Friday 22 April 2016, 17:00

Oniangue spreading happiness for club and country

There was an air of gloom around Stade de Reims during the six weeks when Prince Oniangue was sidelined with injury. Yet, no sooner did the Congolese midfielder make a goalscoring return to action in the 2-1 win over Nantes on 9 April than there were smiles back on faces at the French club. As well as boosting Reims’ fight against relegation from Ligue 1, Oniangue’s goal also reflected the influence he has on those around him. Aside from distributing the ball with aplomb in his midfield role, he likes nothing better than to spread a little happiness.

“It’s more fun to give than receive,” said the man himself when asked him to put his philosophy into words, one he will never relinquish, even when injury strikes. “I told myself during that time that I would learn something new. Some of the other injured players were sad and down, and I just cast a little light for them. Whenever a situation comes up, instead of being a problem, I try to be a solution. That’s why I turn up every day with a smile on my face and believe in myself.”

The best example of his gift for helping others came in his teenage years, when he came to the aid of his older brother Tresor, who has sickle-cell anaemia, a hereditary illness that can cause sudden and potentially fatal pain crises, and which has only one possible cure: a bone-marrow transplant. It just so happened that Oniangue was one of the very few suitable donors for his brother, and the only one in his family. A member of the Rennes youth academy at the time, the young footballer had to wait to reach the legal age before fulfilling his responsibility, selflessly putting his fledgling career in danger.

Strength in adversity “They said to me that usually there are no after-effects, though you can never be sure,” explained Oniangue. “My brother was the most important thing to me, though. We did the transplant but there wasn’t enough marrow, so they took some from my sternum too. It was a good experience though, because my brother is doing well now and he’s no longer in hospital.”

Typically, the self-effacing Oniangue forgot to mention that the operation kept him away from his club for several weeks, involved regular blood tests and medical check-ups, a long and difficult recovery and a considerable amount of paperwork. Happily, the last signature of all came when he put pen to paper on his first professional contract a few months later.

The optimism he showed throughout that ordeal was in evidence again in 2007, when he sat out the CAF Africa U-20 Cup of Nations – a tournament Congo would win without him – because his mother wanted him to take his final high-school exams, and again four years later, when he broke his jaw. Oniangue puts his sunny disposition down to his education, his regular church-going and, above all, to a childhood in which he was faced with many a test.

When you have a vision in your heart, it makes you get up in the morning, pushes you to do even more and helps you focus on winning.

“There are certain principles that I learned very early in life,” said the 27-year-old, casting his mind back to a childhood spent both in his native France and Congo, the land of his parents, a country riven by civil war at the time. “I was five in 1993, when my father, who was a bodyguard of the current president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, was shot six times in an assassination attempt.”

Miraculously, his father, a Congolese basketball international, recovered from his injuries and saw two of his 24 children launch elite sporting careers: Prince, in football, and Giovan, a professional basketball player with Paris-Levallois in the French first division. “It was a shock, but when I saw the whole of Congo rally round my father, I said to myself that the country was part of us and that one day I would do big things for it,” said Oniangue, who fulfilled that pledge by making his debut for Congo in 2008 and going on to wear the captain’s armband at the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.

For his part, Giovan became a Congolese international in 2013, taking inspiration from his father in choosing his sport, and from his brother in pursuing his career with the same positive mindset. “Prince’s good humour is infectious,” the basketball player told, adding that his older sibling is also a very good shooter with the ball in his hand. “The fact he’s always smiling, even if things aren’t going well, helps bring a little joy and sunshine to the team. Prince just projects this positive feeling with his smiles and the way he carries himself. I am very proud to see him bring that to his team-mates and I’m trying to do it too.”

Feet on the ground That positivity is evident not just in their respective changing rooms but also across Congo as a whole. “It had been 15 years since we last qualified , but we fought hard to be the light of the nation,” said Prince, who led Les Diables Rouges to the quarter-finals at last year’s continental finals. “Now we’re all sharing the same dream of qualifying for the World Cup. When you have a vision in your heart, it makes you get up in the morning, pushes you to do even more and helps you focus on winning.”

Congo’s current generation could well succeed where all their predecessors failed, by taking the country to the FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time in its history. Pierre Lechantre’s side have already negotiated the second round of the Russia 2018 qualifiers, giving renewed hope to the people of Congo, among them the country’s most famous basketball player.

“People are really starting to like the national team. There was a time when that wasn’t the case and they didn’t believe in it any more,” said Giovan. “But since this generation picked up the torch, with Prince as its leader, Congolese fans are watching the national team, are taking a lot more of an interest in their players and are following them at their respective clubs. Prince is a great leader, and he’s become even more popular since the last Africa Cup of Nations.”

While the charismatic Congo captain is happy to accept the praise coming his way, he never expects it. “We’ve done some good things, but we haven’t achieved anything yet,” he said. “If we go and win a competition or reach the World Cup, then we can start to talk a little. But I’ll always be there to calm things down, because you don’t achieve glory without being modest. That’s the key to success.”