The Road Less Travelled: How Cedric Bakambu Became Africa's Most Expensive Star

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 15, 2018

B/R / Getty

Yellow. Green. Yellow. Green.

You need only look at the colours that Cedric Bakambu has worn in his club career to appreciate that he has trodden the road less travelled: Sochaux, Bursaspor, Villarreal and now, following a £65 million ($91 million) transfer that has made him the most expensive African player in football history, Beijing Guoan. No royal blues, no regal reds, no famous stripes. Yellow, green, yellow, green.

Bakambu's move to Beijing, completed earlier this month after some wrangling over a 100 percent tax on overseas players imposed by the Chinese authorities, has provoked the usual disdainful comments about talented players being lured to China in their prime, but in Bakambu's case, his relatively low profile adds an extra layer of intrigue.

He has never played for a major European club. He has never won a senior honour. He has never played at a World Cup. What could have prompted Beijing Guoan to spend so much money?

Although Bakambu cannot hold a candle to African greats like Abedi Pele, George Weah and Samuel Eto'o, the Democratic Republic of Congo striker has forged a rich and varied career for himself thanks in part to some strikingly bold decision-making.

From keeping Antoine Griezmann in the shade at youth level to chasing down Lionel Messi in the La Liga scoring charts, he has done things the hard way and come out smiling every time.

         

         

Bakambu was born in Paris to parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo and grew up in Vitry-sur-Seine in the southeastern suburbs. A Paris Saint-Germain supporter (article in French), he played football for two local clubs, ES Vitry and US Ivry, before joining the youth set-up at Sochaux at the age of 15 (ignoring the advice of his headmaster (in French), who felt that he had the academic potential to become an engineer).

Sochaux youth coach Jean-Sebastien Merieux remembers a gifted attacking player who quickly found his feet in eastern France, but who regularly needed to be tugged by the ear.

"To get him from the chateau [where Sochaux's youth-team players lived] to the school, he went at two kilometres per hour," Merieux told Bleacher Report. "To get him from the chateau to the changing rooms, he went at two kilometres per hour. He himself admits that he can be a bit nonchalant. You often had to shake him.

"He already had great explosive qualities, but he almost went too fast for his technical abilities. So we had to do a lot of work, as with any young player, and we had to be a bit patient until he was able to ally his speed with his technical ability."

Bakambu during his Sochaux days
Bakambu during his Sochaux daysPATRICK HERTZOG/Getty Images

It was in the 2009-10 season, during which Bakambu turned 19, that Merieux and the other coaches at Sochaux realised what a talent they had on their hands. Deployed in a number of attacking positions, Bakambu starred in Sochaux's run to the final of the Coupe Gambardella (France's equivalent of the Youth Cup) and scored the opening goal against Metz in the decider at Stade de France, which Merieux's side lost on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

"That year, we knew that he was going to go very far," said Merieux, who had previously worked with a young Olivier Giroud at Grenoble.

"He had more confidence in himself, and that translated into more success in front of goal. There are lots of boys who are good at 13 or 14. The important thing is to be good at 20, and he was good at 20.

"He was the leader of the attack. He was the one who unlocked almost all the situations. In the final, he was the best player on the pitch. We knew that when we had Cedric in the team we'd create chances and we'd hurt our opponents."

Bakambu had already been capped by France at youth level, and later that summer he would play a pivotal role for the team that triumphed as hosts of the Under-19 European Championship. Francis Smerecki's squad boasted the talents of Antoine Griezmann and Alexandre Lacazette, but it was Bakambu who led the line in the final in Caen, where France came from a goal down to beat Spain 2-1. Bakambu finished as the tournament's joint-second highest scorer with three goals.

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

A year later, Smerecki took the same group of players to Colombia for the Under-20 World Cup, where they finished fourth. Bakambu started every game but one, and although he scored only once, in a 2-0 group-stage win over Mali, he had established himself at the hub of a dazzling generation of French footballers who were tipped for the top.

         

          

While Bakambu was impressing for France at youth level, Sochaux were hitting the heights in Ligue 1, the club from the Franco-Swiss border achieving a surprise fifth-place finish in the 2010-11 season under the stewardship of Francis Gillot.

