On Friday night, January 28, it was announced that Ilombe ‘Pelé’ Mboyo was being transferred from Kortrijk to Gent. It didn’t cause many headlines outside of Flanders and certainly did not rival Luis Suárez’s move from Ajax to Liverpool on the same day. However, in its own way, this transfer was just as important as Pelé Mboyo, with apologies to Robert Frost, took the road less travelled and that has made all the difference.
As a young teenager, Ilombe ‘Pelé’ Mboyo played regularly with Vincent Kompany, Anthony Vanden Borre and, his own cousin, Geoffrey Mujangi Bia. All four were on Anderlecht’s books as youngsters but according to Kompany, ‘Pelé’ Mboyo stood out as the top player (“la pearl rare”). Three of the four have gone on to play in the Premiership but Mboyo took a different route into the professional game. Leaving Anderlecht in his mid-teens to join Club Brugge, Mboyo took a few wrong turns and eventually received a three-year prison sentence.
For a time he was uncontrollable but he met a counsellor and eventually started listening to her. Mboyo’s thoughts once more turned to football and he got a transfer to Belgium’s most modern prison at Ittre, which in those days benefited from a rehabilitation programme entitled Football in Prison. Getting on the programme was not easy; Mboyo said that three-quarters of the inmates wanted to play football but the programme only had 20 places.
Having been selected, Mboyo was lucky enough to meet Pierre Bodenghien, then scouting for first division club Charleroi, and he knew a “pearl” when he saw one. Bodenghien arranged with Charleroi’s all powerful Mogi Bayat and the prison authorities for Mboyo to train and play with Charleroi’s reserve team while he finished his sentence.
Working hard on his fitness, Mboyo was incorporated into Charleroi’s first team squad, coached by Scottish international John Collins. Scoring three goals in his first six matches, Mboyo made a big impression at first but his next season was less successful at a club that changed coaches on a regular basis. In May 2010, it was agreed that he would go to Kortrijk on loan. Here he fell under the spell of Hein Vanhaezebrouck who was working wonders with a small budget. The loan was made permanent in September 2010 and, known as ‘le petit Pelé’, Mboyo scored six goals and made five more in the first half of the season. Each week, Sport/Foot magazine gives points to all players in the Jupiler League and at the mid-season break, Mboyo Pelé had the best average in the league.
With Gent selling a couple of players in the transfer window, funds became available and the deal was done. Mboyo Pelé is ambitious and at the age of 23 he has no time to lose. He has said he’s happy to join a “top three” club in Belgium, a view that perhaps might come as a surprise to Standard Liege and Club Brugge supporters. He’s looking forward to working with coach Francky Dury and it will be fascinating to watch his progress. Pelé Mboyo has come a long way from prison in St Gilles – close to the Brussels city centre – but don’t bet against him joining his cousin, and other friends, in the Premiership.
With thanks to Frederic Larsimont and Le Soir for some of the information in this piece.