BeNeLook: Ilombé Mboyo – Unwanted and once more at the crossroads

Peter Maes’ new era at Racing Genk has begun. There is a long road ahead but they have the right man at the helm. One player who will not be part of the ex-Lokeren manager’s plans is Ilombé Mboyo. The skilful striker knows all about setbacks. His career is built upon them as if they were a stack of playing cards that even a gentle breeze will push over whenever it feels like. And just when the cards have been piled high, the rebuilding becomes undone by the wind tearing back through again.

The initial setback

Mere months ago Mboyo was on the cusp of the Premier League. He could have been the welcoming party for Mbemba or Clasie. He could have learned from Lukaku and Benteke who made the jump before him. Ultimately it did not come to pass for the man dubbed ‘Le Petit Pele’, the problem with skeletons is that just when you think they’re soundly buried – they come tumbling out of the closet instead.

For Mboyo it was a decade-old mistake that still shapes his career. As a 17-year-old Anderlecht youth player he was running with a notorious Brussels street gang and was part of the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl. He was jailed for eight years.

In 2009, while in jail he met Pierre Bodenghien, a Charleroi scout who was running a ‘Football in Prison’ scheme that was started in 1995 by the then-Princess Paola of Belgium. With his good behaviour recognised a deal was struck that would allow him to play for Charleroi.

Mboyo’s jail stint may be in the past. But people’s memories were not. So after slowly working his way up the food chain via KV Kortrijk to KAA Gent and finding himself the talk of an international call up his criminal record was brought back into the light. It may have been something he did as a juvenile, it may be one badly regrettable mistake, but crimes as serious as this have a habit of following you around.

Despite receiving two caps for Belgium, the FA were forcibly required to defend his selection. He made his debut with a four minute cameo against Scotland in a World Cup 2014 Qualification match but the damage had been done. Mboyo wasn’t good enough to warrant the controversy he brings with him.

A penalty to pay the price

At the end of 2012, Mboyo was riding the crest of a wave. He had made his international debut, was in fine form for Gent and was entrusted as the team captain. By this stage the world was at his feet with talk of a move to the English Premier League being discussed in the media and undoubtedly fervently mentioned between Mboyo and his agent.

In a match against Waasland-Beveren Gent had a penalty and Mboyo’s miss would be ridiculed for a long time. People love to see failure, particularly when they see Mboyo’s swagger, attempting a ‘Panenka’ and it crashes and burns spectacularly. It’s the sort of moment a lovable rogue would see laughed off, for Mboyo it turned into another stick to beat him with. Just when things were going well, just when he was assembling the final two pieces to his tower of cards the table was mockingly shaken. Everything just went wrong. The cards go everywhere.

At full time Mboyo confronted the Gent fans who booed him. He attended an impromptu press conference without any club officials at his arm. He apologised. Claimed he gave one hundred percent at all the times. Resigned as captain. Condemned those whom he claimed racially abused him. It was a press conference that showed Mboyo to the world. Confident and defiant, determined to show off his resilience but also showing him as always on the back foot, always defending himself, always shaking off the criticism that dogged him everywhere he went.

He would again spend a night in a jail cell after refusing to provide documentation to police that proved he wasn’t an illegal immigrant, while out celebrating in the African-centric area of Brussels where raids are common. For Mboyo trouble was always just hiding around the corner, ready to jump out at him at a moments notice.

The West Ham non-starter

Yet by the end of the 2013 season Mboyo was a 20 goal striker and West Ham United proved more than willing suitors. A good match all things considered, a stable team with potential but unlikely to outgrow Mboyo too quickly. When fans dug deeper though, things soured quickly.

West Ham may have had their own off-field issues in the past but supporting someone who has committed sexual assaulted is very different. When your ledger has a black mark in it such as Mboyo’s we already know it can be difficult to shake. A crime as deplorable as his is often divisive. He wouldn’t be the first player to come back from a jail sentence but therein lies the problem, where do your allegiances lie?

It’s a question that transcends football and tugs at the very fibre of our moral ethics. Ultimately Mboyo has served his punishment, so some would argue that he is free to pursue his career as he sees fit. Jail is a rehabilitation spell, he has served his time and in theory has been given a clean slate.

But then how would his female victim feel to see one of her attackers become a global star profiteering to an unthinkable degree when he has such a checkered past? Surely it is inconceivable that he has changed, and instead he has spent a little bit of his life in jail but ultimately will retire a wealthy and successful man.

It really depends on what side of the fence you are looking at it from.

As it transpired the pressure on West Ham’s owner David Sullivan was too great and they opted not to pursue Mboyo. Charlton fans also wasted no time in putting a petition together to prevent any possible move. We could draw comparisons with the Ched Evans case, another high profile footballer looking to return to football after spending time in prison for rape. But while Evans has steadfastly refused to apologise, Mboyo at least appears to have shown some growth from his admittedly rather large mistake. While many will maintain neither should be able to play the sport professionally again, you’d have to admit that a player who at least shows moral growth as Mboyo has deserves it a modicum more than someone whose only remorse is they lost some of their best footballing years.

The future

It’s hard to see how things turn around for Mboyo. Few things in life are certain, but almost definitely if he did not have his convictions he would have made the leap to a bigger team. Perhaps he would have been a success. Or perhaps, like his Panenka penalty against Waasland-Beveren in 2012, it would have been a laughable disaster.

For Bodenghien, Mboyo proved to be the greatest success story and also the death knell for ‘Football in Prisons’, decades of his life work gone due to the negative stigma around one of the players who came through his scheme. Almost as if those people in prison may have some nasty backstory that people don’t really want to hear about.

At the moment, Mboyo finds himself well down the pecking order at Genk, no longer factoring in any first team plans. Injuries have played a part but some of his current malaise is his own doing. He has been seen as a disruptive influence alongside best friend Hervé Kage (now at Kortrijk) and was suspended after going clubbing with Anderlecht players while out of action. Despite rotting in the C-team, he has turned down moves to relegation favourites Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz and Charleroi, the team where it all began for him. The 28-year-old’s dream was a move to a big European league but that ship has sailed and probably sank sometime ago; the opportunity to play against former team mate Vincent Kompany, who once referred to Mboyo as a ‘rare pearl’ will likely never come to pass.

As bleak as things currently look, he should be in the prime of his career. A successful spell at a new club may just give him the chance he needs to get out his pack of cards and start rebuilding yet again.

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