Norwich captain reveals a great responsibility for his extended family in Cameroon and his liking for the Jeremy Kyle show.
Sébastien Bassong has covered everything from his faith in God to his fondness for the Jeremy Kyle show. He has spoken emotively about the huge responsibility he feels towards his extended family in Cameroon, explained why he refuses to conform to the footballer stereotype and dropped a couple of hilarious anecdotes into the conversation about Benoît Assou-Ekotto, his friend and international team-mate.
Arguably most impressive of all is that the Norwich City captain has managed to conduct an hour-and-a-half interview while looking after his three-year-old and three-month-old daughters at home. “A bit of luck,” says Bassong, smiling as he glances at his two girls who have fallen asleep.
His own mind is busy, thinking about keeping Norwich in the Premier League and, if all goes to plan, representing Cameroon in the World Cup finals in Brazil. It is a make-or-break few months for Bassong, yet this teetotal, well-educated and deeply religious man refuses to let football consume him.
“I believe in God and read the Bible everyday,” Bassong says. “There are some days when your faith goes down a little bit, for whatever reason, but it’s always there. It’s a big part of my life. Football is a different world. The way I see football … there is loads of fake. You’re not living in the real life. For me, the real life will start when I stop playing football.
“This is my life for now, God gave me this life and I’m enjoying it and taking it with two hands but I’m trying not to be the typical player, who people will judge and assume is stupid, worried about his cars and his look. I’m trying to fight this stereotype for myself, because I don’t want to be seen like that. I want to be seen like a normal guy. I’m just kicking a ball and making people happy, which is great. I’m not saving lives.”
Bassong does, however, carry a weight on his shoulders every time he plays. Born and raised in France to Cameroonian parents, the 27-year-old defender has remained close to his African roots and returns there whenever possible. His career, which started with Metz and included spells with Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur before he joined Norwich in 2012, is a source of great pride to his relatives in Cameroon. But success, Bassong says, also brings “loads of responsibility in Africa”.
“I’m from a really poor family in Cameroon, so for them it’s a blessing to have someone who can bring a bit of sunshine to the family to get them out of where they are. So I’m working for myself and my close family but also people in Cameroon, because if I’m not doing it, who’s going to do it? God gave me the chance to be able to play a sport that generates money. If at a certain stage I’ve got to share it, then it’s a blessing for us. I enjoy giving. But pressure comes with it.
“Sometimes when you see an African player who is getting a move for money, people will hammer him. But me, as an African boy, I totally understand because when he is going back home, the African mentality is totally different than in Europe. Here, most of the players will look after their mum and dad, maybe brothers or sisters. Us … my family is huge. When I go back to Cameroon, I’m looking after hundreds and hundreds of people who rely on me in terms of everything. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Bassong says he would like to stay involved in football when his playing career ends but he has ruled out management on the basis that it is “too stressful”. He breaks into laughter when asked about the possibility of being in a dugout alongside Assou-Ekotto. “I don’t see Benni being a manager,” Bassong says, smiling.
Assou-Ekotto told this newspaper in 2010 that he played football for money, rather than any deep passion for the game. “I think he was saying aloud what loads of people are thinking but don’t want to say,” Bassong says.
“For him, it’s a job. I played with Benni at Spurs and in the national team. He used to not even know who we were playing against. Sometimes he would say about opponents or team-mates in the national team when the squad was changing, ‘Bass, who’s that?’
“The best one I remember about Benni was when we were having the team photo at Tottenham and he arrived late, so we were all waiting for him. When he came, he apologised and was shaking hands with the players. Rafael van der Vaart had just signed and I was next to him. So Benni was shaking hands and when he got to Rafa, he shook his hand, stood still and looked at him. And then he asked me in French: ‘Who’s that?’ I said: ‘It’s Van der Vaart.’
“Benni said: ‘OK, nice to meet you.’ Harry [Redknapp, the Spurs manager] had to explain. He told Rafa: ‘Don’t worry, he doesn’t know who you are, he doesn’t know anything about football, but he’s a great player.’”
These days Assou-Ekotto is hoping to return to the Premier League with Queens Park Rangers while Bassong is trying to ensure Norwich stay in the top flight. It has been a testing time for Norwich, who are away at bottom-of-the-table Cardiff City on Saturday, but Bassong remains firmly behind Chris Hughton – “I rate and respect him highly as a man and the same as a manager” – and is confident there will be no repeat of the relegation he experienced as a player at Newcastle in 2009.
“I know what relegation feels like,” he says. “Going down, I don’t think players realise what impact it has on some people’s lives – economic plans, sport-wise, it’s a big loss. This club has been growing for the last three years and we are looking to establish Norwich as a proper Premier League team. Relegation would be a disaster but I don’t think about relegation. That’s negative. I believe in ourselves and what we are capable of doing.”
Quite what Cameroon are capable of at the World Cup is anyone’s guess. Drawn in a group with Brazil, Mexico and Croatia, Volker Finke’s side will have to produce something special to reach the knockout stages. There is plenty of talent in the squad but, as ever with Cameroon, no shortage of off-the-field issues. “You [England] are puppies compared to us,” says Bassong, smiling at all the politics behind the scenes.
After the first leg of the World Cup qualifier against Tunisia in November, Samuel Eto’o, who has been at the centre of so many disputes with the national team, claimed that he had heard of a “plot” not to pass to him. Finke accused Eto’o of “kindergarten talk”.
Bassong, who missed the games against Tunisia through injury, is aware that Eto’o’s presence is a divisive issue but he says that it is unthinkable to go to the World Cup without the Chelsea striker. “Samuel is a huge player for us, a huge character in the country – the most famous person after the president. Our pressure compared to him is nothing. But he’s born to handle that. He’s got to go to the World Cup. We will find a way to co-habit. Even if some people don’t like the fact that he is going to be there, we all want the same thing: Cameroon to do well.”
Bassong’s younger daughter has started to stir, which feels like the cue to wrap up things. There is one final question: what on earth is behind his fascination with the Jeremy Kyle Show?
“It makes me smile,”Bassong says. “Even if they get paid, I don’t understand how people can throw their life out in front of everyone.
“I’ve even recorded it once or twice, so that I can put it on when I’m in a bad mood and need to laugh.”