Out of Africa, by way of you name it
SPOTLIGHT STORY Much-travelled Togolese defender Zanzan fitting in with Impact
He likes to keep things simple, including his name. Impact defender Mohammed Zanzan Atte-Oudeyi answers to Zanzan, and it’s not because of ego that he goes by one name, like some international soccer players, but because anything more than that can be a mouthful for most people.
“For many, I know it’s hard to say my full name,” he explained. “I’ve always been Zanzan. It’s easy. It’s the only reason.”
The 28-year-old has found a new home in Montreal, thousands of kilometres from his native country of Togo, officially the Togolese Republic. The West African country is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north, and extends south to the Gulf of Guinea.
Zanzan signed a two-year contract with the Impact on April 15, and has started and played all but 43 minutes of the team’s last six regular-season games in the United Soccer Leagues First Division, after sitting out the season opener on April 18 in Charleston.
“He’s the natural left back we’d been looking for since the departure of Mauricio Vincello,” Impact head coach Marc Dos Santos said, referring to the former league all-star defender from Argentina who retired in February 2008.
“We see Zanzan’s experience and his passion for the game every day,” the coach added. “He always fights for the ball like it’s the last one he’ll ever see. That attitude has brought a lot of intensity to the team.”
Zanzan played with CS Otopeni in Romania before joining the Impact. Before that, he spent six years in Belgium’s First Division with several clubs, including Lokeren and FC Brussels. He still keeps a home in Dilbeek, in the Flanders region of Belgium. That’s where his wife is, along with the couple’s two children, the second born only two weeks ago, with Zanzan returning home for two days to be with his family.
Zanzan also played 35 international games with the Togo, and because of national-team duties, will probably miss the Impact’s next four games, beginning tonight against the Timbers in Portland (10 p.m., USLlive.com).
The Impact, with a 2-3-2 record, will be looking to win back-to-back games for the first time this season after beating the Rhinos 1-0 in Rochester last Saturday.
Zanzan left the Impact on Monday for Togo to join his national team for games against Gabon on Saturday and Morocco on June 20 in the preliminary round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He’s been a regular with the national side since 1999, and was part of the country’s entry in the 2006 African Cup of Nations.
Zanzan is the sixth of 10 children in his family, including seven boys, and soccer has always been part of his life. In fact, it’s the only sport he ever played. His brother Ismaila, 24, plays with Fiokpo-based Maranatha FC of the Togolese First Division, and has also played for the Togolese national team.
“(Soccer) was all we did, me and my friends,” Zanzan said of growing up in Lomé, the capital and largest city in Togo, with a population of less than one million. It is the country’s main business and industrial centre as well as its major port.
“Life was hard at times, but it is like that in a lot of places,” added Zanzan, who learned English – considered Togo’s second official language after French – in school.
Zanzan began his professional career in 2001, playing for JS du Ténéré of the Nigerian Premier League. The next season, he played for Satellite FC in Côte d’Ivoire, before moving on to play in Belgium later that year.
Coach Dos Santos said Zanzan came to the Impact’s attention through scouting and discussions with international player agents. DVD footage of the 5-foot-8, 172pounder also made an impression.
“At this point, his responsibility has been to mark the most important player the opposing team has on the right side,” Dos Santos said. “Be- fore we found Zanzan, we had to ask players like Simon (Gatti) and Leonardo (di Lorenzo) to adapt to something that wasn’t their natural position.
“Alex (Surprenant) is a natural left back for us, but he’s young and not ready to take over the first position as a left back,” the coach said of the 19-year-old Quebecer from St. Alexandre. “Zanzan is solid at the position because of his experience. He’s been doing an excellent job.”
Zanzan, who intends to pursue humanitarian work when his soccer career is done, said he’d like his younger brother Ismaila, a 6-foot-3 midfielder, to join him with the Impact.
“Montreal is a great place from what I have been able to see,” he explained, “and because the club is so professional as an organization.
“This is a good team,” he added. “When I came here, I didn’t know what to expect. There’s a good mentality for soccer here. They really welcomed me to the team.”
Impact defender Zanzan (right) in action May 17.