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Gounongbe: I'm a bit of an outsider in the football world

Benin's national football team players pose on November 17, 2015 in Ouagadougou

Benin forward Frederic Gounongbe boasts a full set of skills, as a quick look at his 13 goals for Westerlo this season amply demonstrates. The 6'3 (1.90m) southpaw can do it all, scoring with both feet, from the penalty spot, with his head, at full speed, sliding in or on the volley. And his talents do not end there either, as the prolific marksman could just as easily have become a tennis player or pursued a career in business.

"My background is pretty untypical," he explained to "I never dreamed of being a professional footballer. I really didn't think I'd be able to earn money through this sport, firstly because tennis was my number one discipline. I played it all the time and to a high level. And I was also following the classic path of any other schoolkid. After getting my baccalaureate, I began studying business. So I saw myself ending up on a tennis court or in an office rather than on football pitches in Belgium."

Gounongbe's natural gift for the game soon scuppered those plans. Having only ever played "for fun" in his youth, everything changed when he accompanied a friend to a training session at a fourth-division Belgian side at the age of 16. "They needed a forward, and it went from there. I quickly made my way into the first team, and then I started to climb up through the divisions in the Belgian championship."

Now 27, Gounongbe has established himself as a starter in the top flight, with Westerlo having finished 15th in the table this season. "I'm a bit of an outsider in the football world because I started out late. My team-mates have been football mad since they were very young. Unlike me, they went through the academy system, but that doesn't affect my rapport with them. I like to compare my everyday life as a footballer to that of a business employee: I also have friends, colleagues and simple work acquaintances. It's a professional sector like any other, even if it is a little different because it's sport." 

As in business, results are paramount too. And although Gounongbe enjoyed a superb season individually, finishing second in the goalscoring charts, his team endured a testing campaign, only saving themselves from relegation on the final day of the regular season. "It's difficult to say you've had a good season personally when things don't go so well collectively. That's why I say I had an average season, but I was expecting it to be a tough campaign. Westerlo are a fairly modest club in Belgium. My main goal was to help my club stay in the top division, rather than to finish as the leading scorer."

Qualifying quest
Gounongbe's next goal – figurative and possibly literal – will come in the colours of his national team. Despite his late start in football, he is deeply committed to the Benin cause. "I've now achieved my ultimate dream as a footballer: to wear the shirt of my country," he said. "It's a unique experience. For some people, their dream is to wear the shirt of a certain club or play in the Champions League, but for me it was that."   

The Brussels native's first cap came in May 2014, when he represented Les Écureuils (the Squirrels) in a 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Sao Tome e Principe. Since then, he has added six more appearances and three goals, but he was unable to help Benin reach the third round of preliminaries for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. "Unfortunately, we got narrowly beaten by Burkina Faso [losing 2-0 away after a 2-1 first-leg win]. It's a real shame because right now we have a great generation of players who play pretty much everywhere in Europe, with Stephane Sessegnon perhaps the best-known."

They will have to content themselves with the race for places at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations instead, and Gounongbe is now keenly looking forward to Benin's second encounter against South Sudan. "I'm convinced we wouldn't be out of place there, and our goal is to make it," he explained. As an ardent devotee of Africa – who spent his entire childhood in Senegal – he is doubly anxious for Les Ecureuils to make the cut. "That's where I learned how to play football and also where I learned to surf, which is another thing I did a lot."

Yet another skill that can be added to this extraorinary footballer's remarkable list of talents!

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