Stories of African (and English, and American) Soccer: Steve Zakuani and the Congo
There is a significant degree of chance in the fact that the last two top overall picks in the MLS draft, Steve Zakuani and Danny Mwanga, were both originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both players took circuitous routes to the league through the unpredictability of immigration and the strange concoction that is American college soccer. But their success in the US, however random, also says something about a place that is not likely to get much attention in this ‘Year of African Soccer.’
The Democratic Republic of Congo was known as Zaire when it sent an ill-fated team to the 1974 World Cup as the first to represent sub-Saharan Africa. Since that time both the country and the national team have had mostly hard times, occasionally interspersed with glimpses of the massive potential that makes Congo a complicated but fascinating place for outsiders like me to try to understand. So in hopes of using soccer as a window to the Congo, and to further explore the way African soccer works in the global mash-up of the modern game, I recently sat down with Steve Zakuani to document one emigrant’s experiences.
Zakuani’s story is plenty complicated in its own right, a winding journey from Kinshasa to London to Akron to the Seattle Sounders, and while little of that story physically takes place in the Congo it does offer some thought-provoking perspectives on Africa, soccer, and fateful role of chance. Further, the very fact of his success since leaving Congo raises the yet more complicated question about the place—best encapsulated for me by a famous story that can serve as a Rorschach test for thinking about African football.
As relayed by Mark Gleeson, journeyman coach Claude Le Roy was taking the DR Congo team through Johannesburg to a 2005 World Cup qualifier when, as he explained:
“I had a lot of problems with my squad. Some players did not get tickets sent to them in Europe, others did not have visas in time and I arrived with 13 players. There was a big contingent of Congolese fans waiting to meet us at the airport and I was talking about my problem when they told me there were two good players in the crowd who had also come to say hello. I told them both to join us and while we flew to Durban, they drove their cars down from Johannesburg (a five-hour journey). They both looked quite good in training and I chose them for the bench.”
One ended up playing as a reserve in the qualifier, both players went on to make the Congo’s roster for the 2006 African Cup of Nations in Egypt, and the story has been regularly employed as emblematic of the “chaos” of African football.
But what exactly does the story mean?
The usual interpretation is that it is a tale of failure and dysfunction. Congolese football was such a mess that any random players with the necessary passport could have a chance if they were in the right place at the right time. That interpretation often extends to the Congo itself—a country that is widely considered among the most broken places in the world. A country that in the last 15 years has suffered through war, conflict, and inequality leading some to claim a death toll unequaled globally since World War II and others to describe it as “the worst place on earth to be a woman.”
But the other interpretation, one which seems to have actually been Le Roy’s intended moral, is that it is a tale of talent and potential. Congolese football is so fertile that a coach could hardly avoid stumbling across talent with the necessary passport virtually any place and any time (the two players in the airport that day were there because they played with Orlando Pirates, one of the top professional clubs on the continent). And while I suspect this is not the interpretation most of us outsiders might first think about when we hear the story, it too offers a metaphor for the Congo—a massive and diverse country nearly the size of all Western Europe that is among the most resource-rich in the world. A country of 68 million people who live and cope despite the legacies of brutal colonial regimes, corrupt dictators, and the strategic indifference of an outside world that relies on the Congo for everything from the coltan that runs our cell phones to the talent that populates our soccer leagues.
In recent years American soccer fans have become the latest beneficiaries of the Congo’s potential—if Claude Le Roy had happened to make it to Seattle of MLS First Kick 2010 (and if he were still coaching Congo, rather than having moved on to Oman), he would have had some support for the latter interpretation in the persons of number 11 for the Seattle Sounders and number 10 for Philadelphia Union.
Of course, the reality is that both interpretations, both sad failures and bountiful potential, underlie some of the complicated story of the Congo. And in a roundabout way some of those same themes are embodied in the experiences of Steve Zakuani.
From Congo to England
Though his birthplace is usually listed as Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa, Zakuani was actually born in his family’s remote rural village—exactly one week after his father had left for the capital with a prized opportunity to attend University. I had noticed that his father’s name is Mao, and wondered if that was a tribute to the Congo’s dalliance with communism in the days of the Cold War (a dalliance that many think cost one of Congo’s most promising independence leaders, Patrice Lumumba, his life at the hands of the CIA in 1961). But in fact, according to Steve, Mao Zakuani’s name derives from a term in local Congolese dialect that means “I’m afflicted for my beliefs”—a gesture symbolizing their family’s frustration with regional politics.
