wingers in the Premier League. I really struggled to find my form, probably until January, so it’s been a long process to get back to the player I am now.”
In recent weeks Elokobi has been playing some of his best football since he joined the club, helping to win over some of the more sceptical supporters and fuelling hopes he may win his first cap for Cameroon against Senegal this month. “I would love it if I was called up. It’s going to mean an awful lot to me,” says Elokobi, who is returning to Cameroon in the summer for the first time since he left in 2002. “But I’m concentrating on Wolves. I want to try and help keep the club up.”
He made a significant contribution towards that aim last month, when he scored the equaliser in the 2-1 win over Manchester United with a thumping header. Elokobi maintains that he should also have been credited with the second goal but Kevin Doyle won that argument. It must have been a brave battle for Doyle to take on. “But I’m a lover not a fighter,” Elokobi says, grinning. “I don’t want trouble. I just love playing football.”