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Congo’s Lost Footballing Generation

“Only the dead have seen the end of the war.”- George Santayana

Since 1997 over eight million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of warfare and strife. 1997 had the potential to be a year of change for Congo, a year of improvement. 1997 was the year when Congolese dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was ousted from power and a regime headed by rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila emerged promised peace and unity.

Peace and unity. Noble words but words nonetheless. By 2001 Kabila had been assassinated in mysterious circumstances and his son Joseph Kabila, replaced him. War has been and continues to be a daily occurrence in the DRC. Civil wars rage on in the East of the Country while Kabila and his government desperately try to retain their grasp of power in the State’s capital of Kinshasa.

Civil war has resulted in millions dying in conflict, millions dying from starvation and millions being displaced. How can one make sense of such wanton destruction? Perhaps it is not our place to explain it. Lives have been lost and futures forever altered. Congo has lost a generation in more ways than one. Today we will look at just one of these stories. Today we will examine Congo’s lost footballing generation.

Congo has a population touching on 67 million people and has a rich footballing history. As detailed previously on this site, the Congolese football team, ‘The Leopards’, won the African Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974. They were the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for a World Cup. They were a symbol of hope and unity during the Mobutu dictatorship and sadly they too have suffered in recent years.

When death and disease become a daily occurrence football loses all meaning. The Leopards still play and still display the ferocity of the team of yesteryear, but they face difficulty at every corner. War disrupts matches, training and preparations. War forces players and families to flee Congo. War has seen some of Congo’s best talent play abroad. Claude Makelele, José Bosingwa and Steve Mandanda were all born in Congo’s capital of Kinshasa but turned out for different Nations. These players represent the first generation Congo has lost out on.

War is pervasive and many families have fled Congo searching for safer pastures. These families have been the lucky ones in the sense that they have escaped. The decision to leave the DRC has seen the families of Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Charles N’Zogbia establish themselves in accommodating nations.

The list goes on…Fabrice Muamba, Steven N’Zonzi and Gaël Kakuta are all of Congolese descent. This second generation of Congolese émigrés is a formidable list and one that shows the pool of talent Congo has produced in recent years. The Leopards have had to fight on, to try and qualify for major tournaments, to try relive past glories, without such names.

Even without such stars the Leopards have boasted players of note in recent years. Players like Youssouf Mulumbu, Lomana LuaLua, Zola Matumona and Hérita Ilunga have all flown the flag for Congolese players plying their trade outside the DRC. Such players tend to be the exception. The majority of Congo’s team plays in the DRC. Players like Eric Bokanga continue to play, train and live within the Congo. They use football as a means of escape from the grim political realities of the DRC.

Just recently the Leopards made headlines by shocking Sierra Leone in an African Nations Cup qualifier. The Leopards are a team with the potential to be great but we have to ask, when civil wars rage, can football ever really take precedence?

The people of the DRC will continue to live their lives as best they can but until the guns are silenced, peace will not come about. Congo’s lost footballing generation is symbolic of the talent that has exited the Congo. For every Claude Makelele there have been dozens of doctors, teachers and leaders who have been forced to leave the country. War affects all, Congo’s lost footballing generation is testament to that.

 Lost Congolese XI

Goalkeeper

GK: Steve Mandanda

Defence

RB: José Bosingwa

CB: Vincent Kompany

CB: Steven N’Zonzi

Midfield

LB: Anthony Vanden Borre

CM: Rio Mavuba

CM: Claude Makelele

CM: Gael Kakuta

Attack

CF:Romelu Lukaku

CF: Christian Benteke

CF: Charles N’Zogbia

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