The greatest league manager of all time
The date is Thursday, December 22, 1983 and a storm hits the densely populated area of Kinshasa.
The largest city in the Congo is covered but inside a local hospital, sheltered from the strong winds and torrential rains, a little boy brings a ray of sunshine to the proceedings; a Championship Manager legend was born.
Tonton Zola Moukoko’s name is sure to resonate with die-hard fans of the popular football management series. Available from Derby County, then a Premier League member, for around £ 500,000, he would score 30 goals per season and become a prized possession.
The 16-year-old would thrive in the virtual world and by the late 90s he also had the potential to make a name for himself in the Premier League. He joined Derby from Djurgarden in 1999 with high hopes of a successful career in England’s top flight, but a series of tragic events struck.
Born and raised in the bustling Kinshasa, a megalopolis of more than 11 million inhabitants, a young Moukoko had a happy childhood in a normal family environment. He spent most of his days in the streets of Zaire, now DR Congo, watching older children play football.
“You had to be very good to be involved in street football.” he said SPORTbible. “I wasn’t well enough, so most of the time I just stood there and watched. It was like that in the capital. We lived in a normal house. It wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood but I was happy. . “
Moukoko’s life then turned upside down at the age of 10, when both his parents tragically died.
His older brother and mentor, Fedo, advised him to join him in Europe. Fedo, who studied in Stockholm, was convinced it was the right thing for Uncle’s career to do and the prospect soon took a flight to the Swedish capital.
“When I arrived in Sweden, everything was very strange.” he said. “I got off the flight and it was so cold
and snowy. I had never really experienced snow before. I ran to the taxi, but I didn’t have a jacket!
“The first football team I joined was Djurgarden. From there things started.”
Despite his personal tragedy, Moukoko was an extremely gifted footballer who caught the attention of one of Sweden’s biggest clubs. He stepped through the youth ranks of Djurgarden and, at the age of 15, a number of European teams expressed interest in signing the much-appreciated teenager.
In fact, Uncle attended a series of tryouts after traveling to Italy with his brother, but this was another club that stood out among the rest.
“I did tests in Bologna and Empoli. he revealed. “I didn’t stay there though. We didn’t think the youth setup was good enough. I thought I could feel lonely there.
“I was also due to stand trial at AC Milan, but that didn’t happen after we heard about the Derby County interest.”
It was the perfect scenario for Moukoko. His cousins lived in England and he spoke the language. He was also impressed with the club facilities after visiting the complex. “The setup at Derby was really good for me. That’s why we moved to England, not because of the money.”
The Rams signed the talented midfielder and two years later he was offered a professional contract after turning 17.
There were mumbles from a prospect in the academy ranks, and as fans began to talk about his undeniable potential, those behind the scenes at Championship Manager would flip a switch and change the life of Tonton Zola Moukoko. for all time.
It is during a friendly match against Rushden & Diamonds that the player of Congolese origin will know his first meeting with fans of the popular game.
“A lot of people gathered around me after the full-time whistle, just because they wanted my autograph. I was like ‘why are they doing this?’
“My teammate Ian Evatt came over and said, ‘Uncle, you are one of the biggest players in this video game!’ – he showed me how to play and I liked it! “
That freezing night in Northamptonshire was just the tip of the iceberg for Moukoko. In the years to come he was recognized by fans in Malaysia, Italy and Australia. In fact, the 38-year-old still receives phone calls from admirers on a daily basis.
“They tell me how I made their life better, even if it was through a computer game.” Uncle shines.
The stories are linked. A guy once called him from Australia to talk about his failed relationship with an ex-girlfriend. “Turns out they broke up because he played too much at Championship Manager. He even called her ‘Uncle’ because of me.”
There was also this time he got to passport control in Malaysia, where his wife is from.
“When we landed at this airport, I handed over my passport to the officer controlling the boarding gate. He said, “What, are you really Uncle? ” Certainly not!’ – It turns out he was a huge fan of the game. “
Away from her virtual stardom, the teenage sensation was training with the Derby first-team after an impressive stint in the reserves. He was starting to make a big impression at Pride Park but just as his career was starting to take off, Moukoko received the most heartbreaking phone call imaginable.
“I think I almost made a breakthrough, but during this time my older brother Fedo, who took me to Sweden as a 10-year-old boy, has died in Congo. I don’t know if someone did something for him. “
It has been reported that Fedo died after being poisoned. He was in the Congo doing business when tragedy struck.
Moukoko would return to Sweden and naturally decided to take a two-year hiatus from football. He never played for Derby County again.
“After his death, football was not important to me. I couldn’t concentrate anymore. It was really difficult because Fedo was the one who took me to Sweden. He helped me so much, so find out what ‘he was dead was too much for me, really.
“At that point, I was doing great, then I got a phone call. It was the lowest point in my life.”
When he finally decided to make a comeback to football, Uncle struggled to find a club. Without an agent, he personally made phone calls trying to convince clubs to give it a shot.
After several failed attempts, an unexpected figure of former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson handed him a lifeline in 2004.
“He told me he could do something to help. he says. “Sven put me in touch with Carlstad United manager Tord Grip, who was his assistant at the national level.”
It was a far cry from the standard Premier League training grounds he graced in Derbyshire, but Moukoko made 43 appearances for Swedish second division team Carlstad United before joining Atlantis FC in Finland.
Uncle was now playing in front of 500 spectators on average, and it was a good day.
He went on to make ten starts for the Finnish second division team, but despite his best efforts, the Helsinki-based team were relegated.
It was time to put an end to his fledgling 28-year-old career.
Instead of looking back at what could have been, Uncle decided to make a positive impact in the community by starting his own football club based in Stockholm.
He has big ambitions as the owner of Kongo United FC; a name that comes from his native roots.
“We want to progress one day and play at the highest level of Swedish football.” he tells us.
Moukoko certainly takes care. He also works as a football agent for Swedish players who want to turn professional, a scenario he knows all too well.
“I help young players try to be successful in England.” he said. “A player in my books, Gulutte Zunda, currently plays for the Huddersfield Championship team. He’s a very good player.”
Humble and reserved, Moukoko, who lives with his wife and two children, remains grateful to those who still remember his heritage.
“I appreciate the fans. They haven’t forgotten about me and I’m really humble.”