Due to their shared colonial history, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo, once Zaire, have always had a footballing bond. Players from the DRC more often than not move to Belgium as their first step into European football, before moving on to other leagues. Many of those who play for the national team, such as Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany, could have played for the DRC due to their heritage.
However, when the DRC finally gained its independence from the Belgian colonisers, there were not many from the African country plying their trade in Belgian football. While we take for granted that today African footballers will make their name in European football, back in the 1960’s and 70’s many remained in their countries to play for stronger domestic teams. One player who bucked this trend was Julien Kialunda.
Kialunda was a central defender who was born in Matadi on the 24th of April 1940. The city lies on the eastern edge of the vast country, bordering Angola and near to the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps as a foretelling of things to come for Kialunda, the city had areas named after the Belgian capital.
However, it was in the Congolese capital that the defender made his name domestically. Prior to independence, Kialunda was a member of Daring Club Leopoldville, the then name for the capital city which is now known as Kinshasha. In the same year that the Congo gained its independence, the central defender was on his way to Belgium to join Union Saint-Gilloise.
Prior to joining, the club had finished the 1959/1960 campaign in sixth place. In his first season with the club, Union finished 14th and narrowly avoided relegation. This was a far cry from a side that prior to World War 2 had been hugely successful, winning a number of league titles. Kialunda spent five years with Union, helping them return to the top flight after relegation in 1962/1963. Clearly he had impressed city rivals Anderlecht, who brought the player across the city in 1965.
At Anderlecht, Kialunda was a star. He was part of the great 1960’s side that won three titles in a row. In eight seasons with the Mauves he won four league titles, back to back Belgian cups, one league cup and came runner up in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. While Anderlecht lost 4-3 to Arsenal in the final, despite being 3-0 up after the first leg, Kialunda was already well respected by the British media. In 1968 during a clash with Manchester United, the Guardian spoke of how the defender ruled the Anderlecht defence. Off the field, the player led a colourful life. He was the owner of a nightclub in Brussels Matonge district, known as Le Vatican. The ironically named nightly haunt was apparently popular with musicians, diplomats and other sportsmen. He was nicknamed the Pope of Matonge as a result.
Many will wonder why it was that Kialunda was not part of the famous 1974 Zaire World Cup side. In his book titled ‘Zaire 74: The Rise and Fall of Mobutu’s Leopards‘, author Neil Andrews goes into great detail on how then Zairian President Mobutu wanted all of his countries players to play their football domestically. The dictator went to great lengths to ensure this happened, with the country paying transfer fees to clubs to release their players back to Zaire.
However, Anderlecht were unwilling to entertain the notion of letting Kialunda leave, such was his importance to the side. The ruler of the defence was hence arguably one of the first players to be untouchable in world football. Anderlecht demanded a fee of 18m francs, around €400,000 in todays money. Mobutu did subside and allow Kialunda to appear for the Leopards, however his international career lasted for just the 1972 African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Zaire had won the tournament in 1968, but in 1970 they had failed to make it out of the group.
Going into Cameroon the side were one of the best in Africa, yet unfortunately for Kialunda he was unable to be part of an AFCON winning side. After losing to Mali in extra time in the semi-finals, Zaire were put to the sword by the hosts losing 5-2. They had failed to win the bronze medal and with that Kialunda’s international playing career was over.
After years of success with the Mauves, Kialunda stepped down the Belgian footballing pyramid to join FC Leopold, where he finished his playing career. It was fitting in a way that his time in football was bookended by playing for two sides sharing the same name, a sign of how much had changed globally since he started playing football in the then Belgian colony. He goes down in history as one of the most successful and highly decorated Congolese players to ever ply their trade in Belgian football.
Following his playing career, the defender did have a spell in charge of the national team. However, at this point the side were out of favour with Mobutu and did not receive the support that had seen them reach the dizzying heights of the World Cup in 1974. Without funding and support, the Leopards went into African footballing wilderness and Kialunda was unable to change this.
Unfortunately his life ended tragically short. The defender returned to Belgium in the 1980’s were he died at the age of just 47 following illness. Mobutu wanted the remains of Kialunda to be returned to Zaire, however Anderlecht intervened and ensured that the funeral, according to the wishes of the players children, was done in Belgium. The club was so indebted to their former star that they were willing to pay for the funeral.
Kialunda’s influence on Belgium football should certainly be seen today in the number of players from the DRC who have left the country to chase footballing stardom in Belgium. He is just one of a number of fascinating stories from a country full of rich footballing history.