x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

No substitute for time on the pitch for Al Ain's Jires Kembo-Ekoko

The former Rennes player is blossoming in the Garden City as the African's goals have kept the Pro League leaders at the top.

Jires Kembo-Ekoko played in the shadows of Asamoah Gyan in France. Both are teammates at Al Ain this season. Jeffrey Biteng / The National
Jires Kembo-Ekoko played in the shadows of Asamoah Gyan in France. Both are teammates at Al Ain this season. Jeffrey Biteng / The National

A career spent in the shadows of others has made it difficult for Jires Kembo-Ekoko to cast his own.

The son of a decorated international footballer, the Al Ain striker spent much of his time at Rennes in France as the understudy to several skilled scorers, despite scattered hints at pedigree of his own.

He has adapted well to the Pro League since his September 1 move to the Garden City - 11 goals from 21 games - yet portents of promise have been largely overshadowed by the scoring prowess of Asamoah Gyan, the early contribution of fellow new recruit Alex Brosque, or the continued mastery of Omar Abdulrahman.

Kembo-Ekoko, though, is much valued by the champions.

"He's been very, very impressive, especially in recent weeks with Gyan away on international duty when he and Brosque have almost carried the team," said an Al Ain official. "He's been probably the best Pro League signing this year."

A successful career in football always seemed likely.

His father, Kembo Uba Kembo, was a celebrated midfielder in what was then Zaire, helping his country to African Cup of Nations crowns in 1968 and 1974, the same year the Leopards became the first sub-Saharan team to qualify for the World Cup.

Uba Kembo, already a continental club champion, was part of the side that would lose to Scotland and then match the heaviest defeat in finals history: a 9-0 reverse to Yugoslavia.

Brazil, the reigning champions, offered Zaire their final challenge, swiftly condemning the Africans to an undesirable sweep.

Pitted against luminaries in Jairzinho and Rivelinho, Uba Kembo would not have realised then that, when his son arrived in the Rennes youth team - via Clairefontaine, the exalted France national academy - he would himself exude traces of the "joga bonito".

The youngster was promptly given the nickname "Kembinho" by teammates.

Kembo-Ekoko was nine years old when he was spotted at school by scouts of a local club, three years after he was sent from the Democratic Republic of Congo (as Zaire is now known) to join family in France, where it was hoped the country's education system would ensure a prosperous future.

The move did just that, only football would be his subject of choice; through it life lessons were perpetually provided.

Rennes received a quick return for their conviction. According to French records, Kembo-Ekoko scored almost one goal in every two games during three seasons in the Championnat de France amateur, the fourth tier of the French league system.

A professional contract, signed in May 2006, served as his reward. Blessed with explosive pace, sharp close control and the ability to dribble past opponents, Kembo-Ekoko appeared destined to justify his graduation to the senior team.

Then began the struggle.

Game-time was limited during his first two seasons at the Route de Lorient, largely because of the talented attacking duo of Jimmy Briand and Moussa Sow, both internationals.

The 2008/09 campaign, regardless of Gyan's arrival at the club, granted more minutes on the pitch, and Kembo-Ekoko scored vital goals under the guidance of Guy Lacombe, the recently departed coach of Al Wasl.

Still, a regular spot proved elusive. "I cannot be satisfied with this situation," he reportedly said at the season's end.

"If the club cannot guarantee me more time to play and I need to go elsewhere I will. I have contacts." Owing to the acquisition of Ismael Bangoura, the productive Dinamo Kiev forward, a place in the starting XI remained out of reach.

Frederic Antonetti, who replaced Lacombe in the dugout, preferred to use Bangoura in support of Gyan, and Kembo-Ekoko was once more spending too much time on the bench.

"There is a lot of competition," he said. "It is also up to me to do more than what I've done so far."

His contract set to expire, he vowed to prove his worth. A new three-year deal was agreed in the summer of 2010. "Rennes is a club I love and that allowed me to play in Ligue 1, to realise my dream," he said then. "I want to leave something behind here, as the club have always trusted me."

The double departure of Gyan and Bangoura prompted a brief period of prolificacy and an approach from DR Congo to represent at senior level his country of birth. Having gained French citizenship in 2008 - Kembo-Ekoko had featured for the French Under 21 side - he rejected Congo's advances, temporarily at least, maintaining instead focus on his performances for Rennes.

"It is still a little too early and is better to devote myself to my club," he said. "I do not want to say no to the selection, but we'll see what happens."

Just as his career looked to again be on the rise, it shuddered to a halt. Kembo-Ekoko suffered an ankle injury that December, cutting short his season.

Muscular problems, particularly to his thigh and hamstring, stunted his return. The road to recovery was a long one. "It was very hard. I watched my colleagues from the stands - I was helpless," he said.

"It was infuriating, especially when the team struggled at the end of the season. I could not do anything. I love football, I love my job so it hurts when I cannot play."

His devotion to the game soared at the beginning of the 2011/12 campaign, Kembo-Ekoko thriving under Antonetti's attacking philosophy. Playing regularly, he often found himself on the score sheet despite being employed on the flanks, and was soon striking at almost a goal every game.

Again, DR Congo approached, and again Kembo-Ekoko cited his commitment to his club, much to the delight of Antonetti.

"I rely heavily on him," said the manager. "Because he is able to do things out of the ordinary."

An extraordinary season by previous standards, Kembo-Ekoko finished with 13 goals in 42 games, including a first in the Europa League.

Preliminary negotiations regarding a new contract took place last July - "Rennes is my city, I am now Rennais. My life is here" - but a surprise transfer to the UAE and Al Ain was secured as the summer window creaked shut.

Kembo-Ekoko was considered when Michel Bastos, the Brazilian at Lyon, proved too expensive; the Kinshasa-born striker, in times past tipped by Eden Hazard to become a star of Ligue 1, once again asked to step from the shadows.

His English is blossoming, too, yet he can converse in French with Gyan and Cosmin Olaroiu, the coach, and, according to club sources "is liked by everyone in the dressing room".

His body still requires careful management, but Kembo-Ekoko's ability to both score and create has been a valuable asset as Al Ain fight for silverware on four fronts.

"I feel at home with my colleagues in the Al Ain camp," he said upon signing a four-year contract at the club's pre-season training camp in Madrid. "I think the atmosphere will be warmer and more wonderful."

Asked how he preferred to be recognised, he added: "I like to be called 'Kembo'".

Having spent years on the margins, the once prodigious teen is finally making a name for himself.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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