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Lauren: How I Rose from Humble Beginnings to an Arsenal ‘Invincible’ | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Lauren, one of the Arsenal Invincibles who became an ambassador for the club. Photograph: Denis Doyle for the Guardian

London – He’ll make a good quiz question one day: which Spaniard won the Africa Cup of Nations, an Olympic Gold and the Premier League? Need a clue? He was at the same club as Diego Maradona; shared a room with Samuel Eto’o, the only team-mate he could talk to; and his World Cup debut ended with him sent off six minutes after he came on.

The team he beat on penalties to take that gold boasted Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena, among his closest friends, and he scored in the shootout, just as he scored a 90th-minute winner in the semi. Still not got it? He’s been named the ACN’s best player, played in a Cup Winners’ Cup final at Villa Park and won an FA Cup at Wembley, his club’s first for 69 years.

Oh, and he won the Premier League without losing a match.

The answer is Laureano Bisan Etamé-Mayer, but you’ll know him better as just Lauren. The 21st child of Valentín Bisan-Etamé. Born in Kribi, Cameroon; raised in Seville, Spain; became Invincible in Highbury, England: a story that began in Equatorial Guinea with the Francisco Macías Nguema regime which ruled from independence in 1968 until a coup d’état led by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in August 1979. Obiang still rules now; Macías was executed that September. Others got out then; with repression under Macías brutal and political purges increasing, thousands had gone long before. Some figures estimate more than half the population had fled by 1978 – Valentín and family among them.

“My father was a politician in the Macías era, director general of the post office,” Lauren explains. “My uncle, who was in the military, warned [him] that he should escape. He found out about an order to arrest him: they were going to execute him. The escape was a miracle, [although] it was never something we talked about. They went to Cameroon, where I was born in January 1977. I was there three years but I don’t have any memories of it. My first real memory is of the Plaza de España in Seville.”

They lived in Montequito, the only black people in a neighbourhood where Lauren says they felt loved, welcomed. His father got a job as a functionary at the local government. The salary was just enough to make ends meet.

“There are 22 siblings; I’m the penultimate. It wasn’t polygamy and wasn’t religious either – we were Catholics – but my father had different wives. Having lots of children was synonymous with wealth, seen positively, and he could look after us: he had the means. In Seville, we lived in two flats, flat B and flat C. There weren’t 22 of us then [but] there were about 15.” Lauren smiles. “A lot of bunk beds.”

There was also a lot of football. At 11, having scored 56 goals in a season for his local team, Lauren was signed by Sevilla. Soon, so was Maradona. “I must have been 13,” he says. “It wasn’t the best time for the club but having him there was incredible. We’d stay behind to watch him scoring one, two, three, four free-kicks, one after the other. I remember a game where Sevilla were playing badly, there was a corner and someone threw a ball of tin-foil at him. He controlled it, juggled it and volleyed it back. He completely changed the crowd’s mood: from ‘son of a bitch!’ to Olé!’ in a fraction of a second.”

Lauren progressed as a quick, goalscoring No10, but never made the first team. He moved to Levante and later Mallorca. Among those impressed was Tommy N’Kono, the former Cameroon goalkeeper. Lauren had a Spanish passport and considered himself sevillano – he still does – but N’Kono found out about his place of birth and invited him to join the national team; a second division player who never expected to make it with Spain, he accepted. “I’m black, with African blood, but I didn’t know Africa at all: it was a shock at first,” he admits. “I went there knowing nothing of Cameroon and not knowing the language.

He shared a room with a 17-year-old striker. Lauren describes Eto’o as “a great man, very generous; he’s always direct and speaks his mind”. He also spoke Spanish, guiding Lauren. “When you go to Africa from Europe, lots of things don’t feel normal, but it worked out,” he says. “We had a great team.” One that would be crowned champions of Africa in 2000 and again in 2002, and Olympic champions in Sydney, defeating Spain in a game he admits felt “strange”; he says he “didn’t like” playing against “my people”. He collected his gold wearing Marchena’s shirt.

By then, Lauren had made his debut for Arsenal, having joined that summer for £7m. He had already scored his first goal too, against Liverpool two days later. His conversion to full-back contributed to there being only 10 more goals but also to there being 240 more games for the club. “I could have said: ‘No, míster, I want to play in my position’. But then he says: ‘OK, you play in your position – like four or five others.’ If you complain, you’ll be doing it from the bench or sitting at home. You have to be intelligent. I wanted to play.

“Pat Rice taught me: he was the one shouting orders. It wasn’t easy. There was a transition from George Graham, moving away from his very defensive style. Arsène Wenger kept that defensive solidity and added speed, possession and a great capacity to counterattack. We stepped higher up, the back four almost in midfield, where your weaknesses get easily exposed. You couldn’t play for Wenger without being quick. But he wanted midfielders at the back to bring the ball out.

“Wenger supported you and wanted you to play. For him, the most important thing was choosing the right pass. The full-back needs one, two, three, four possibilities to select the best. If you want attractive, quick football you have to have the right players.”

