Life could hardly have been much sweeter for Congo’s Bel Epako by the time the African U-17 Championship came to a close last January. As well as helping fire his team to a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, the young marksman also finished the regional qualifying competition as joint leading goalscorer. Within a few short weeks, however, he was fighting for his life after being struck down by a lung infection.
“We found out when we were on holiday,” Congo coach Eddie Hudanski tells FIFA.com. “We headed back to Congo as quickly as we could and started working on his recovery, as one of his lungs was practically finished. Fortunately, he did his bit and here he is. He’s not fully fit, but even at 70 per cent he’s still very important for us.”
“At the time I was thinking more about missing the World Cup than I was about my life,” says the willowy 16-year-old, taking up the story from his coach. “But here I am and I want to be the top goalscorer in the competition.”
The Baby Red Devils striker has gone some way to achieving that objective already, opening his tournament account in the 2-1 loss to Mexico with an exquisite left-footed strike. “It was just how I imagined it would be,” he adds. “I thought about my family, my friends and my team-mates. It’s just a shame it didn’t count for much in the end.”
Diamond in the rough
Born in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville, Epako started to play the game at the age of seven before joining one of the country’s tenth-tier clubs three years later. He was 13 when Hudanski discovered him and took him off to the National Football Academy, where 18 of Congo’s 20-man squad hail from.
“He’s quick, technically gifted and intelligent,” says Hudanski, describing the qualities that first alerted him to Epako’s potential. “His finishing is better than most of the players I’ve seen here, and though he loves scoring goals he knows how to do everything else as well. I coached [Samuel] Eto’o as a boy and I can tell you that Bel is a better player than Samuel was at the age of 17.”
The insatiable Cameroonian is an obvious example for Epako to follow, as is Togo’s Emmanuel Adebayor and Ivorian idol Didier Drogba, a player he admires for being “a role model for both his team-mates and compatriots”. Fittingly for a Red Devil, another world-class player he looks up to is Manchester United’s Javier Chicharito Hernandez: “I love the way he plays and he’s doing really well in Manchester.”
Learning the trade
Unlike most boys his age, Epako is no video-game devotee, prefering instead to watch real matches on TV. “There’s a simple reason for that,” he explains. “It’s my dream to be a professional footballer so I need to watch games and pay close attention if I’m going to learn. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to play in the English League with Arsenal, which is where I’d love to go.”
For the time being, however, Epako has plenty to keep him occupied, starting with Friday’s decisive Group A match with Korea DPR, a game the Congolese will most likely need to take something from to reach the next round at Mexico 2011. “Losing to Mexico was a disappointment but our confidence is still intact,” he says defiantly. “One point might be enough for us to go through, but we know we can’t afford to play for a draw. Our style is to attack without fear and we’ll be giving it a go for sure.”
At the time of writing, Congo are the only African side to have collected points in the tournament. Asked as to why that may be, the fearless youngster fires back with an answer that encapsulates the indomitable spirit that has taken him this far: “Perhaps they’re showing too much respect to their opponents. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that we haven’t come to Mexico to watch everyone else play. Our goal is clear and simple: we’ve come to play the final and I hope we can do it.”