Stephane Mbia is one of the symbols of the recent Cameroonian revival, bringing his youthful enthusiasm to what had been a slightly ageing side. At 21, he is a stalwart of the Rennes team enjoying a favourable start to the Ligue 1 season, and the defensive midfielder could soon become one of the first names on the Indomitable Lions' team-sheet.
The first time the wider public heard his name could hardly have fitted in with his plans, however. Victim of a racial slur during a French championship encounter with Olympique Lyonnais, Mbia suddenly found himself at the centre of a media storm, but since then he has gone on to attract the limelight for more positive reasons.
Neither the positive nor negative attention will have done much to turn Mbia's head, though, and there could be no better proof of his tranquil nature than the decision to move to Brittany in the first place. A native of Yaounde, he originally had the scouts jotting in their notebooks at the FIFA U-17 World Championship Finland 2003, with many heralding from leading French outfits including Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux. Instead, he opted for Rennes, joining an ambitious side with none of the glamour of their rivals, but with an excellent training program that garnered awards this year and last. "I decided to move to Rennes because they put their faith in youngsters," he explained. No less than half of the first team has risen through the club's own ranks, in fact.
Having signed at the age of 17 in 2003, the young Cameroonian slowly began breaking into the first eleven the following year and is now one of the pillars of the side. He regularly earns rave reviews as well, despite having started out as an attacking midfielder. "It was suggested to me in training that I drop back because I could become a very good holding midfielder thanks to my physique and my technique," he said. Capable of operating in both defence and midfield, his flexibility has often been a real boon for Rennes coach Pierre Dreossi.
After four years in the French game, the African has of course profited immensely himself, expanding his repertoire and maturing in the process. "I've progressed in terms of technique, mental attitude and my reading of the game. I'm also calmer and I take decisions on my own," he said. The former Kadji Academy trainee has not stopped there either: "I still have to improve my anticipation and goal-scoring. And I could do with getting a few less yellow cards!"
A long time before disciplinary matters became a concern, Mbia grew up in the Yaounde neighbourhood of Byem Assi. The third of seven children, he took his first steps in the game at Ecofoot, a training centre set up by former professional Gabriel Zibi. And as his dreams of a professional career in Europe began to take shape, Mbia's idol was Marc-Vivien Foe, the powerful Cameroonian defensive midfielder who tragically passed away in 2003. After his time at Ecofoot, the youngster played for the Kadji Sport Academy Club in Douala, where he received call-ups to the national youth sides during his four-year stint.
Nicknamed Chip Chop after a popular move in Douala that involves the ball travelling from the chest to the outside of the foot, Mbia remains an open individual. And he greatly appreciates his adopted homeland. "I love the warmth of people in Rennes, the centre of the town and restaurants that serve turkey in Normandy sauce!" he exclaimed. If he had not become a footballer, he is confident he would have learnt the art of defending in another realm. "I could have seen myself becoming a lawyer," he said.
His footballing prowess has served him well, though, and his excellent displays for Rennes earned him promotion to the national side in May last year. He made his debut against the Netherlands and has clocked up more than ten appearances since then, scoring once. "It's a dream, an honour and a pleasure to be in the senior team alongside players such as [Samuel] Eto'o, [Rigobert] Song and Geremi," he enthused. "I never thought it would happen so quickly." Despite his rapid rise, Chip Chop has kept his feet firmly on the ground: "Nothing's certain for me yet because I'm still getting used to everything. Myself and [Nancy player] Landry Nguemo are there to learn and give all we can every time we get selected."
He may not wish to get carried away just yet, but Mbia is still desperate to take part in the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana. "It's a big competition with a lot of emotion and suspense. Every player wants to experience it at some point and my goal is to be in the squad," he said. Should he meet that target, the Indomitable Lion knows life will be difficult in Group C. "We'll have to take all the matches very seriously because we don't know much about Namibia or Sudan. As for Egypt, they knocked us out in the qualifiers for the World Cup. It's important to win the first match if you hope to go further."
Modest to a fault, the Rennes ace none the less realises that his stock is rising. But despite a number of enticing offers, he would prefer to continue his education at the Stade de la Route de Lorient: "I've been contacted by some very big Spanish and English clubs, but I want to stay at Rennes. I still have a lot to learn and I'll only make progress if I put in the work."