Jimmy BOCO harbours painful memories of failing to save his beloved Hibs from relegation 13 years ago, but the dreadlocked defender will return as a cult hero to fans in Leith this weekend for Ian Murray’s testimonial day.
Somewhat remarkably given his unsung role as a defender in a demoted team and the fact that 1997-98 marked Boco’s solitary campaign at the club, he will be celebrated among the Hibees support when he sets foot on the Easter Road pitch – no doubt expressing customary smile and salute to the fans.
Hibs fans hold in high regard those who show passion for the club and a committed playing style, and the former Lens player, who captained his country Benin, had both in abundance.
Sunday’s run-out will likely represent a tamer affair than the relegation scrap to which Boco became accustomed during his year-long stay in the Capital, and the 47-year-old is looking forward to re-acquainting himself with the Easter Road faithful.
“I miss Scotland very much – the people are very nice, very kind,” he said. “I spent just one year in Edinburgh, but the country is so beautiful and the people have a passion for the game and their club. I love the way all the players always give 100 per cent. I had a very good relationship with the fans there.
“I came back twice since I left – once for a game at Parkhead and the other time to Easter Road. Every time I come back, I’m really happy. Honestly, I love your country. I think we built something very strong. I think the fans loved the way I played because I always gave 100 per cent.
“I think when you respect the fans, they give something back very strong to you. It’s very important to give something back – we earn a lot of money and sometimes the fans who come to the games are in a difficult position and you have to give them some excitement.”
Boco, who is looking forward to catching up with old team-mates, including Chic Charnley and John Hughes, will arrive in the Capital with Patrick Vieira in tow, his friend and business partner having agreed, along with Robert Pires, to star in an exhibition match on Sunday afternoon. Boco and Vieira crossed paths as team-mates – briefly – at Tours and on opposite teams in French top-flight clashes between Lens and Cannes in the early 1990s.
“I’ll be happy and proud to play with Patrick. As you will see this weekend, Patrick is a fantastic man. He was quite a player, but not everybody knows what kind of man he is.”
While in the city, Boco and Vieira plan to promote their football academy, Diambars – which means “champions” in Wolof, the language of Senegal, where Vieira was born and where the charity project is based. The pair, alongside fellow partner Bernard Lama, the former Paris St Germain and France international goalkeeper, have “rolled out” the business model to France and Manchester City, where Vieira is now football development executive, and Boco does not rule out establishing such an academy in Edinburgh.
“It is about sport as a tool for education, so we began with Africa, in Senegal and South Africa, and we had very good results, and the French government asked us to try to adapt some of our programmes in France. We aim to work at Manchester City, too. Patrick is there and I went to explain what we were doing and they were interested to take it into the community.
“We are going to set up an academy in Cergy-Dontoise, outside Paris. The mayor came to Senegal and he watched what we were doing and he loved the philosophy and the business model. He wants to do the same in his town where there are a lot of immigrants. Even if we have a lot of professional players coming out, the main thing is to promote education – that’s what Manchester City love.
“We began in Stade de France, Lens, and Marseille. The idea is to bring those values to a place of value, of winning, of sharing passion. We use some tools like video, and the students act as journalists and come to interview them. They have to make a film of ten minutes, and do all the jobs in the stadium.”
The idea behind Diambars was conceived when Boco left Hibs, the player returning to France and enrolling at business school in Lille. His professors there cited the development project he subsequently helped to found and run as one of the best ever exports of the school. Now, at its original base in Saly, Senegal, the football academy employs 80 local people – “helping 80 families,” Boco stresses – while its 120 young students are educated free of charge. It has its roots in a typical French football academy, where youngsters benefit from free meals between mainstream education and guidance on entering a career in pro sports.
The average pass rate for exams in Senegal is 35 per cent – at Diambars, more than 70 per cent. A key difference in the curriculum is that the students learn through the experiences of football and players.
“For kids struggling at school, from different backgrounds, we want to give them all the values you need as a footballer at a high level: courage, determination, team spirit, rivalry – all the things you need to win a game.
“During my career I understood what football means in Africa. The kids love the game. If you can teach them values and behaviour. Look at Patrick: when he goes to talk to them, they will listen to him more than any teacher.”
Having himself helped foster a lasting affinity with Hibs fans during his single season in Edinburgh, Boco knows all about the feelgood factor that can be engendered by a strong rapport between football players and the general public. Top-earning footballers, some of whom may indulge in lavish lifestyles and reckless behaviour, are often held up as an example of why supporters cannot relate to players and why professionals in the sport should not be considered role models – but Boco’s successful business plan contradicts that theory. It casts footballers as inspirational figures, who convey life lessons to kids in a “cool” way.
“Even if a kid doesn’t play football, they can be supporters of the club,” he explains. “In Lens, we asked one of the professional players to explain to them what football is all about. He talked about passion, determination to succeed, following the rules. There’s always a parallel between sport and education.
“To give you an example, we have this concept of ‘keep the ball moving’. When you are on the pitch, if you want to have a nice game, you have to put your partner in the best position to take the ball, he has to use it, then transmit the ball in the best way. In education, it’s the same – you have to give them the knowledge, they have to use it, and it’s important to transmit it as well. We found this parallel really interesting.”
As an illustration of the fruits borne by the programme, a Diambars diaspora has spread across the football world. French champions Lille have Idrissa Gueye, Pape Souare and Omar Wade; defender Kara Mbodj of Tromso is the star name among four graduates currently in Norway’s top-flight. Meanwhile, Joseph Lopy and Mingane Diouf, each having spent five years at the academy, are now at Ligue 1 side Sochaux in the Canada’s Montreal Impact respectively.
As far as football personalities are concerned, while the presence of stars Vieira and Robert Pires will act as a crowd-puller to Easter Road on Sunday, the Hibs fans are likely to bow to no-one so sincerely as their former favourite Boco and man of the moment Ian Murray.