As Steve explains it, however, the Zakuani family left Congo more for opportunity than for politics. After Mao had his degree in English and linguistics in Kinshasa, he earned a job with Air Zaire that in turn allowed him to make connections in England. Those connections eventually lead to a job as a translator for asylum cases in the English court system—both Steve and his father speak English, French, Swahili, and Lingala—and the family moved to London in phases. Steve arrived in London at age four, and now has only vague memories of the Congo; he remembers the joy of playing with friends and siblings, the strict discipline of his grandfather, the natural beauty of the landscape, and the occasional fear that accompanied soldiers patrolling the streets with impunity.
Yet, in Zakuani’s own words: “As much as I’m Congolese and I’m African, home—when I think of home—I think of London. It’s natural for me. 14 years growing up there, family is still there, two of my younger siblings were born there, all my experiences—good or bad—were there, so London is always home.” And it was in London where he fell in love with soccer, first playing in the park with his older brother and cousins, with Sunday league kids teams, and by 11-12 with the Arsenal youth set-up. Determined to become a pro and have fun with friends along the way, school became an after-thought despite his parents’ efforts and his inquisitive disposition. Then fateful chance intervened for the first time:
“People say, you grow up in London and think—wonderful. But not the London I grew up in. I grew up very inner-city. We call them council estates, I think here you call them housing projects. A bunch of kids together, you can only play soccer so much, so you get taken up by bad influences. One day in 2003 I finished school and my friend said—hey I stole a moped this morning, come ride it with us. There were about six of us and we’re just riding around the neighborhood…but I lost control of the bike, and hit into a car. It wasn’t the worst crash, but when I got up to walk my leg buckled…It wasn’t until I got to the hospital that night that we realized how serious it was. My Dad said to the doctor, you know he plays soccer so how long until he can play again. And the doctor goes ‘Play? We’re just trying to get him to walk again.’…I didn’t play for 18 months.”
Zakuani seems to think of that time, the crucial period in the English system around 16 years of age, as lost years—still determined to play professionally once his leg healed, he managed to finish his General Certificate of Secondary Education to leave school, but the accident meant no clubs were willing to offer him a contract. He went on trials in Holland, Spain, joined an independent London academy team, and found himself torn between some of the bad influences in his neighborhood and a charismatic Jamaican teacher from his school who had started a mentoring program “for black kids that were failing their exams…I went there just to play devil’s advocate—he began teaching us on financial management, relationships, how to become men, all this after school hours. I went there and when he’d say something, I’d say something against him. But it got to the point where he’d embarrass me every time. I’d just tuck in my head. And when I left school we kept in touch. Then on June 12th 2005 he took me to a leadership seminar where I heard a Bahamanian speaker, and the speaker spoke about life, and leadership, and mentality, and…whoosh, everything opened up.”
Something clicked for Zakuani that day, and while he attributes much of it to the philosophy of that speaker (a part self-help guru / part evangelist named Myles Munroe) it was also another intervention of fateful chance. Zakuani became devoted to reading and to self-improvement, diving into everything from Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela to Benjamin Franklin. He was still determined to make it as a soccer player, but he also started to take his own education—both formal and informal—seriously.
From England to America
Fortuitously, around that same time an assistant coach from the University of Akron was in London: “They were scouting a good friend of mine, and after the training session I went to his house, just to watch videos. And they said—what do you think of this? And I said no, I’m ok. But they gave me a DVD to think about it, and I took it to show my parents. And it was over. You can play soccer, and get a good education? For free? Take it.” Though he had been an indifferent student, Zakuani’s raw intelligence came through in the form of relatively high SAT scores and he was off to Ohio (according to Zakuani, his friend missed the SAT cut-off for admission to Akron by 20 points and ended up staying in England).
When I asked him about going to school at Akron, Zakuani lit up: “Ah, I loved it. Just loved it….obviously I took the Gen Ed classes but I also took classes on the black experience, Africans, Americans, government, and it opened up my mind. As much as I loved training at Akron, I loved my classes just as much. I loved it… the teachers make you think. You don’t agree with everything, but you learn about everything. That was awesome.”
Zakuani also thrived in the Akron soccer program, an environment that allowed him to reestablish his ability and reinforce his sense of purpose: “After my freshman year in July and August 2008 I went and trained with Preston in the Championship in England and I did well. They wanted to sign me. But before I left Caleb [Porter, the Akron head coach] made me promise I’d come back for my sophomore year. And I didn’t want to break my word. So I came back for my sophomore year, had a very good year, Major League Soccer got involved and Preston was still there. The offers were almost identical, though there was more immediate growth in the Preston offer if I did well. But then what swayed it was the MLS thing of going back to school, finishing….just the idea that in the professional contract you can have something that helps you go back to school, I said this is perfect.”
