France’s African flavour
When France lifted the Football World Cup in 1998, the hero of that memorable feat on home soil was Zinedine Zidane, a son of Algerian immigrants.
It was not just the great Zidane who had African roots. Defender Marcel Desailly, another rock of the World Cup conquest, had his roots in Ghana.
Holding midfielder Patrick Viera, who would later grow in stature after that World Cup to become a club legend at English Premiership giants Arsenal, had emigrated to France with his family from his native Senegal.
France’s multiracial and multicultural composition, though, riled the far right. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the far-right National Front party, criticised the national team’s selection, saying it was not representative of the country.
It was a further blow after Les Bleus added the 2000 European Championship with a team made up of players whose parents or grandparents came from Algeria, Argentina, Senegal, Poland, Portugal and Ghana.
France has been the trendsetter in assimilating players of African origin.
Step forward, Belgium
Over the years, I have been drawn to Belgium’s own African talent.
At the 1998 World Cup won by France, Belgium included in their squad two favourites of mine of that era, the brothers Emile and Mbo Mpenza – both strikers.
The Mpenza brothers originate from Congo, a country which continues to enjoy close links with its former colonial master, Belgium.
Mbo, the older of the two brothers, was born in Kinshasa, DRC, while Emile was born a year later in 1977 after the family had settled in Belgium.
Over the years, several other African players of African origin, have been capped by De Rode Duivels.
Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who has been roundly criticised for conceding a soft penalty which denied his team all three points in the 1-1 draw with Everton at the weekend, was born in Belgium of Moroccan parents.
Fellaini has made 73 appearances for Belgium.
Central midfielder Mousa Dembele, another Belgium international, was born of a Malian father and Belgian mother.
In recent times, Christian Benteke has emerged as the most well-known Belgium player of Congolese origin.
At the weekend, Benteke, who was born in Kinshasa 26 years ago, scored a brace for struggling Crystal Palace in the 3-0 win over Southampton at home.
It was Palace’s first win in eight games and they are now on position 13 in the EPL.
That win eased pressure on under-fire coach Alan Pardew, who reacted, after Benteke’s second goal, by gesturing towards the corporate box occupied by the club’s American owners.
In that gesture, Pardew was perhaps saying: “See, what Chris has done, with players like this, we can continue climbing up the table. I don’t understand this pressure on me!”
Benteke started his professional career in Belgium at Genk before moving to the English Premier League with Aston Villa between 2012 and 2015. His performances at Villa earned him a move to Liverpool for 32.2 million pounds, but it was not an enjoyable stay.
He only scored nine goals in 29 appearances in one single season in 2015-16 before joining Palace, where he has recorded relative success despite the team’s erratic form.
Fleeing dictator Mobutu
When he was young, Benteke’s family fled the Congolese regime of tyranny Mobutu Sese Seko and settled in Liege, Belgium.
His father was a soldier who was worried that his family would be targeted by rebel forces fighting to dispose Mobutu.
“It wasn’t especially because there was a war on where we were living, but because my father was in the military and he anticipated that fighting would reach us. He didn’t want to take risks with his family,” said Benteke in an interview two years ago.
Military dictator Mobutu ruled the Congo, which he had renamed Zaire, between 1965 and 1997.
Mobutu had come into power after Belgium helped him dispose the nationalist government led by Patrice Lumumba, who had been the country’s first democratically elected leader.
Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by the forces of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire led by Laurent Kabila, putting an end to 31 years of dictatorship.
Undying love for the Congo
Young Christian was a little boy when the family left the Congo. Even though he has never returned, he still has affection for the country of his forefathers.
“It used to be a very rich country but because of all the wars, some people have taken that wealth. We moved to Liege. We were welcomed. Clearly (Belgium) has been good to us.
“I feel like I am both Belgian and Congolese. At home, my mother would never speak to me in French. My dad would speak to us three kids in French, but the other adults in my family would speak Lingala (Congolese vernacular). So I feel a bit of both.”