Family ties inspiring Rennes rock

There must be something in the blood of the Kana-Biyik family. Having made his name with Cameroon in the 1990s, Andre Kana-Biyik is now watching proudly from the sidelines as his son Jean-Armel, who has recently pledged his national allegiance to the Indomitable Lions, forges a big reputation at the heart of the Rennes defence.

Exploring the ties that bind them, spoke to father and son about the speedy progress the latest member of the Kana-Biyik dynasty is making and his decision to choose Cameroon over the country of his birth.

“It’s in the genes,” said Andre, the brother of Francois Omam-Biyik, a team-mate of his when the freewheeling Africans went all the way to the quarter-finals at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™. “Football has always been in the family. My father was a player and so was my uncle, and my children have always got a thrill out of kicking a ball. It must be in the blood.”

Sixteen times an international, the former midfielder wound up his career after appearing in Cameroon’s ill-fated campaign at USA 1994, his final port of call being Le Havre, the very same club where his son Jean-Armel would start out years later.

“When he was six he was already saying he wanted to be a professional footballer,” explained his father. “Even as a youngster he was determined, talented and prepared to work hard, and his career is reward for all that.”

Making a name for himself
Learning the ropes with Le Havre, the oldest club in France, Kana-Biyik Jr would make his debut for the club some 14 years after his father’s retirement. A tenacious defender and mature for his years, he quickly graduated to the France U-21 team, his talent not going unnoticed by some of the country’s bigger outfits. Choosing Rennes as his next destination in 2010, Kana-Biyik has continued his progression, nailing down a first-team place.

“It’s not been easy to break into the side,” said the 22-year-old, a virtual ever-present this term for Les Rouges et Noir after making 28 appearances in 2010/11. “I only had one full season in Ligue 2 under my belt when I moved here, but I’ve applied myself and the hard work’s paid off.”

The fact that he’s reached this level is the best possible tribute he could pay to me. All I can say is I’m very proud of him.
Andre Kana-Biyik on son Jean-Armel

The strapping centre-half played his part in Rennes’ impressive campaign last season, proving a rock in the tightest defence in the land, with only 35 goals conceded, and contributing to their sixth-placed finish, good enough for a spot in the UEFA Europa League.

Now preferred by coach Frederic Antonetti ahead of Cameroonian stopper Georges Mandjeck and the Ghanaian John Boye, Kana-Biyik forms one half of a formidable central-defensive partnership with the team’s Senegalese captain Kader Mangane. 

“Competition for places is vital if you want to improve,” he said. “It stops you from resting on your laurels, and it’s important to know there are people pushing to get in the side and that there’s a big price to pay for the slightest mistake. There’s a good atmosphere at Rennes, and we’re all fighting for places. That can only be good for the team and we’re giving our all on the pitch.”

Rennes’ current league placing of fifth, just eight points adrift of leaders Montpellier, is proof of that, though Kana-Biyik is anxious for them to keep up the good work: “Our aim is to improve on last season. Beating Marseille and Lyon were feathers in our cap and only boosted our belief that we’ve got the potential and quality to do well. I’m convinced we’ve got what it takes to finish right up there.”

An indomitable lion
Domestic success has brought recognition at international level, though the youngster has followed his heart by committing to Cameroon instead of his native France. “I thought hard about it and it’s a decision I made with my heart, not just my head,” he explained. “They’re my roots and I want to retrace the steps my father and my uncle took. My dad has always been my role model and my idol. He and his brother Francois are the only two footballers I’ve ever really looked up to.”

“Obviously I’m very proud of the choice he has made,” said father of son. “It’s a personal decision and a responsible one, though I can see that his emotions have played a part in it too. I don’t think it’s going to be easy for him to follow in the footsteps of two family members in the national team. But he’s physically and mentally tough enough to face the challenge, and all he needs is experience. You have to have that if you’re going to wear the jersey of a team as big as Cameroon with pride.”

“Jean-Armel has absolutely nothing to prove to me,” added Kana-Biyik Sr, wrapping up our chat. “The fact that he’s reached this level is the best possible tribute he could pay to me. All I can say is I’m very proud of him.”