The Talent Flight
Though their histories are closely linked, Belgium and the DRC currently have sharply divergent fortunes. The legacy of King Leopold, who oversaw an empire of particular horror in Congo, still looms large almost 150 years later: the country that he plundered subsequently experienced Western-backed despotism, and its economy is now in a parlous state.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its vast mineral wealth, the DRC has a GDP per capita of less than US$400, which is amongst the lowest in the world. With more than US$43 000 per capita, Belgium finishes in the top 20 in the global GDP league.
On the football field, the two countries are also looking at very different futures. The DRC went out in the first round of the January 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and is an outsider to feature in next year's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Belgium, on the other hand, has its most exciting group of players in a generation, including Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke, two of the world's outstanding young forwards.
Lukaku and Benteke – who play for West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, respectively, in England's Premier League – trace their heritage to the DRC. However, they are eligible to play for Belgium due to their ties to that country: Lukaku was born in Antwerp and Benteke arrived there aged two with his family, fleeing a civil war.
The DRC's football federation may look wistfully at the progress of these players, whose presence would be a great boost to the national side.
Theirs has long been a continent whose footballers have gone abroad to make their names. Pelé predicted that an African national team would win the World Cup by the turn of the 21st century. That is still some way from happening, due in large part to the inadequate infrastructure that impedes Africa in several areas.
It must be noted that in Benteke's case there is a very simple reason why he is not turning out for the DRC. As he told The Sun in September last year: “It was not a difficult decision for me to choose Belgium. The Congolese FA (football association) never contacted me, so it never became an issue.”
Sometimes, it seems, all you really need to do is ask. Having missed out so notably here, the DRC national side should be sure to ask next time, even if it cannot offer the same platform for footballing talent that Belgium now can. Meanwhile, as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o assume as elder statesmen of the game, Lukaku and Benteke look set to claim the mantle of the leading forwards of African origin in Europe.
We have to have hope that an African national team, featuring those playing on the continent and abroad, will one day hit the same heights that Drogba and Eto'o did with their clubs in the UEFA Champions League. Until then, the DRC and its peers may have to reflect on the painful flight of world-class talent. – The Africa Report