Between 1960 and 1992, World Soccer Magazine annually picked their World XI for the preceding 12 months, where long-term international editor Eric Batty revealed his Dream Team of football’s top players.
During three decades of World Soccer’s World XI, only once did the magazine select an African player in their Dream Team.
The year was 1962, and the player was Paul Bonga Bonga, who took his place in the team alongside the likes of Pele, Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.
He may well be the greatest African player you’ve never heard of.
The DRC midfielder was a pioneer for African football, yet despite playing a critical role in building the modern Standard Liege and breaking new ground in the then-European Cup, his legacy remains critically under-appreciated outside Belgium.
In fact, 59 years ago, he was the first non-naturalised African player to feature in the semi-final of Europe’s premier club competition – and almost struck in their double-header with the almighty Real Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Francisco Gento.
“The matches against the great Real were fantastic,” Bonga Bonga told ESPN. “I remember during the match, our left winger (Marcel Paeschen) beat his defender and ran towards the goal.
“I was in midfield, he gave me the pass – I knew I had a man on me so I took a volley and sadly, it came off the bar. It’s a shame, frankly, and I regret it, but my God – they (Real Madrid) were an incredible team.”
Standard ultimately fell to a 6-0 aggregate defeat, while Real were beaten in the final by the Benfica of Eusebio, Mario Coluna, Joaquim Santana and Costa Pereira – all players who were born in Portuguese territories in Africa but represented Portugal at senior level.
It remains the high point in Standard’s history, and the best campaign by a Belgian team in the European Cup until Club Brugge were defeated finalists in 1978.
They wouldn’t have got there without Bonga Bonga, who had been a key protagonist in Standard’s trio of title successes between 1958 and 1961 – as the Liege heavyweights ended their 60-year wait for a first league crown.
“I arrived in ’57, and a year later we won the championship,” the 88-year-old remembered, partially in jest. “So thanks to my participation, the title was achieved — it was the first time Standard became champions, and I was a key player – so you could even say it was thanks to Bonga!
“I was euphoric, and very happy to be part of a team who became champions – it was the first time I’d done it.”
Bonga Bonga believes he was primed to win the Soulier d’Or – the Belgian Golden Show Award for the best player of the year – in 1960, only to be pipped by Anderlecht superstar Paul Van Himst.
“We found ourselves in a cafe; in Brussels and I congratulated him,” Bonga Bonga recounted, “but he said ‘(the award) shouldn’t be mine, it should be yours.’ The journalists (who voted) were Flemish, and I think there was racism (involved in the decision) – the racism was significant.”
Bonga Bonga’s runners-up position in the Soulier d’Or voting in 1960 was the only occasion in the first 20 years of the award that a non-Belgian player finished in the top three players of the year – a remarkable achievement in itself.
The early ‘60s were the apex for Bonga Bonga, but his ascent to the pinnacle of the Belgian game – and to the European Cup semi-final – was meteoric, with the midfielder having played in his homeland as late in his career as 1957.
His life changed during a one-month pre-Independence five-match tour of Belgium, when a visiting unofficial Congolese national team – then nicknamed the Lions, rather than the Leopards – took on some of the top flight’s strongest teams, holding a fine Standard team 2-2 in the process.
“People came from far away to see us play,” he told the club’s official website. “Many of them had never seen ‘coloured’ players before. They looked at us with their eyes and mouth wide open,” he added. “Stadiums were sold out, and they even installed additional benches along the side lines to meet demand. They all came to watch us.”
The 20,000 Liege fans in attendance were enthralled by the No. 10’s creativity and ball control, as were journalists and club officials, who duly approached the Congolese federation in order to negotiate a transfer to bring the midfielder to Belgian football.
“The Belgian teams were able to see the quality of the Congolese players, and we were able to see our possibilities too,” he recalled to ESPN. “After the match, we had a banquet and a journalist asked me if I’d like to come and play in Belgium.
“I said that whether I was in Belgium or Congo, it was all just football for me, and so the federation were approached by the Europeans, and this is how I was able to be transferred.”
He completed a move in September 1957.
Despite breaking new ground for black African players in European football, winning titles in Belgium, and making a new life for himself in his adopted nation, Bonga Bonga looks back on his career with both pride and regret.
While acknowledging the achievement of making the World Soccer XI alongside all-time greats such as Pele, Di Stefano, Puskas and iconic Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower, the veteran cannot hide his disappointment at missing out on the rewards of modern football.
“I still have the magazine where I’m in the XI,” he revealed, “but sadly, it didn’t actually bring me anything beyond that. If it was now, if it was today… well, you can see what the players earn in the sport, it’s extraordinary, all we had was a salary and that was it.
“I was among the best 11 players in the world, everyone read it and saw it, but it didn’t actually result in anything. If I could become a young man, a younger player in this era right now,” he concluded, “I would be very happy.” – ESPN