But as Bakambu asserted himself in the first team at Stade Bonal (a process expedited by the departures of senior strikers Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga), so Sochaux slid down the standings. In 2014, three years after qualifying for the Europa League, they were relegated. Bakambu found himself looking for a new club.

"When we were relegated to Ligue 2, as I was young and coming out of the French youth teams, I thought I'd find a Ligue 1 club quite easily. But it wasn't the case," he told France Football (in French) earlier this season.

"It was a bit of a slap in the face. That's why I took a gamble and went to Turkey. It's what I needed to regain confidence and score some goals … It was the most difficult decision. It caused a few conflicts within my family. It wasn't easy because nobody understood my decision."

In the final hours of the 2014 summer transfer window, Bakambu signed for Bursaspor, a move that he would come to describe as a "crazy risk" (in French). On his first trip to Bursa, an industrial city in northwest Turkey, he brought along a friend who ran a Turkish restaurant in Montbeliard (where Sochaux play) to act as a translator.

As an uncapped player arriving from a French second-tier club for a fee of only €1.8 million ($2.2 million), Bakambu was met with little fanfare. In a nod to his home "departement" of Val-de-Marne, where postcodes begin "94," he took the No. 94 shirt.

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 01:  Cedric Bakambu of Beijing Guoan FC attends a press conference at Worker's Stadium on March 1, 2018 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by XIN LI/Getty Images)
XIN LI/Getty Images

Bursa coach Senol Gunes played Bakambu on the left flank in a 4-2-3-1 system, enabling him to cut inside onto his favoured right foot. Bursa's supporters were seduced in the space of one October week when Bakambu scored a brace in a 2-2 draw at home to Eskisehirspor and then plundered a 16-minute hat-trick in a 5-0 success at Balikesirspor.

Assisted by fellow winger Volkan Sen and Brazilian striker Fernandao in a powerful Bursa attack, Bakambu finished the season with an excellent return of 21 goals in all competitions. The fans christened him "Bakagol."

"He became a fan favourite thanks to his good nature and his effective performances on the pitch," said Turkish journalist Serkan Yetismisoglu, who has been reporting on Bursaspor since 1987.

"I'd say that he was Bursa's best-loved African player after the Ugandan Majid Musisi, who invented the club's famous ‘crocodile walk' goal celebration. The fans were devastated when Bakambu moved to Spain, but he didn't cut his ties with the club. He still celebrates Bursa's victories on Instagram and Twitter."

Bakambu had felt that he would need to spend two years proving himself in Turkey to earn a move to one of Europe's major leagues. His performances for Bursa enabled him to make that switch 12 months ahead of schedule, signing a five-year contract with Villarreal in August 2015 for a fee of €7 million ($8.7 million).

Villarreal felt like a home away from home for Bakambu, who discerned echoes of his formative years at Sochaux in the club's banana-yellow kit and homely feel. "He told me that it was a family club and that it was similar to the atmosphere he'd known at Sochaux," Merieux said. "Cedric needs to have a simple, family environment around him."

Bakambu formed an excellent partnership with Roberto Soldado in his first season at El Madrigal and took to European football like a duck to water, scoring nine goals on Villarreal's path to the Europa League semi-finals (second only to competition top scorer Aritz Aduriz) and finishing the season with 22 goals in all competitions.

Bakambu took on the likes of Messi in La Liga
Bakambu took on the likes of Messi in La LigaJOSE JORDAN/Getty Images

Hampered by a thigh injury sustained in pre-season (and with Soldado sidelined by knee ligament damage), Bakambu found the net only 12 times in his second season in Spain, but when Colombian striker Carlos Bacca arrived on loan from AC Milan at the beginning of the current campaign, a new partnership took root.

Bakambu and Bacca hit it off instantly, scoring a combined total of 22 goals over the season's first half and starring in a sensationally twee Christmas video in which they donned yellow Santa hats and sang "Bacca y Bakambu" to the tune of "Jingle Bells."

Bakambu won La Liga's Player of the Month award in October—the first African player to have done so—and when the league was suspended for the winter break, he was behind only Lionel Messi, Iago Aspas, Luis Suarez and Simone Zaza in the top scorer rankings.

