Paul Bonga Bonga
« It is no coincidence that the arrival of Paul Bonga Bonga at Standard coincides with the start of a glorious period for the Reds »
– Pierre Bilic
Paul Bonga Bonga – “Blanchette”, an example for an entire generation
In recent years, the Reds have counted on a large number of footballers of African origin. Just think of Paul José Mpoku, Fai Collins, Christian Luyindama, Ali Lukunku, Mohamed Sarr, Mbaye Leye, Joseph Yobo, or George Blay. However, the path was paved in 1957 with the arrival of Congolese Paul Bonga Bonga. The immensely talented midfielder played a total of 100 official games for Standard, and was the driving force behind the titles in the early 1960s.
Paul was born on April 25, 1933 in Ebonda – with the Belgian nationality – where father Bonga Bonga started a factory in palm oil. However, hardly born, his father’s mission ended and the family returned to Léopoldville, where young Paul was enrolled at the Ecole Saint-Pierre at the age of 6. « Like all young children, I was already hooked on football then. At the time, football meant to me nothing more than running barefoot behind a round object, which was often just a wad of paper. », Paul smiles. « We played games until late at night, with rules that were often far from the original football in England. Nevertheless, we had a whale of a time. »
And it soon became clear that the young Bonga Bonga was gifted. Thanks to his good performances at the school team, the central midfielder quickly enjoyed a reputation. At the age of merely 16, he was allowed to make his debut for the first team of the school team. A debut he would sign with a hat trick. However, the first turning point in his career came in 1952 when his compulsory education was over and he could no longer remain affiliated with the school crew. However, several clubs from Léopoldville were eager to bring in the great talent. Ultimately, Paul’s choice fell on Union. The Union of “Les Bottés”, the league where football was played with shoes, something Bonga Bonga never did before. But his technical baggage was of such a level that he made the switch in an instant. Until 1954 he led his team to unseen achievements.
And that did not go unnoticed with even better teams. The famous Daring Club turned an important page in 1954. It had just missed the title against the arch rival and decided to replace the old guard with young hungry wolves. And so, 21-year-old Bonga Bonga made the switch to the first division with Daring Club. And that it was successful, is again an understatement. The talented Congolese reigned in the league and guided his new team to two titles in the three years he was going to be there.
His fame now surpassed the local Léopoldville, partly due to his place in the provincial selections. That selection, including Mokuna (later the first African footballer in Belgium, at AA Ghent), competed in the capital against Belgian teams such as Beerschot (1953), Standard (1954) and Union Saint-Gilloise (1955). A few years later, in 1957, the selection is invited to Belgium where they toured with matches against Standard, among others. Matches that coumd always count on a huge interest from the local, and curious, football fans. « People came from far away to see us play. Many of them never saw coloured players. They looked at us with their eyes and mouth wide open. Stadiums were sold out, and they even installed additional benches along the sidelines to meet demand. They all came to watch us. »
That match against the Rouches will be the second turning point in Bonga Bonga’s career. Although he only played for 45 minutes, he enchanted the 20,000 Standard fans with his velvet touch and a very solid left foot. The match ended in a 2:2 draw. That evening French coach André Riou fielded: Toussaint Nicolay, Henri Thellin, Maurice Bolsée, Gilbert Marnette, André ‘Popeye’ Piters, Joseph Givard, Etienne Moens, Jean Jadot, as well as the two players from our Hall of Fame, captain Jean Mathonet and Denis Houf.
Roger Petit quickly made up his mind, and negotiations would eventually lead to a final transfer from Bonga Bonga to the Rouches. It led to unseen scenes in Léopoldville when the news of his transfer broke. But also in Liège they couldn’t wait to embrace their new black pearl. On 23 September 1957 it finally came when he landed in Melsbroek after a 22-hour trip. General Secretary Roger Petit awaits his new prodégé and then immediately flew by helicopter to Bierset. Thousands of fans shouted and chanted when they saw their new number 10 enter the arrival hall. The club was also obviously represented in Bierset, and so was captain Jean Mathonet, Henri Thellin and Toussaint Nicolay who presented him with flowers.
