Football Nomad Émile Mbamba
He was born in Cameroon, but travelled the world during his football career. He played for 13 clubs in 7 countries divided over three different continents. He played in Indonesia quite some while and represented various clubs in Java & Kalimantan.
We sat down with Émile Mbamba, a former player in the Liga 1 Indonesia who managed to rack up a respectable amount of goals during his career across the globe. Who played Champions League, and who had to deal with corrupt officials. He started his career in The Netherlands, before descending on a footballing tour around the globe.
Émile Mbamba started his career in The Netherlands at Arnhem’s pride; Vitesse. The club brought him to Holland in 1997 as a big talent from Cameroon. But after four years he, unfortunately, had to leave the due to financial difficulties.
His career brought him to clubs in Israel, Portugal, South-Korea, Bulgaria, Mexico and Indonesia. Mbamba is now 37 and still lives in Bali, where he is active as a coach for a 3rd League team. We sat down and discussed his personal life, his career, and his life after football. We know Mbamba personally from playing football together at the infamous futsal courts of Bali.
This is the story of Émile Mbamba.
I arrived in Holland at Vitesse Arnhem after Jan Streuer scouted me at a youth tournament in France, where I was playing with Cameroon U-16. They bought flight tickets for me and my father to do an internship at Vitesse, where I earned my first professional contract. I moved to Holland and went to college there to learn the Dutch language and to develop skills I could use after finishing my professional career. Learning the language was very important for me to feel at home in this new country.
During my time at Vitesse , I was lucky that two other Cameroonian players (Kallé Soné and Job Komol) joined Vitesse, besides other African players to make me feel even more at home. I played with many wonderful players like Nicky Hofs, Theo Janssen, Tim Cornelisse and Matthew Amoah. But the player that stood out for me most was Victor Sikora. He was just one of those players that could deliver the ball to you at any given time or moment, an absolute delight to play with as a striker.
In those 4 years at Vitesse, my best memories came from the UEFA Cup series against Rapid Bucharest, Werder Bremen and Liverpool. Our performances in the Dutch League where terrible that season, but for some reason, we managed to surprise friend & foe on the UEFA Cup stage.
My personal success in that series was the away game in Bremen. We were 3-2 behind in a thrilling match, and I got substituted into the game in extra time. I believe the referee was already about to blow his whistle when I managed to intercept a pass to Krstajic and suddenly found myself in the position to sprint freely to the enemy goalie. I faked a shot and used a body feint to outplay the goalkeeper to equalize deep in extra time, sending us to the next round of that European season. My teammates, the coach and the fans went crazy!
After that goal, we played against the big Liverpool at Anfield Road. An experience I’ll never forget. Sharing the pitch with stars like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen is something you dream of as a youngster. We lost 1-0 that day and got kicked out of the tournament. But playing against those big stars, is something I’ll never forget!
I am really grateful for my period at Vitesse, as it felt like one big family back then. Jan Streuer and Theo Bos and their wives really took care of me, showed me how to adapt to the Dutch culture and taught me how to be a professional football player. Theo was like a mentor for me. When I arrived, he was still an active player for Vitesse who later switched to become a trainer in the youth academy. We became really close and he helped me develop myself both on and off the pitch.
Then it went downhill with Vitesse. I don’t even know what happened exactly, but they were dealing with financial problems. In order for them to solve these problems, they decided to sell me. In the summer of 2004, I missed the whole pre-season due to Malaria disease. But although I wasn’t completely fit, Maccabi Tel Aviv showed interest. And although I didn’t want to leave, Vitesse really needed to sell me, so I moved to Israel.
I have to say that life in Israel was quite enjoyable. People tend to think that it’s a really dangerous place to live based on the horrible news that gets spread by the media. But to be honest the people where super friendly and open-minded. Besides that we had our own security staff to make us feel even more safe.
That year we entered the Champions League with Macabbi Tel Aviv. We were drafted in a really difficult group with Ajax, Bayern Munchen and Juventus. We only managed to rack up 4 points with a win at home versus Ajax and a draw versus Juventus, but the experience of playing against legends like Del Piero, Ballack and Oliver Kahn was another thing I’ll never forget. The match against Juventus is my best football memory. I managed to get our team a penalty when I dribbled into the 16, and Fabio Cannavaro(later Ballon d’Or winner), took me down. The referee awarded a penalty and we managed to draw 1-1 against the mighty Juventus.
Because of the aftermath of Malaria, it took me almost one year to get back in shape which eventually led to an early break with the club after only one year. I played one more year in Israel for Maccabi Petah Tikva before moving to Vitória Setúbal in Portugal. Then I got a special offer from Indonesia to move to Arema Malang. A period in my life I still very much enjoy as I had a good relationship with the fans and I was eager to prove my qualities as a striker. I managed to score 14 goals in 25 games and gave a lot of assists as well. Life in Malang was really good.