          

          

Having represented France 33 times at youth level, Bakambu dreamed of emulating other French players with Congolese roots such as Steve Mandanda and Blaise Matuidi by making the step up to the senior team.

Yet as he fought to establish himself at Sochaux, he found himself well down the international pecking order and by 2013 he was already being sounded out by DR Congo coach Claude Le Roy about playing for the country of his parents' birth.

He waited until March 2015 before accepting a call-up from Le Roy's successor, Florent Ibenge, who a month earlier had guided Les Leopards to third place at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.

"It's an extremely difficult decision, because it has heavy consequences," Bakambu told L'Equipe (in French). "I took a step back, thought about it properly and I take responsibility for this choice. There's obviously a little bit of disappointment with regard to Les Bleus, and I'm still one of their supporters, but I repeat, I take responsibility."

Bakambu is much loved in DR Congo
Bakambu is much loved in DR CongoAFP Contributor/Getty Images

Though the influence of his parents meant that he grew up understanding Lingala, one of DR Congo's indigenous languages, he had never been to the country. His first visit to Kinshasa, in 2015, took his breath away. "I hadn't even played a match, yet they made banners for me," he said. "It's really something else. It was through football that I discovered my country."

By the end of 2015 Bakambu was playing in Spain, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in some of the world's most famous football stadiums. The adulation back 'home' in DR Congo reached levels not seen since Shabani Nonda was strutting his stuff for Monaco in the early 2000s.

"When Cedric Bakambu started playing for Villarreal, all the Congolese people became fans of Villarreal," says Dickson Yalla, a Congolese journalist.

"On every street in the country, whenever they were playing, you'd find a huge crowd of people watching. People here generally support Barcelona or Real Madrid, but when the 'Yellow Submarine' played, everyone was in front of a TV. I remember he scored against Barca or Real once, in a match played on a Sunday night, and people in Kinshasa screamed so much it was even louder than when the national team score."

When Ibenge benched Bakambu during last year's Africa Cup of Nations, so as to field captain Dieumerci Mbokani as a lone striker, fans reacted with fury on social media. Bakambu played for only the last seven minutes as DR Congo lost to Ghana in the quarter-finals, but as the team pushed for a World Cup spot over the months that followed (eventually losing out to Tunisia), he became a mainstay.

With Bakambu's status as a national figurehead secure, the only matter vexing his fans in DR Congo is his decision to swap the bright lights of the Spanish top flight for the relative obscurity of the Orient.

NANJING, CHINA - MARCH 11:  Cedric Bakambu #7 of Beijing Guoan FC in action during the 2018 Chinese Super League match between Jiangsu Suning and Beijing Guoan at Nanjing Olympic Sports Center on March 11, 2018 in Nanjing, China.  (Photo by XIN LI/Getty I
XIN LI/Getty Images

"The majority of Congolese people reacted very badly when Bakambu left Spain to go to China. People thought he'd destroyed his career," Yalla explained.

"There's a saying in the Lingala language: 'Biloko ya ba chinois ewumelaka te.' It means that nothing that comes from China ever lasts. People started saying that if our centre-forward has gone from Spain to China, he won't be in great form.

"In time, the fans have started to accept that he's just doing his job, but they're looking forward to the next international get-together to see how he does. There are doubts."

Signed in tandem with China winger Wei Shihao, Bakambu joined Brazil midfielder Renato Augusto and Spanish pair Jonathan Soriano and Jonathan Viera at Beijing Guoan, who are targeting a return to the Asian Champions League after a disappointing ninth-place finish in 2017. He scored his first goal for the club last Sunday as Guoan got off the mark for the season with a 2-1 victory over Fabio Capello's Jiangsu Suning in their second game.

Bakambu turns 27 next month and is entering his peak years, but as the Paulinho Protocol illustrates, a move to China need not be a one-way ticket as far as a top-level career in European football is concerned.

He has taken risks before—moving to Turkey, electing to play for DR Congo—and they have paid off, so it is not inconceivable that he might yet wear the colours of a European superclub one day. Just as long as he can accept not playing in yellow or green, of course.

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