The revamp of Newcastle United under new boss Steve McLaren continued this week with his third signing of the window so far, defender Chancel Mbemba from Anderlecht. The Democratic Republic of Congo full back has arrived at the club for a fee of £8.5million and should go into Newcastle’s starting line up for next Sunday’s season opener against Southampton along with fellow newcomers Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic. Mbemba is a powerful full back with good pace and a strong reading of the game who should add some bite to the Newcastle back line. Having played 36 times for Anderlecht last year including their six Champions League matches, Mbemba appears comfortable at the highest level and is being heralded as a coup by Newcastle who have stolen a player with the best years of his career ahead of him.
But how many years exactly has become an interesting side point and distraction in this transfer. The uncertainty over how old Mbemba actually is has plagued the player since he moved to Europe three years ago. The issue is that in Congo birth certificates and record keeping are rare so Mbemba’s exact year of birth is unknown. What is certain is that he arrived into the world on August 8th but of what year? The players first two clubs registered his birth year as 1988, making him 26 today however his country submitted 1991 as his year of birth when registering him for the African Cup of Nations. That would make him 23. Then when Mbemba moved to Europe to sign for Belgian side Anderlecht they registered his birth year as 1994 making him 20. The player himself has been reported to believe that his birth year was 1990 making him 24 today.
Where the truth falls in this story is unknown but FIFA has now launched a formal investigation to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It is suspected that the date given by the DR Congo national team was fabricated to allow Mbemba to take part in the 2012 Olympics games, a tournament he would have been illegible for if he was indeed born in 1988. By bring the clock forward, a move done by several African nations, he would be able to compete and would hand Congo an advantage against its competitors given Mbemba’s then size and strength. The birth dates given by Mbemba to his first clubs are likely to be incorrect as well due to poor medical/birth records or simply down to the players desire to play professionally for as long as possible. Many players in Africa see a career as a footballer as an escape from their current lives and a way to help their families. Adjusting their year of birth as they move around allows them to prolong their careers further and generate more money to send home. Mbemba is not the first nor will be the last player from Africa to have their age questions. Stars like Taribo West, Nwankwo Kanu and even former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins have been questioned about their real age given that they appeared to have played at the highest level from a very young age.
To Newcastle and their fans, they care little about how old Mbemba is. Whether he is 20 or 24 makes little difference to Steve McLaren who sees the player as someone who will become an instant hit with the fans and will help Newcastle to progress on the pitch. Mbemba himself seems unmoved by the ongoing speculation around his year of birth and in fact has become accustom to having his teammates tease him on the issue. His international colleagues ritually poke fun at his ever-moving birthday but all agree that he has the potential to go all the way in the game. He has raised comparisons between himself and Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany back in Belgium and its hard to argue with. Both are powerful yet skillful defenders who can read the game brilliantly. Mbemba will now have the chance to show what he can do in England’s top league and whether he can replicate Kompany’s success and become one of Europe’s best defenders.