Paul Bonga Bonga is the greatest African footballer you've never heard of

Paul Bonga Bonga never represented the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it became known in 1997, in official FIFA-sanctioned matches. The country became independent in 1960, during the height of his career in Belgium. Standard Liege

Between 1960 and 1992, World Soccer Magazine annually picked their 'World XI' for the preceding 12 months, where long-term international editor Eric Batty revealed his Dream Team of football's top players.

During three decades of World Soccer's World XI, only once did the magazine select an African player in their Dream Team.

The year was 1962, and the player was Paul Bonga Bonga, who took his place in the team alongside the likes of Pele, Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas.

He may well be the greatest African player you've never heard of.

The Congolese midfielder [his country, now the DRC, was then still called Belgian Congo] was a pioneer for African football, yet despite playing a critical role in building the modern Standard Liege and breaking new ground in the then-European Cup, his legacy remains critically under appreciated outside Belgium.

In fact, 59 years ago, he was the first non-naturalised African player to feature in the semifinal of Europe's premier club competition -- and almost struck in their double-header with the almighty Real Madrid of Di Stefano, Puskas and Francisco Gento.

"The matches against the great Real were fantastic," Bonga Bonga told ESPN. "I remember during the match, our left winger [Marcel Paeschen] beat his defender and ran towards the goal.

"I was in midfield, he gave me the pass -- I knew I had a man on me so I took a volley and sadly, it came off the bar.

"It's a shame, frankly, and I regret it, but my God -- they [Real Madrid] were an incredible team."

Standard ultimately fell to a 6-0 aggregate defeat, while Real were beaten in the final by the Benfica of Eusebio, Mario Coluna, Joaquim Santana and Costa Pereira -- all players who were born in Portuguese territories in Africa but represented Portugal at senior level.

It remains the high point in Standard's history, and the best campaign by a Belgian team in the European Cup until Club Brugge were defeated finalists in 1978.

They wouldn't have got there without Bonga Bonga, who had been a key protagonist in Standard's trio of title successes between 1958 and 1961 -- as the Liege heavyweights ended their 60-year wait for a first league crown.

"I arrived in '57, and a year later we won the championship," the 88-year-old remembered, partially in jest.

"So thanks to my participation, the title was achieved -- it was the first time Standard became champions, and I was a key player -- so you could even say it was thanks to Bonga!

"I was euphoric, and very happy to be part of a team who became champions -- it was the first time I'd done it."

These aren't mere wholesomely unfiltered memories on the part of an elderly man, with Standard's official website lauding his impact in the years immediately after his arrival in Europe.

"It's no coincidence that the arrival of Bonga Bonga at Standard coincides with the start of a glorious period for the Reds," writes journalist Pierre Bilic in the player's Hall of Fame entry.

"[He] was the driving force behind the titles in the early 1960s."

Indeed, Bonga Bonga believes he was primed to win the Soulier d'Or -- the Belgian Golden Show award for the best player of the year -- in 1960, only to be pipped by Anderlecht superstar Paul Van Himst.

"We found ourselves in a cafe; in Brussels and I congratulated him," Bonga Bonga recounted, "but he said '[the award] shouldn't be mine, it should be yours.'

"The journalists [who voted] were Flemish, and I think there was racism [involved in the decision] -- the racism was significant."

Nonetheless, Bonga Bonga's runners-up position in the Soulier d'Or voting in 1960 was the only occasion in the first twenty years of the award that a non-Belgian player finished in the top three players of the year -- a remarkable achievement in itself.

The early 60s were the apex for Bonga Bonga, but his ascent to the pinnacle of the Belgian game -- and to the European Cup semifinal -- was meteoric, with the midfielder having played in his homeland as late in his career as 1957.

His life changed during a one-month pre-Independence five-match tour of Belgium, when a visiting unofficial Congolese national team -- then nicknamed the Lions, rather than the Leopards -- took on some of the top flight's strongest teams, holding a fine Standard team 2-2 in the process.

"People came from far away to see us play," he told the club's official website. "Many of them had never seen 'coloured' players before.

"They looked at us with their eyes and mouth wide open," he added. "Stadiums were sold out, and they even installed additional benches along the sidelines to meet demand. They all came to watch us."

The 20,000 Liege fans in attendance were enthralled by the No. 10's creativity and ball control, as were journalists and club officials, who duly approached the Congolese federation in order to negotiate a transfer to bring the midfielder to Belgian football.

Bonga would go on to become one of the first 'Belgicains' -- a collective term for the Congolese players who moved from the then-colony to play their football in the metropole.

"The Belgian teams were able to see the quality of the Congolese players, and we were able to see our possibilities too," 'Bopaul' recalled to ESPN. "After the match, we had a banquet and a journalist asked me if I'd like to come and play in Belgium.

"I said that whether I was in Belgium or Congo, it was all just football for me, and so the federation were approached by the Europeans, and this is how I was able to be transferred."

While the move was delayed due to protracted negotiations between Standard and federation chiefs [they, rather than his club side Motema Pembe were responsible for agreeing a fee], he eventually completed a move in September 1957.

"It was radiant, it was a new world that I had entered, a new European world," Bonga remembers.

"During the travel from the airport, I looked out of the windows, saw everything that was going by and said 'My God, it's incredible, it's completely different from [Congo]."

Having already seen a glimpse of their new man -- and his qualities -- up close during the tour, Liege supporters were excited about his arrival, with "300 or 400 fans" flocking to the airport to greet him as he arrived by helicopter from Brussels, having flown from Leopoldville [now Kinshasa].

To this day, Bonga doesn't know the transfer fee that he eventually went for, although the delay in negotiations meant that it was his compatriot -- the pioneering Leon Mokuna -- who became the first player born to two Congolese parents to sign for a Belgian club.

"Until now, I don't know how much [the transfer fee was], nobody told me. I asked, but I never heard anything... maybe I am the most expensive African player in history!" he joked.

While Mokuna became a club legend at KAA Gent, and even represented Belgium's B team, he didn't match Bonga's success either domestically or in European competition.

Already familiar to Standard fans, who clamoured for his competitive debut, Bonga Bonga settled easily in Belgian football, and soon brought the creativity and cool ball skills he'd showcased during the '57 tour to bear in the top flight.

"I was a ball-player," he recalled. "It wasn't the same system as today, we played in a WM formation [2-3-5], and I played in any of the midfield positions.

"I could play with either foot, I had good vision, I could dribble, and I was able to really see the play unfolding -- there aren't many who can do this."

Standard's official website compares Bonga Bonga in his pomp to Chelsea and France midfielder N'Golo Kante, but the available footage shows a player who was more creative and more attack-minded than the 2018 World Cup winner. There's no doubt, however, that he shared the France international's appetite for hard running on the field.

"When I had the ball at my feet, I knew exactly what I would do and I saw quickly which of my teammates were free to attack," he continued. "There aren't many who have that quality today.

"There was also one game where I lost two kilos [during the match], it was remarkable."

He remained at Liege until 1963, when he was somewhat prematurely discarded, and spent four more seasons at Charleroi before hanging up his boots and embarking on various business and coaching ventures following his playing career.

In taking a player-manager role at Tubize, he became the first Congolese to coach in Belgium, and even into his 60s, he captained a team of faded Congolese football legends who played against local sides in Kinshasa.

Bonga -- who has returned to live in Belgium -- acknowledges that he encountered racism directly in his adopted homeland, even if he was quickly accepted by Liege fans, and isn't confident that it can ever truly be eradicated from sport or public life.

"Those who don't like Black people will always say bad things about Black people," he noted. "Racism will never end, you can say and do whatever you want, but it won't.

"Mokuna even fought with his own teammates, and while I was adopted at Liege, I did have some problems with racists.

"Once I went to a night club and was dancing, a guy barged me off the dance floor and said, 'Your place is not here'. Racism will never end, you have to live with it."

Bonga acknowledged back in 1963, in a television interview upon his departure from Standard, that he felt "partially Belgian" but realised that even if he was naturalised as a Belgian citizen, he would never truly be a local.

"Fundamentally, I am not [Belgian]. People may say I am, but what is inside we cannot deny, and what is inside, is that I am not Belgian.

"Even if I wanted to be English, and my 'markings' were English, it doesn't change what I am deep down inside -- Congolese."

Much has changed since, with players of Congolese origin -- Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Youri Tielemans -- or even those born in the DRC -- Christian Benteke, Anthony VandenBorre, Mbo Mbenza -- becoming emblematic of modern multi-cultural Belgian football.

However, despite being one of Congo's most prominent sons overseas, Bonga never represented his country following independence, missing out on their first Africa Cup of Nations campaign in 1965 and retiring before their subsequent success in 1968.

"I would never refuse to go and play with them," he said, "but I just wasn't called. It was impossible for me to return to Kinshasa to play.

"It was a shame, but I don't regret it, because I was playing here in Belgium."

Despite breaking new ground for Black African players in European football, winning titles in Belgium, and making a new life for himself in his adopted nation, Bonga Bonga looks back on his career with both pride and regret.

While acknowledging the achievement of making the World Soccer XI alongside all-time greats such as Pele, Di Stefano, Puskas and iconic Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower, the veteran cannot hide his disappointment at missing out on the rewards of modern football.

"I still have the magazine where I'm in the XI," he revealed, "but sadly, it didn't actually bring me anything beyond that.

"If it was now, if it was today... well, you can see what the players earn in the sport, it's extraordinary, all we had was a salary and that was it.

"I was among the best 11 players in the world, everyone read it and saw it, but it didn't actually result in anything.

"If I could become a young man, a younger player in this era right now," he concluded, "I would be very happy."