Conversations with Gabriel Zakuani
Today at 1pm, a group of professional athletes and celebrities aiming to use sports as a way to raise funds for charity projects in Africa and other developing countries will come together to raise money under the banner of iPAY2PLAY.
Two football league stars are heavily involved – Stevenage loanee Patrick Agyemang and Peterborough United’s Gabriel Zakuani – and the Posh defender is heading to Ghana in June to take training sessions and deliver HIV information to under-privileged kids – a project run in collaboration with the Tackle Africa charity. Here, we spoke to Gabi about his activities as well as his experiences as a professional footballer:
TTU: How did you get involved with Tackle Africa?
GZ: I got involved with Tackle Africa just by scouring the internet, I wanted to find a small charity in Africa that would relate to me as a footballer and an African.
TTU: What’s the best way to donate football shirts to the charity?
GZ: The best way to donate football shirts to the charity is to send them addressed to me to Peterborough United FC. I deliver them directly to the Tackle Africa base in Ghana. The support I’ve got so far has been amazing!
People can also donate through my justgiving page:
TTU: Tell us more about iPAY2PLAY and who are you hoping to persuade to take part today?
GZ: iPAY2PLAY is a small 5 a side tournament, taking place at Wembley Powerleague at 1pm and we’ve managed to get celebs and footballers to pay to be involved. Also, if people want to test themselves vs us footballers they can donate to take part, all for Tackle Africa! So far we’ve managed to get Emmanuel Frimpong, Lomana Tresor LuaLua, Nile Ranger, Nathaniel Clyne, Leon Legge, myself, Patrick Agyemang, Carlton Cole, Justin Hoyte, and many others, and we hoped to persuade a few more over the weekend.
TTU: HIV has received less publicity as a problem in Europe and America in recent years. How important is it to stress to people in developed countries that it is still a major issue in Africa?
GZ: HIV is a major issue in Africa and that’s the main reason why I keep stressing how vital it is to keep supporting charities like Tackle Africa. Being in a powerful position, I feel I can do a lot to get the message across in Europe.
TTU: What were your initial experiences on moving to London from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Did you feel welcomed and accepted?
GZ: I was only 6 years old when I came over, so it was all fun for me seeing all new technology around me. I never knew how to speak the language to really grasp if I was welcomed or not but once I had settled I made myself fit in.
TTU: Did football help with your integration and as DR Congo is a French speaking country (at lesast in the administrative sense), did you have to learn English?
GZ: Football is like an international language so it helped to an extent with interaction and played a huge part in making me feel accepted. I found it hard to learn the language but through perseverance I got there.
TTU: Do you regret joining Fulham from Leyton Orient? Would you recommend younger players staying with smaller clubs rather than looking for a big move?
GZ: The move to Fulham probably happened a year too early for me, but I definitely do not regret it. To jump from League 2 to the Premier League is a huge step. Also, Leyton Orient needed the money at the time which was handy for them, and I learnt so much by training and playing with top class international players – but I would advise young players to get as much first team football as they can, so when that big move comes they can be ready for the step up.
TTU: How was going from London to Stoke? Stoke doesn’t have the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan of places. Was it difficult adjusting?
GZ: Moving from London to Stoke, in the end was a great move for me. Even though it was all new to me and a different way of living. I felt it really turned me into a man and showed me there was life outside the capital. I adjusted very quickly.
TTU: You have already achieved four promotions at the age of 25. Could the next one be with Posh to the Premier League? What would it take? Could 2012-13 be the year?
GZ: 4 promotions makes me a very proud man, the fact I’m still young does make me believe that a promotion to the Premiership will happen with Posh – maybe not next season but in football you just never know – we’ve got to use Blackpool as an inspiration.
TTU: The 1974 World Cup is still the only time that DR Congo (Then Zaire) have qualified for the World Cup. Has the acute political instability suffered by the country contributed to the lack of progress on the football field?
GZ: Yes I totally agree, the political side of the country really unsettles the progress of the national team, but hopefully that’s all about to change.
TTU: Do you hope to play a part in the DR Congo’s bid to qualify for the World Cup? How well do you think the side can do in a group featuring Cameroon, Libya and Togo?
GZ: I think with the experience in our squad now, qualification is a real possibility, I will be over my injuries soon so I’ll be looking to play a huge part in helping us achieve this, the manager has included me in all the plans so I look forward to the games.
TTU: What kind of a manager is Darren Ferguson. Does his reputation for encouraging attacking football make it difficult as a defender?
GZ: Darren Ferguson is very very attack minded and as you know I’m very defensive minded so I think there’s a balance in the squad there, as they say attack is the best form of defence – we can demonstrate that in the best way. It can be difficult at times as a defender but that’s the Posh way.
TTU: Britt Assombalonga is a young Congolese player who recently made his debut for Watford. Do you know of any other good players coming through?
GZ: Britt is a good lad with a good attitude and I’m sure he’ll be a good player, there are a few players popping up in France for our national team and there are more players maturing so now, it’s exciting times for us.
TTU: Could you imagine following your brother and playing in Major League Soccer later in your career?
GZ: I do follow his progress in MLS quite a bit and I do believe I’ll play the latter part of my career out there, but at the moment no because I’m really enjoying playing in England and playing for Peterborough
TTU: You have collaborated with Dizzee Rascal. Is he a football fan and who does he support?
GZ: Dizzee or Dylan is a very funny guy when it comes to football, he’s always playing it on his tour bus, and at home but he doesn’t really support anyone. He gets very excited when it comes to major tournaments and England.
TTU: It has been a difficult season for English football. How prevalent do you feel racism still is in the game?
GZ: Racism still exists in football and that’s the reality of it, there have been some high profile examples this season which have reminded us but I do think it has come a long way since the days of John Barnes. There will always be narrow minded people around who will try and ruin the beautiful game.