Arsenal had them. They also had something else that drove them that unbeaten 2003-04, Lauren says; something less tangible. “The passion we played with was incredible. Thierry Henry was our best player: so talented and he wanted to win everything, [even] playing cards on the bus. Yet I’d choose Patrick Vieira. You’d see him training and think he wasn’t at his best but in games he was, week after week. Patrick was incredible, exactly what a captain should be. He stood up to everything but with ‘good manners’; aggressive but there was a classiness to it. If I could choose someone to play for Arsenal now, it would be him.

“But it was everyone,” Lauren continues, thumping his fist Martin Keown-style. “Martin hated losing. I wasn’t a big talker but when I had to say something, people listened. Campbell, the same. And Lehmann: don’t get me started. Lehmann could look in the mirror and have an argument. Incredible, strong characters. Ashley Cole wasn’t one to talk much but had that character. So did Freddie. Dennis was quiet. He seemed cold because he didn’t show emotion but it was there inside him. The same with Kanu. They wanted to win, they had focus too.

“When we finally lost [the following season after a total of 49 games] at Old Trafford, they fouled us so much. The referee was horrendous. Everything seemed to be in United’s favour, including a penalty for a Campbell ‘foul’ on Rooney that didn’t exist. It hurt, but that record was incredible. And a lot of it is down to the fact we never thought about it; it never weighed on our minds. The only one noting it down was Wenger. We had good footballers and they all had tremendous character.”

Asked if he thinks that any of Arsenal’s current side could have played for the Invincibles, Lauren’s response is swift. “Alexis [Sánchez] would fit perfectly. Because of his talent but also his mentality.” They shouldn’t let him go then? “The club have reached the point where they should keep their best players to aspire to more. It’s been a club that sells its best for years [and] there were economic needs, but not any more.”

Some supporters believe that progress requires Wenger to step down. “Fans always have the right to be heard,” Lauren says. “But you have to consider Wenger’s legacy over 20 years. He brought Arsenal into the modern era: the stadium, the training ground. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world with a distinct style of play, an identity. That comes from Wenger. His achievements are beyond criticism. If you changed that model – spend £200m every summer, buy a world star, fight for the Champions League – it wouldn’t be the Arsenal way.”

But is it the right way? Legacy is one thing; what about the future? The present? “The squad is better every year; I don’t remember one this strong for a long time. In defence, we’ve signed well with Mustafi; in attack with Lucas, in midfield with Xhaka. I look now and it’s not just the XI; players can come on and make an impact. Iwobi, Lucas Pérez, [who] I like a lot, Oxlade. Walcott’s showing more. Bellerín is very, very good. He’s good with the ball at his feet, reads the game, gets beyond defences, crosses well, plays between the lines. And he’s so young – if he stays injury-free he’ll surpass me, Lee Dixon, Pat Rice, everyone who’s played there.”

Or he’ll join Barcelona. Lauren smiles: “He’s just extended his contract. I’m seeing good things this season,” he continues. “Swansea away: two years ago, we’d have lost. And you have to win those games. Or the resistance against Bournemouth in the 3-3: a draw’s not the best result, but we wouldn’t have come back from 3-0 before. Alexis is the leader. He was crucial. His attitude is contagious. And if you have three or four like that, it makes you win. Arsenal can still win the league.”

If they do, it would be the first time since the Invincibles. They never repeated that success, while for Lauren there were fewer chances to try than expected. He believes he could have “easily played three or four more years”, but insists Wenger was at least straight with him. He might have been right, too. Lauren left for Portsmouth, where they won the 2008 FA Cup, but he did not play in the final and he admits that nothing was quite the same. Especially him.

“I didn’t go there in my best moment mentally: you don’t consciously drop your level, but …” he says. “I’d always been determined, wanting to play every game, to the extent that team-mates said ‘Lauren, you should rest’ but I never did. But, then, going from the Champions League with Arsenal to Portsmouth was hard mentally. When you’re older and you lose that drive, you’re not the same player. I still suffer the effects: I play for half an hour and my knee swells up,” Lauren continues, opening his hands wide. “But it was worth it. I always tell the kids I meet in Africa: if you make it, you’re one of the privileged few. So, give everything. And keep giving it. It’s only 10,15 years. When you get there, remember you still haven’t achieved anything. Kids arrive and think: ‘I’ve made it’. You haven’t. The media’s partly to blame for that.”

Conversation, like Lauren, returns to Africa. Being an ambassador for Arsenal recently took him to Kenya, he’s been in Rwanda, and he is spending this month commentating on the Africa Cup of Nations for Eurosport on Spanish TV – a competition marked in part by absentees. “Africa’s given football great players: Weah, N’Kono, Kanu, Drogba, Eto’o … me,” he says, cracking a big smile. “But the football federations need to be properly committed. Players don’t go because they’re not paid or facilities are poor. Funds are misspent. If that doesn’t improve, Africa will always be behind.”

Nor is Lauren entirely convinced that Fifa’s plans for an expanded World Cup will help. “That will benefit African football insofar as it increases participation, but to really have an effect the revenue must be fairly distributed,” he says. And will it? “I don’t believe it will. It’s a nice idea, but behind the slogan, sadly, I don’t think so.

The Guardian Sport