Though it may be perplexing to the many critics of the American college game to imagine that the system can work so well, for Zakuani college made all the difference—and offers an interesting counterpoint to the experiences of his own brother. Gabriel Zakuani, a year Steve’s senior, is a hardy center-back for Peterborough United who had no moped accident, turned pro at 16, and has known nothing but soccer ever since. He is a good player who has had a solid career, and Steve speaks of him with respect and affection. But when I asked Steve if his brother shares his love of reading and curiosity about the world he just laughs: “No, he’s not like that. I don’t know the last time he read something, no…he turned professional at 16, and that’s been his focus ever since. Even today, I was in his place when I went back home and we can talk about anything except soccer—our childhoods, our community, whatever—but with him it always goes back to soccer. Because that is all he knows since he was 16. But at 16 I couldn’t walk properly.” While he clearly admires his brother, Steve also appreciates his own fateful, and oddly American, chances to make soccer something more than just a profession.
From America to Congo?
Playing in England has, however, provided Gabriel Zakuani the opportunity to do something that Steve, for now, can only dream of: playing internationally for the Congo. “Congo play a lot of their exhibition games in France or Belgium, so it was easy for Gabriel to go over. But when they didn’t qualify for the African Nations Cup they kind of put it aside. My Dad was there and he gets asked a lot of questions [about Steve], and my brother the same….but there are a lot of good players there. I don’t take it for granted. It’s not the kind of thing where I could just walk into the team. I’d have to go there and really play.”
What’s more, there are many good players who don’t play for the Congo but could—including Zakuani’s soon-to-be Sounders teammate Blaise Nkufo, who was born in Congo but raised in Switzerland (which he will represent in this summer’s World Cup). Other prominent examples of Congo-born pros mentioned by Zakuani include Claude Makélélé, who played 71 times for France, and Portugal outside back José Bosingwa—who Zakuani met when Chelsea played an exhibition in Seattle last summer.
For now, then, Zakuani’s connection to the Congo comes mostly through his family and his imagination. In fact, he hasn’t been back to Africa since leaving at age four—having missed the last family trip when he was in the midst of his initial contract negotiations with MLS. His family arrived in Kinshasa on the same day he signed his first professional contract. But he tries to pay attention to the news, the politics, and the people, and he recently started a non-profit organization called Kingdom Hope as the first step in a long term plan to “build state-of-the-art facilities in London, Seattle, and the Congo where academic/soccer academies will be established.”
Zakuani knows that long term plan will take a while to realize—his goal is to have one facility started by the time he is 30, and a full program by the time he is 50—so for now he is starting with short day camps and a scholarship program named in honor of his mother. But the idea of the organization gives him a clear sense of purpose: “I took sports management [in college] because I left London with Kingdom Hope in my mind—I knew that was what I was going to do. I’ve had that dream since I was 17 years old because I knew people would need that in the years to come.”
The idea is to do concentrated work with a small group of 18 or so kids like him—talented players who, for whatever reason, don’t sign professional contracts at age 16 and don’t have the education nor the sense of purpose to realize their potential: “the main goal is to give them a passion in life, give them their own reasons to live. Because Kingdom Hope is mine. Find your own after the two year program. And then you go and you change the world.”
But changing the world, as anyone familiar with the Congo knows well, can be an infinitely frustrating task and I’m still not sure I quite know how to think about it all. I’m still not sure how to make sense of the Congo as both the dysfunctional state that too many people around the world assume to be iconic of Africa and the talent-laden font of qualities that the continent might yet represent during this ‘Year of African Football.’
I do know that I admire Zakuani’s sense of purpose, his proud identification with a homeland he mostly knows from a distance, and his determination to make soccer more than a game. And so perhaps I should let him have the last word on the Congo: “First of all, the problems are real. Very real. Especially some of the stuff that happens with women being victimized. And if you grow up in a country where some soldier can just come into your house and take your things that’s going to stick in your mind for a long time. So I think people have to be made aware that is going on, it is reality. And at the same time, I look at the Congo and I think it’s a very young nation—it just came in the 60’s from Belgian colonization. And colonization, what it does it breeds dependency. You depend on Belgium for everything. And now they are gone, you have to do this for yourself. And you don’t have people that are qualified to do this. It’s very dangerous for them…But for me I’m proud. I’m very proud to be from there just because to know that I came from there, and where I got to in life…I look back and a lot of the kids, if they could just get into the right environment I think they’d be ok.”
Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.