I lived in a really nice complex with all the other players. We had a gym and swimming pool and besides that the facilities in Java were quite good. I witnessed so many crazy things during my time as a player but maybe it’s for the best I don’t speak too much about it. Corruption was and is such a big problem within their league. From random red cards being handed out, riots and referees who were afraid of trainers or certain players. I am someone who will stand up and speak up when I notice those things, but this cost me several games due to suspensions by the club/league.
The best thing about playing in Indonesia are the fans. I haven’t experienced fans like that anywhere else in the world. The amount of passion from the fans and their respect for the players is just on another level. Ofcourse supporter brawls happen, and I got confronted by fans from Surabaya one time when they recognized me as an Arema player. But I always avoided saying things they asked me to say to avoid going viral for the wrong reasons. You have to stay professional and definitely shouldn’t throw any oil on the fire. If you act respectful, they will do too.
After that season in Malang, other clubs in Asia noticed my performances and I eventually signed at South Korean club Daegu FC. This turned out to be the most difficult period in my career. Firstly my grandfather died on the day I moved to Daegu FC. Besides that, I completely misjudged the situation.
Moving to a new country wasn’t new for me and I always invest time in learning the language too adapt to my surroundings. As I find this is extremely important to build a connection with people. But the South Korean language was extremely hard to learn and on top of that, no one spoke English there. Even the coach couldn’t speak a word English! Therefore, I couldn’t communicate with anyone which made me feel really alone. I requested to leave the club after six months, after which I moved back to Europe.
I signed a one-year contract at Botev Plovdiv in Bulgaria. I scored 11 goals in 20 games, which earned me a contract in Mexico. I decided to move there but it turned out that life in Mexico was just fucking nuts. Salvador Cabañas, a football player got shot dead that season. I was terrified.
I lived in an enormous villa from the president of the club. I had a pool, a bar, and barbeque area, but besides that it was completely empty. I lived there by myself, together with some security guards. Even they told me I wasn’t safe there and that something could happen at all times. Apparently, the villa was owned by some drug dealer and what the president of the club exactly did wasn’t clear as well. I decided I didn’t want to know as well.
After new financial struggles with this club, I decided to go back to Indonesia, where I felt at home. I played and scored for several clubs from Java and Kalimantan and nowadays I live in Bali. Unfortunately, I got a knee injury which ended my career. But the life and people in Indonesia are so nice, that I decided I wanted to give something back in the form of coaching and helping others. That’s why I started training Sulut Bali FC. I’m grateful for all the opportunities that life as a football player gave me. From seeing different parts of the world to learning languages and meeting amazing people.
I try to use my football network to benefit the players from Sulut Bali FC. Sometimes my previous clubs donate training materials or shirts for the players for example. I would like to develop a football academy in the future, but I would need more sponsors and investors to realize that. But it’s really interesting to be active as a coach in a country like Indonesia.
The differences between Indonesia and other countries is enormous when it comes to the basics of the sport. In my opinion, the Dutch youth academies are one of the world’s best. The players are taught the importance of basics like your first touch, creating space and develop a tactical approach to the game from a very early age. While in Indonesia that basic knowledge and training facilities are lacking. Especially when you take a look at the aforementioned first touches, short passing and creating space. The overall level is quite low. Besides that, there is a major lack of good football fields. Most fields here are full of holes, bumps and sometimes wild animals haha.
I do think Indonesia definitely can grow and improve as a footballing nation, but they should return to the basics and restructure the development at a young age and try to develop from thereon. Besides that, it’s sad to see that many Indonesian players are afraid to play abroad. While this can give them so much more insight in tactics as a player. I have seen fellow teammates who got offers from foreign clubs, but they don’t dare to take that step as they don’t want or can’t adapt to the different living conditions, culture & food. So they head back after 3-6 months or don’t make the move at all.
But the biggest difference is the way people handle criticism. People here find it hard to get criticized by their trainer or coach. I had players who are constantly told how good they are by their friends and family, while in reality, they aren’t half as good as they think they are. So, when I confront a player with reality, they tend to get angry and don’t want to take advice from me and look for confirmation with their inner circle. Who sometimes show up with 10 people ready to fight and defend their friend. I don’t make exceptions for anyone as I am convinced that discipline is the key to success for players.
Look at the current situation at F.C. Barcelona for example. Even the great Lionel Messi doesn’t get privileges from Koeman. Let alone, local players at our amateur club. I try to use the knowledge from my previous coaches like Ronald Koeman and Henk Ten Cate and combine that with inspirational coaches like Guardiola and Klopp to try to improve my players.
My dream would be to become the head coach of Cameroon one day. But let’s see what life will bring. I am happy to be in Bali at the moment and as we have seen with the current corona crisis, we never know what will happen. I believe God has a plan for everyone, the most important things for me is to enjoy life and make sure my family is doing well. I used some of my earnings as a player to build a house in Cameroon for my brothers and mother. I wish people to treat each other with respect and enjoy their life as well!