Eric Djemba-Djemba: From Nando's with Ronaldo to happiness in Swiss amateur football
- November 24, 2019
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The story of how the Cameroon midfielder went from eating chicken with the ex-Man Utd star to playing in front of less than 100 people in Switzerland
History remembers August 16, 2003 as Cristiano Ronaldo’s debut for Manchester United in a 4-0 win against Bolton Wanderers.
But the match was also the first Red Devils appearance for another player who Sir Alex Ferguson predicted to become a star: Eric Djemba-Djemba.
Having come into the first team together, the tough-tackling Cameroon midfielder and Ronaldo became close friends, and even shared trips to Nando’s .
But their journey together at Old Trafford only lasted 18 months when United decided to cut short their investment in Djemba-Djemba and send him on a path that would end in the fifth division of Switzerland.
Their career trajectories couldn’t have been more different since debuting for United together, with Ronaldo going on to win five Champions League trophies, six league titles across three clubs and lifting the European Championship with Portugal.
While Ronaldo is seen as a great of the sport, Djemba-Djemba’s name is usually mentioned with amusement about his failure at United.
However, the gulf in stature doesn’t necessarily translate to a difference in happiness, as Djemba-Djemba’s journey attests.
Ferguson had signed Djemba-Djemba in a £3.5 million ($4.53m) deal from Ligue 1 club Nantes in the hope of him becoming the eventual successor for captain Roy Keane.
The legendary United manager was convinced he had acquired a player who would dominate at the Theatre of Dreams for many seasons to come.
“Eric is a young player we’ve watched throughout the season, and he’s impressed us each time with his understanding of the game,” Ferguson said at the unveiling of the then-22-year-old .
“He’s quick, aggressive and a good passer of the ball, and is the kind of athletic footballer we are looking for.
“In the last few months he has shown his development playing in a very good Cameroon team, and he looks like a Manchester United player in every sense.”
But, after only 13 starts in 35 appearances, it was clear Djemba-Djemba wasn’t cut out for Manchester United and was sold to Aston Villa before Keane had even finished his playing career.
The player himself admitted he struggled with the pressures of being at Old Trafford, having to compete with the likes of Keane, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher for a spot in the team.
“It was difficult,” Djemba-Djemba told The Sun in an interview last year. “I was 22, I came from France and I went straight into a team that was one of the biggest in the world.
“There was a lot of pressure, and Roy Keane was a man. Everybody listened to him. At the beginning it was good, I played matches because Keane was injured.
“But when he came back, it was hard for me. Sometimes I played with him, sometimes with Paul Scholes or with Darren Fletcher.”
The situation didn’t get any easier for Djemba-Djemba after his Villa Park move as he battled to get in the first team ahead of Gavin McCann and Steven Davis before being loaned to then-Championship club Burnley.
And it wasn’t just on-field pressures that were overwhelming. Djemba-Djemba was reportedly declared bankrupt shortly before his Aston Villa contract was terminated, amid rumours he had 10 4×4 cars and 30 bank accounts .
Djemba-Djemba denied the speculation about his finances but revealed his struggles in dealing with the extravagant lifestyle of a professional football star.
“It was difficult handling the money. Now I am a grown up, I have learned,” he said in 2018.
“I was too trusting. I trust in God and he opened my eyes. Maybe he wanted that to happen to me so tomorrow I might be better. I didn’t lose everything but I lost a lot.
“It was said I had 30 bank accounts as well. Come on, no one has 30 bank accounts. When I read stuff like that it upset me.”
Following his departure from Villa Park, Djemba-Djemba embarked on a nomadic career journey which took him to places such as Qatar, Denmark, Israel, Serbia, Scotland, India and Indonesia.
But it wasn’t until he was considering retirement at the age of 35 that a surprising phone call from a friend would allow Djemba-Djemba to finally find a home at Swiss amateur side FC Vallorbe-Ballaigues – who regularly have crowds of less than 100 people.
“[I joined] because of my friend Jacques Etonde, who I grew up with in Cameroon…it was a boyhood dream for the both of us to play together in Europe after we’d grown up together in Africa,” Djemba-Djemba said.
“I just love playing and, when I finish training, I’m happy to carry the balls or the water bottles.”
After years of travelling to all corners of the globe, the Swiss move allowed Djemba-Djemba to be closer to his family in Nantes – with the journey only being a couple of hours on the train.
“I went everywhere in the world, but in the meantime my kids were growing up fast in Nantes and it was difficult for me. I could only really see them about two times a year.
“It was a sacrifice [to come here]. I’m happy I’m in Switzerland because I wanted to be close to my kids.”
Get to know some more players that have fallen from lofty heights to rock bottom:
Now, at the age of 38, it’s evident Djemba-Djemba has found a level of peace in his career that never came when he was at his footballing prime.
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And who is to say that his current contentment isn’t the same as his former team-mate and now millionaire superstar Cristiano Ronaldo?