Youth around the Democratic Republic of Congo grow up kicking things around the streets. They start young with Coca-Cola cans. As they grow older, it becomes tennis balls, or balled up socks.
The point is, though, it is a football crazed country.
When Sounders FC midfielder Steve Zakuani emigrated from the African nation at four years old, he was too young to remember kicking those Coke cans, but he knows it happened.
His mother has told him so.
And conversations with his mother throughout the years since his family moved to England and he since moved to the US to pursue his soccer career prompted him to make a dramatic decision this week when he chose to play his international soccer for Congo DR.
“I was just knowing that I’d be playing for a nation that she is so proud of and I’m so proud of too,” he said on Friday, when it was announced that he would play for Congo DR in a friendly against Mali near Paris on Wednesday.
Zakuani still has family in Africa too, many of whom he has never even met. When his older brother Gabriel, made his debut in 2005, “he was treated like a king,” Zakuani laughed. “I hope I get that reaction too.”
However, the dream of playing alongside Gabriel was almost put on hold when he got the news on Tuesday in a call from Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson.
Zakuani was awaiting his green card. If he wasn’t in the country when the final paperwork arrived, he would have to start the process all over again.
On Friday, he got an emergency travel waiver and now can fly to Paris on Sunday unencumbered to make his first international appearance without risking a delay in the green card process.
Now that it’s official, he can start planning conversations he will have with his brother when they room together on the trip. And it is an occurrence that his parents will be able to enjoy first-hand too, since it is so close to their home in London.
“I’ve played against him a few times and we’ve played pick-up games, but we’ve always dreamed of having it in an official setting,” he said. “This has been our goal and our parents can come out to see the game.”
When Zakuani goes through the list of reasons why he chose Congo DR over a chance to play for the USA or even England, it reveals more of the selfless individual who has endeared himself to the city of Seattle over the last two years.
Yes, the US would provide him with a more clear chance at playing in the 2014 World Cup if he was willing to wait a few years for citizenship. However, he would not have the opportunity to help unite his home country.
“I grew up in community in England with a lot of African kids – from Ghana, and Congo and Nigeria – and we always talked about how an African Nation can become so united. We saw Ghana do it at the World Cup. I want to be part of that with the Congo,” said Zakuani, 22. “Being born there – you can’t take that away.”
However, several players who were born in the country formerly known as Zaire have opted to play for the country that they emigrated to. Sounders FC striker Blaise Nkufo capped 34 times for Switzerland. Chelsea’s Jose Bosingwa plays for Portugal. Claude Makelele of Paris Saint-Germain plays for France. Because of those exports and a somewhat disorganized federation, Congo DR has struggled on the international stage. Currently ranked 124th in the world by FIFA, they are led by the likes of Herita Ilunga from West Ham and Lomana LuaLua who has played all over Europe. However, they are under new management with French coach Robert Nouzaret at the helm.
“They are starting from scratch and they are hungry,” Zakuani said. “They’ve shown that they want to take it very seriously and hopefully the level of play goes up too. I really think the team can qualify for the African Cup of Nations in 2012 or the World Cup in 2014 and I really want to be a part of that.”
Earlier this season, Zakuani and Nkufo had the opportunity to meet a group of refugees from the Congo DR at Qwest Field after a Champions League match with Saprissa. That meeting impacted Zakuani greatly.
“Those are the kids that I’m playing for,” he said.
Though he is not an emotional person, Zakuani admits it will be difficult to keep his emotions in check when the national anthem plays on Wednesday.
The possibility that the flag can fly over a country unified in support of the national team at the World Cup is not far away, and it is a dream that Zakuani hopes will become a reality.
“Everybody saw in the World Cup how the sport of football can unify the world. If it can unify the world it can unify Congo,” Zakuani said. “People in Congo are crazy about football.”
And if the fans in Seattle are any indication, they soon will be crazy about Steve Zakuani too.