Sport

Assombalonga’s conga: Where will his loyalties land?

By Antoinette Muller 25 September 2013

Britt Assombalonga is just 20 years old, but the star striker is fast becoming a much-loved player at his club, Peterborough United. He is a former DR Congo international, and global call-ups might still be far in the future for the promising striker, but having split loyalties cannot be easy. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Britt Assombalonga is fast gathering a cult-like following in England. The son of former Congo international, Fedor Assombalonga, he has become a fan favourite at Peterborough United with his eight goals in 10 games after signing on for a club record of £1.5million.

The Posh fans have come up with a special chant for the youngster: “Let’s all do the Conga/ for Britt Assombalonga,” they chant. He’s just 20 years old, but has been playing football across England since 2010. His father decided 19 years ago that he would take his family, including the then eight-month-old Britt, to London to start a new life. Assombalonga was just 17 when he signed for Watford as a youth player after coming through the Hertswood Academy System. One year later, he was rewarded a professional contract, becoming the 50th player to come through the academy and make it to the first team.

Loan spells followed at Wealdstone, Braintree and Southend before he caught the eye of Peterbrough and signed on for a four-year deal. His story doesn’t fit the romantic narrative of the African footballer who made it, but it does feature the important question of where players like him should place their loyalties when it comes to international football.

Assombalonga is clearly loved by the fans in England, and he has spoken about how special he feels that a song has been made just for him. He feels wanted and feels like he fits. But that’s not to say he has forgotten his African roots.

Since the family’s switch to England, his family has strived to keep the “African dream” – as he calls it – alive. Stories of needing to walk miles to get to school and how his parents struggled when they were younger were relayed to Assombalonga and his two sisters and brother when they were growing up. His family has played a central role in his career and just a few weeks ago, his dad took a last-minute decision to hop on a bus to watch his son play against Bristol City. The youngster had just won the Football League’s Young Player of the Month award for August and his father wanted to see what he had on offer.

His dad’s impromptu decision proved to be worthwhile as Assombalonga scored twice and even ended up being booked for trying to celebrate his goal with his father watching on from the stands.

All the trophies and medals he has won remain at his parents’ house as they want to share in his achievements. There remains one question, though. When it comes to picking an international side, who will Assombalonga play for?

Gabi Zakuani, a DR Congo international, also plays at Peterborough and has been in Assombalonga’s ear about joining him there. His father similarly wants him to represent his country of birth. The striker has not been back to where he was born yet, but he hopes to return soon.

“I want to see where I started off,” said Assombalonga in an interview with the BBC.

“I wanted to go a year ago but I had to wait because of all the disruptions that were happening there. But now it’s settled down they say I can go whenever I like.

“My dad used to play football back in Congo. He played for the national team. Gabs knows about him and he’s also in my ear. But he’s still telling me now it’s my decision who I play for. You never know. We’ll have to see what happens. Congo will always be in my heart.”

As football is becoming an increasingly global game and more migrants are seeking their fortunes elsewhere, it’s talent like Assombalonga that needs to be handled and managed very carefully. Whatever his decision, he won’t be the first to have to make it.

Rio Mavuba, the son of a former Congo international, was born at sea and went on to represent France while Claude Makelele was born in then-Zaire and went on to represent France. Those are just two cases out of many, with Patrice Evra perhaps the most infamous case of choosing France over his country of birth – Senegal. Evra’s family left the country when he was just 12 months old, yet his decision has been heavily criticised.

“I grew up amid a Senegalese culture at home,” Evra said.

“But we became westernised very quickly and when I had to choose between playing for Senegal or France my father told me to follow my heart. I opted for France, as that was where I had grown up, but I then came in for lots of abuse in Senegal. I was called a monkey who grovels before the white man and labelled a money-obsessed traitor to the nation. But my parents helped me get through it.”

While the prospect of an international debut is still quite some time away from the promising Assombalonga, it’s certainly not an easy decision. Holding out for a call-up with England might never be realised, while the possibility of representing DR Congo could come much sooner. It’s not an easy position to be in, and the comfort of dual nationality seems more of a blessing than a curse in this case. Despite having left the country of his birth so long ago, many will consider Assombalonga a traitor if he opts to hold out for an England call up while others will deem him foolish to give up on that prospect.

This is where, in the modern era, those dreaded middlemen known as football agents play such an important part. It’s why it is so vital that youngsters like Assombalonga have adequate assistance from those who manage his off-field affairs. While agents are often seen as a pest rather than an asset, many do play crucial parts in taking care of players’ welfare and, of course, their finances.

While international football holds less of a bounty than the domestic transfer market and agents play less of a role in their clients’ international choices, there is always an element of advice attached. One can only hope that whoever is guiding Assombalonga has more at heart than simply seeing their client’s name in lights. DM

Photo: Britt Assombalonga (Wikimedia Commons)

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