Man has dreamed of exploring new territories since time immemorial. And though centuries have passed since the days when Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan ventured far and wide, their stirring deeds remain etched in the collective memory. In discovering the unknown and embracing new experiences and cultures, they and others like them made the world a bigger place.
Cedric Bakambu is one of the heirs of those intrepid explorers of the past. Though the Congolese forward is still only 24, he is so well-travelled he has almost run out of pages in his passport. In a life that has taken him to electrifying Kinshasa, cosmopolitan Paris, vibrant Bursa and the altogether less frenetic Villarreal, the free-scoring striker has never been one to turn down an adventure. As he told FIFA.com: “You have to take risks.”
The reasons for front man’s desire to travel lie in his background, as he explained: “Both my parents are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were born in the capital Kinshasa but they emigrated to France and I was born in Paris. I grew up with both cultures and I am very proud of that. I think it’s something that enriches you.”
He showed a talent for football at an early age and was only 15 when he signed for Sochaux, then a French Ligue 1 side, having caught the attention of the club’s scouts with the way he carried himself on and off the pitch. “My parents brought me up well and my brothers gave me good advice too,” he said. “I was top of the class at school, and I’m a pretty calm kind of person, which also comes across in the way I play.”
Contributing one goal to France’s run to fourth place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, Bakambu stayed at Sochaux until their relegation to Ligue 2 in 2014, at which point he moved on to pastures new. Despite piquing the interest of teams in France, England and Germany, he decided to take a leap into the unknown and decamp to Turkey.
Bypassing Istanbul and the country’s biggest clubs, he made Bursa, a city of four million people situated in the middle of Turkey, his destination. The scorer of 21 goals in 39 appearances for Bursaspor, Bakambu has no regrets about that decision: “I took a risk. Sometimes in life you have to know what you want. I was motivated, determined, and I knew I wasn’t going to end my career there. I needed to come back up somewhere, though, and it went very well for me.”
Back to his roots
His fine season in Turkey did not go unnoticed in Spain, with the young striker packing his bags after a season with Bursaspor and signing for Villarreal. In the meantime, however, came another new adventure as the Congo DR national team called him up for international duty.
“I’d never been to Congo before but I didn’t have any doubts in my mind,” said the 6’0-tall forward. “It’s the country of my parents, which means it’s mine too. You can’t ever forget where you come from.”
The trip to Kinshasa for a 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier against Burundi changed Bakambu’s life. Casting his mind back to the experience, he said: “It really opened my eyes. I was so surprised. It’s a very poor country but people go around smiling all the same. That’s what struck me most of all, and I said to myself that if my parents hadn’t gone to France, I might well have been one of those kids who wanted to come up and touch me.”
Expanding on the close proximity between players and fans in Africa, something not often seen in Europe, he said: “People are very tactile. They welcome us at the airport like we’re heads of state. They’re friendly and they get up very close to the players. When the team gets together it’s like a party. And it’s very difficult for opposing teams because they’re very passionate. The same thing happens to us when we travel to another African country. You can really feel the pressure.”
Sky’s the limit
With Bakambu’s help, Congo DR have reached the group phase of the Russia 2018 preliminaries, their dream coming closer to reality. “We know that the country hasn’t reached the World Cup since 1974, which is a long time,” he said. “We have a competitive team with a combination of home-based and ‘European’ players. If we can get the mix right, then we’ll be dangerous.”
Bakambu’s immediate objectives lie with Villarreal, however. In scoring 12 goals in 24 appearances, he has helped his club become one of the revelations of the La Liga season. “Life is very different here,” he said. “It’s a small place and very quiet. It’s a lot more relaxed but I’ve settled in well. My team-mates help me a lot. Goals don’t come on their own, you know, though I have scored quite a few (laughs). I want to keep on helping the team. We’re in fourth place and there’s no reason why we can’t stay there.”
So are there are any more journeys on the horizon for this footballing explorer, a man who harbours as many dreams in his head as his passport holds stamps? “Of course,” came the unequivocal answer. “The UEFA Champions League and Russia 2018. I’m ambitious and I like to set targets for myself. I don’t think you can be scared in life.”