The talented Congolese would quickly join the team, because a day later, a practice game was scheduled against the legendary Racing Club de Paris. That match against Paris was the first “nocturne” in the history of the Reds. For the first time, football would be played under artificial lighting in the evening. However, it would not be a match to remember for the fans. Standard were sent home without any discussion with a 0:5 defeat. However, Bonga Bonga’s debut did not go unnoticed. All the newspapers praised his first 45 minutes as a Standard player, and that despite a long journey the day before. With the onset of winter, hard pitches, the club decided to grant their new transfer the required time to get used to European climate and culture, and regard him as a full player from next season onwards.
Nevertheless, he can add a championship title to his collection that first season because the Rouches thunder through the competition and win their first title in first division in 1958 under the guidance of coach André Riou! In 1960-1961 and 1962-1963 Bonga Bonga repeats that achievement, but is himself at the basis of the success with the Rouches. With the full integration of the creative defensive midfielder, things are running very smoothly. The arrival of Paul as defensive midfielder improved the balance offensively, allowing players such as Roger Claessen, Istvan Sztani, Marcel Paeschen and Popeye Piters to indulge themselves, and Denis Houf to play as a modern number 10. ‘Bopaul’ can be compared to today’s N’Golo Kanté from Chelsea.
“Blanchette“, as he was often called, felt at home in Liège and used the European campaigns of Standard to show themselves to the rest of Europe. In the very first European game of Standard, he is on the score sheet against Scottish Heart of Midlothian (ed. 5:1 win). And also in the subsequent matches he shows his pure class. With great performances against, among others, Glasgow Rangers and Real Madrid, he would also increasingly get noticed and recognized by European experts and media. For example, World Soccer Magazine included him as the first African player in their world team of the year. He was in good company with Puskas and Pelé. In 1960, with the independence of Congo, he changes nationality in June to become a Congolese citizen.
In 1962 he misses the Golden Boot with a few points in favor of Paul Van Himst. « The Anderlecht player personally confirmed to me later that I deserved that title more than anyone else. But Paul could count on a large number of journalists who had Anderlecht in their hearts, and for whom the title to the arch-rival from Liège was very difficult. » A trend that would continue for many years to come.
After obtaining the third title, big man Roger Petit decides to give his team a new impetus. All people over thirty were replaced, and so also Paul Bonga, after exactly 100 official matches, had to look for a new club. « It remains a big disappointment because I felt very good within the club and was in my prime and clearly an important link within the club. Fortunately, just before the end of the transfer period with Sporting Charleroi, I was able to find a new challenge. Their chairman was keen to take his club to the first division, which we also managed to do. »
However, the moves between his new domicile in Brussels and Charleroi started to weigh in, and after 5 seasons he said goodbye to the Carolos. Thanks to a friend, he quickly started working at Tubize as a player-manager. « I was the first Congolese to work as a coach in Belgium, which made me very proud. Although I won the title with my team that first season, I decided to say my goodbyes to football. »
What followed was a long journey with experiences in the political and business world, with one success after another. At the beginning of this century, Paul Bonga Bonga returned to his Sclessin to kick off a competition and open a logo in his name.
(c) Marc Coudijzer – April 2020
Birth: 25th April 1933, in Ebonda
Nationality: Democratic Republic of Congo
Affiliated at Standard: 16th July 1957 – 14th July 1963
Trophies with Standard: 3x Belgian League Champion (1958, 1961, 1963)
1949 – 1951
Ecole Saint-Pierre (CON)
1952 – 1953
1954 – 1956
1957 – 1963
1963 – 1968
1968 – 1972
F.C. Daring Club Léopoldville (CON)
Royal Standard Club Liégeois
R. Charleroi S.C. (22)
F.C. Tubize (5632)
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup