Upon meeting Chris Samba, the defender reportedly courted by the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, you are immediately struck by his gigantic 1.95m frame, his firm handshake and his soft French accent. However, therein lays an anomaly, as he has won 20 caps for Congo. His parlance is most definitely European, rather than African.
A look at his biography reinforces that view: Samba was born on 28 March 1984 in Creteil, just south-east of Paris. After spells with local clubs, he moved north up the River Seine to Rouen, before ending up with Sedan’s B team.
There, he was considered to be a youngster with considerable potential and had even made a handful of appearances for the club's first team, when disaster struck. A broken fibula saw him out of action for over three months, and Sedan were not prepared to take the risk by offering him a professional contract.
“Every time in football it’s the same; sometimes people believe in you and sometimes they don’t," he recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "Then I left Sedan I couldn’t play, I couldn’t go on trial, so I was forced to train alone for six months. People thought I was in bad shape because everywhere I was going I was not fit enough or I was not ready to play.
“I really needed to get into a club and train with a team and I didn’t really know what to do. Then, the national team of Congo gave me a chance, they said I could go and train with them and get regular training and play regular matches so I could get back to full fitness.
“I played some games with the national team and people saw me. I earned a trial with Hertha Berlin, then I got spotted by Blackburn – and the rest is history. People say now that I have the ability to play for France, but I will never regret choosing Congo because it was because of them that I was able to get back on my feet. They helped me very much and I’m proud to play for them.”
Samba still has a large family in Congo, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and relishes returning to his ancestral home to play for the national team to see them and to give something back to the people who offered him a chance when he needed it most.
“I hope my family are proud of me and I hope I can make them even more proud in the future,” he smiled. “I love playing for Congo. When you arrive at the airport and then to the arrivals hall people physically pick you up and carry you to the waiting car, dancing and singing; it’s just great!
“I ought to apologise because I didn’t go back for the last couple of games but that was so I could really concentrate on what was happening at Blackburn and not take the risk of getting injured. At the time it was more important to be in England, but I'm really looking forward to playing for my national team again very soon.”
Samba points to the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Steven Moyoukolo and West Bromwich Albion’s player of the season Youssuf Mulumbu as emerging talents from Congo and Congo DR respectively. However, he believes that it's imperative his country needs makes bigger strides off the pitch in order to compete with Africa's top footballing nations.
“We’re getting more and more players, where I think we need to progress is in our professional standards,” he opined. “We have a couple of players playing in Europe and the Premier League but we are not getting the best out of them because as a country we do not live up to European levels of administration and organisation. If we raise standards off the pitch, I think that there would be a positive response on the pitch.
“If you look at African teams who have done well at Olympic Games or at World Cups - the likes of Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Cameroon - they had a good coaching and administrative structure in place, in comparison with other African teams. We are getting there slowly but surely. We'll get there ourselves one day.”
I will never regret choosing Congo because it was because of them that I was able to get back on my feet.
The Blackburn Rovers defender is taking matters into his own hands when it comes to improving the lives of people in Congo. In a few months time, the Chris Samba Foundation will be launched, mirroring club team-mate Jason Roberts’s equivalent, which aims to help people in Roberts' adopted homeland of Grenada.
Samba's foundation will initially aim to improve local schools and hospitals, as well as raising the quality of life for young children. Eventually, he hopes to open his own football academy in Congo.
“In Africa, a football player can be compared to a huge tree,” he said. “From the central branch you can help and give so much joy to other people. That’s why it’s so important and why so many African footballers are so determined to succeed because they know they can help a lot of people around them.
“It makes me very happy when I see people launching foundations and charities like that because it’s important to give something back when you have been given an opportunity because you should use your talents to give to other people.”
So many African footballers are so determined to succeed because they know they can help a lot of people around them.