The player from Sweden was one of Europe’s top talents, but tragedy halted his career…
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Tonton Zola Moukoko may just be the most famous, non-famous footballer to play the beautiful game.
The only times he played outside of his home, Sweden, was for a brief spell with Derby County at the start of the millennium, and less than a year with Finnish team Atlantis FC.
Yet if you mention his name to anyone who ever played Championship Manager, and even to some who haven’t, they will most likely know who Tonton Zola Moukoko is.
Born in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), Moukoko would go onto be one of the most exciting young prospects in football as the 20th century ticked to a close.
Making a name for himself
But his story is a tragic one, unfulfilled talent and a chance of a fantastic career which was taken from him due to circumstances beyond his control.
Moukoko was orphaned as a child when both his parents died in Zaire, and he sought refuge in Sweden with his brother, Fedo.
As the elder of the two siblings, Fedo became Tonton’s carer and his mentor as he looked to get his career on the right track in Scandivania.
“To leave home and come to Sweden was a very difficult thing for me,” he says. “It was winter time and it was just so different compared to what I was used to.
“I just wanted to play football, I was playing for a small club in Sweden but Fedo thought I was too good to play for them, so I ended up at a bigger club.”
That team was Djurgarden. At that time they were eight-time Swedish champions and the team that would be responsible for Moukoko soon to be recognised as a top talent around the football world.
“Once I was there, everything went so quickly,” Moukoko recalls. “I did very well and started to move up the age ranks, I played a lot of games and trained well and I just developed from there.
“I started playing for the Sweden youth teams, I went to Italy to trial for Empoli and Bologna. I was supposed to sign a deal there but there were some difficulties and in the end, I decided not to move.
Italy and England come calling
“The parents of one of my friends went on holiday to Greece one day and they found themselves reading about me in a newspaper there. It was a list of biggest talents and I think I was about 20th.”
Italy wasn’t the be all and end all for Moukoko, clubs all around Europe were looking to pick the teenager up, and it was English side Derby County that acquired his services in 2000.
More tragedy strikes
Just as it looked like Moukoko would match the career he had for so many keen gamers sat at their computer screens, Moukoko would soon disappear off the football map, much to the confusion and bemusement of those who had watched him.
But the reality of what happened is rather more harrowing than simply another teenage footballer getting too big for his boots and unfulfilling his talent.
“Derby was a good deal for me and my family, it was easier to move to England because of the language too.
“I was enjoying myself and I had a good time, but things happened. I was one of the biggest talents, everything was going the way it should be and everyone was waiting for something big to happen.”
And it did, but not in a positive sense. Just as Moukoko was working his way towards the Derby County first team, tragedy struck his life once again.
“My brother was sometimes going back to Congo and working there, he’d taken care of me in Sweden after our mum and dad died.
“One day, I found out he had been poisoned and died, football was no longer number one for me. It was too difficult, that’s why I left Derby. I stopped playing, I just didn’t want to play football at the time.”
And Moukoko didn’t play football, not for another two years. As any young player knows, two years is a long time in football, and it wasn’t all plain sailing when he – now in his twenties – decided to return to the pitch.
“It all came at a really bad time,” he says. “I was moving up at Derby at the time my brother died, things just became so difficult.
“It took me a long time to cope with it. When I first left Sweden it was big news, I was one of the biggest talents until Zlatan came along. The club were a bit upset that they didn’t get any money for me, the national team stopped picking me and I was never welcomed back.”
Intent on a return to where he spent most of his childhood, Moukoko found an ally in then England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson.
“Sven helped me a lot,” Moukoko recalls. “He told me had a friend at a team in Sweden, I went down and played there but it wasn’t the level I wanted to play at.
“When I came back, none of the clubs wanted to pick me. I was ready but they wouldn’t give me a chance. Everywhere I went, people said no and no explanations.”
He added, speaking of his lowest times, “I just stopped, I was on my own, I trained on my own. I was just a lonely guy trying a lot of things but things didn’t go the way people thought.”
Moukoko spent the next six years of his career stepping between various clubs in Sweden, as well as Atlantis in Finland, but his career never got the boost his talent deserved.
Such was his reputation, agents didn’t believe him when he rang them asking for their help.
“Agents wanted to know who I was with, but it was me calling agents to help me but they couldn’t believe it was me. They already considered me a big player, it was difficult to convince people I needed help.”
It would be easy to look back with regret, and there’s some sense that Moukoko does still wonder what could have been had things done a different way when he discusses some of the players he shared a pitch with.
“When I was in England, I knew a lot of players who looked up at me and they are still playing today, some here in Sweden are still playing and I’m not.
“But there’s no chance now, you don’t get a second chance. The club I work with now I started myself because you have to try different things. You have to set yourself a target because there are no more chances.”
That club is Swedish-based side Kongo United – Moukoko says the name is a throwback to the country of his birth.
And he’s happy, Moukoko is married to his childhood sweetheart and less than a month ago he became a dad for the first time – to a baby boy named Zion.
“From losing everything I had, my family and football, things look better now. I have my wife, my kid and my apartment – I can’t moan!
“My wife, we’ve been together since we were 12, we’ve been together over 20 years now. She knows me off by heart, I’ve stuck by her and she’s stuck by me. I came to Sweden as a child and we met at school, we’ve been together ever since. I’m just lucky, some things work out, some things don’t.”
Championship Manager Legend
But what about the real topic that has defined the fandom that now surrounds the name Tonton Zola Moukoko?
The Championship Manager legend has Facebook pages and Twitter accounts in his honour, he says he’s even regularly contacted by fans who want to know how he’s doing.
“People call me and want to know where I ended up, fans try and get in touch, they email you, message you. But I’m lucky in a way that people want to know.
“Championship Manager is a bit strange because that was the life people were waiting for from me, that’s what they’d thought I’d become.”
Surprisingly, Moukoko admits he didn’t even know such a game existed until he turned up at Derby County to begin his career in England.
“We went to play a reserves game in England and fans were coming to me for autographs. I was like, ‘what the f**k is going on?!’ I was a young boy and didn’t really understand it.”
He adds, “Even the players were playing the game, Ian Evatt introduced me to it but I knew nothing about it. It’s crazy, just last week I had a message from someone who wanted me to send a happy birthday message to someone – I did do it!”
He also admits he did finally get a chance to play the game himself when invited to the studios in London to make some adverts.
But what of little Zion? Does his dad think one day maybe his offspring will be the player people search for straight away when they pick up a copy of the game?
“I hope he becomes a politician,” Moukoko admits. “I don’t want him to be a footballer. If he wants to, fine, but I’d like him to be a politician.”
Now in his thirties, Moukoko knows his playing days are behind him. Now the head coach of Kongo United, he’s moved on with his life, but does say he still connects with a few old friends.
“I speak to old coaches. John Peacock was my academy manager at Derby and now he works for Manchester United, we went out for dinner in Sweden. I still speak to Gary Bowyer but you can’t hang onto it, after football there is another life.”