This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Sunderland matchday programme – 3rd November 2014.
For the last two years Yannick Bolasie has been hunting down defences in the Championship and the Premier League and now he is beginning to make his mark on the international scene too. Once tonight’s game with the Black Cats is done, it’s a rather larger feline that the winger will turn his attention towards as he crosses continents to represent the Leopards of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are a whisker away from qualifying for January’s Africa Cup of Nations.
On a normal day the Stade Tata- Raphaël is a decaying concrete bowl in the centre of of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dwarfed by the newer 80,000- seater national stadium located just a mile away, it is most famous for hosting the legendary Rumble in the Jungle boxing contest between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
But when matchday arrives and the fans pour in, the old ground is transformed into a cornucopia of noise and colour, which has gotten louder and brighter over the past 12 months as the national team’s continued growth has put them on the brink of qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
Like Ali did in the eighth round 40 years ago last week, Bolasie is hoping that Congo can land the knockout blow on Sierra Leone later this month in their final group game to reach the finals in Morocco, and as part of a new ambush of Leopards players Bolasie believes that it won’t be long again until they’re playing in front of Wembley sized crowds across the road at the newer facility.
“It’s not a surprise to us that we’re close to qualifying because we’ve got players playing in the top leagues in Belgium, France and Russia,” he said. “There are a lot of players who are looking to come over to England to improve their game and we already have Franck Moussa playing for Charlton Athletic, Jacques Maghoma at Sheffield Wednesday and Britt Assombalonga at Nottingham Forest coming through the ranks so it’s a new generation for the team.
“Playing for Congo is completely different to everything at Palace, including things like the training and medical facilities, but I just get on with it because it’s a good experience. The fans put a lot of pressure on you to win because they want to see the country do well and a lot of people come to watch us, we sometimes get crowds of over 60,000 when we’re at home.
“It’s like a party atmosphere inside the stadiums. In our last game against away to the Ivory Coast, when they scored the PA announcer was on the mic for about five or 10 minutes spurring on the fans and getting them to chant and sing! The fans then started running around the stadium, it was crazy scenes.”
Those celebrations could be tame in comparison should Congo finish off their qualifying campaign in style. Drawn in a tough group alongside traditional African heavyweights Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, the Leopards have picked up eight points from a possible 12, including a thrilling 4-3 last-gasp victory in the aforementioned game against the Ivorians last time out.
Bolasie was at his dynamic best that day, charging down wings to assist three goals in what was undoubtedly the highlight of his seven caps to date. He seemed like a man on a mission as qualification would be extra sweet for the 25-year old, who rejected the opportunity to make his debut for the country of his parents in the 2013 edition of the continental competition to concentrate on his Eagles career, a move he feels has been vindicated.
“At the time when I decided to play for Congo my dad was telling me to hold off and wait a little as England might come calling but I said I’d rather go and play for Congo as Youssouf Mulumbu and Gabriel Zakuani were asking me to come and play at the time,” he explained.
“When they qualified for the last tournament I decided against playing in it as I felt it would have disrupted my progress. I wanted to get enough games under my belt for Palace and get back into my groove again and you can only do that when you’ve been playing regularly and feel comfortable on the pitch again.
“However as a player you want to go and play in the big tournaments so to play in the Africa Cup of Nations would be a big deal, I think any player that plays for an African team would look forward to getting into it. We’re currently second in the group with two games to go so it’s in our hands.”
Those final fixtures take place once Palace have taken on Manchester United at the end of this week, and sees Bolasie travel to Cameroon to take on the group leaders before Congo host Sierra Leone – a country with football far from its mind due to the ongoing Ebola virus devastating its population, and indeed threatening the staging of the Africa Cup of Nations.
As it stands the competition is still due to go ahead, and once the groups are completed Bolasie will make the marathon journey back to Britain to play a part in the visit of Liverpool the following Sunday. Despite the logistical challenges and time spent recovering from jetlag, he believes he is thriving on becoming one the side’s talismen.
“I think it’s making me grow as a player become more mature and make the right decisions, plus the other players look up to me as well so because there’s only two of us that play in the Premier League at the moment. It’s a different type of vibe but it’s making me better all the time.
“It can be very different to playing in England, it’s a more physical type of game but it also depends on the opposition. The Ivory Coast have a lot of players who play in Europe so that makes things a little easier whereas when you play Cameroon they’re more unpredictable, we don’t have a clue what they’re going to do.
“Getting over there and back to London has always been a problem. For the Chelsea game the club tried to get me on a flight straight after the game but that became complicated so I had to get one on Thursday night which got me back on Friday morning, the day before we played in the league.
“The time before that was much more difficult to get home. I had to go to Zambia, change airports there then fly to Kenya and then back to Britain so I could play against Burnley. I didn’t think all the travelling would affect me but now I know that sometimes you don’t feel all there on the pitch.”
Despite the constant switching between club and international football at this time of year, Bolasie has picked up where he left off last season in a red and blue shirt by giving full backs across the country a hard time. Reunited with his friend and fellow defensive tormentor Wilfried Zaha, the pair were a part of an explosive front four selected by Neil Warnock against West Bromwich Albion nine days ago, and although a commanding half-time position slipped away, Bolasie is excited to be an integral part of such an attack-minded side.
“It was disappointing to draw that game, especially with our standards. We’re normally very good at closing out games and I think as a team we were more disappointed that we let West Brom get back into the game rather than the result but that’s part of football.
“I enjoy playing with mercurial talents like Wilf on the other wing, Chamakh in the hole and Fraizer dotting about, I think it worked well. It’s always been good to play with Wilf and obviously it’s slightly different than before as we’re in the Premier League now rather than the Championship but it’s good to see him on the learning curve and going well.”
It’s easy to forget that Bolasie is only 25, having been in a presence in English football for the last eight years appearing for the likes of Plymouth Argyle and Barnet as a teenager. A single season in the Premier League has seen him develop into one of the division’s most feared wingers, and he’s only going to get better.
His skinning of Glen Johnson in the thriller with Liverpool at the back of last season brought him to the nation’s attention, and now more sides are paying him the ultimate compliment by doubling- up on him to try and reduce his effectiveness. Having notched his first top-flight goal at the 34th attempt against Everton in September, he knows that further improvement in the final third to overcome the added attention could lift his game to the next level.
“I think I’m improving as a player every day and a lot of it has to do with confidence and knowing you can play at this level,” he said. “I think personally I’ve had a better start than last season, but I need to keep getting into better goalscoring positions and stay calm in the final third.
“Scoring against Everton was a little bit of weight off my shoulders as you want to get up and running and I didn’t manage to score last season – I was hitting the post and crossbar and all sorts! It was frustrating at times because as a winger you want to score as you’re one of the more offensive players in the team but it’s all part of the learning curve for me and it’ll only make me stronger.
“Since I got off the mark it’s settled me down and helped me concentrate a little bit more. For me now it’s just about getting in the right positions which I’m trying to find and let it become second nature. Last weekend I won a penalty because I was in and around the area so it’s all about doing that, rather than worrying about scoring.
“When I was scoring regularly at Plymouth all my goals were from 25 yards out but now I’m in the box a little bit more so I’m confident more goals will come.”
A goal tonight would continue to highlight his blossoming improvement for the Eagles, however his main goal over the coming weeks will be to help book the Leopards’ spot in Morocco come January.