On 24 March this year, a young man from Germany took center stage in Cotonou, the largest city in the West African country of Benin.
Cebio Soukou had the ball at his feet. Just outside the center circle in the middle of his own half, he looked up and spotted the run of his teammate David Djigla, picking him out with a perfect long ball. Clean through on goal, the Nantes striker made no mistake and put Benin 1-0 up against neighbors Togo.
They didn’t let up, the qualification decider ended 2-1, and the small country of ten million people had qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt for the first time since 2010.
When the fulltime whistle blew, 35,000 fans transformed the overflowing Stade de l’Amitié into one massive party. Later, the celebrations continued outside as people danced on the city’s streets and cars flew by carrying people waving flags. In Africa, footballing success is celebrated like nowhere else in the world.
And in the middle of it all: Cebio Soukou, a long way from home.
Friends from all over the world
Soukou grew up in Bochum, a university town at the heart of the industrial Ruhr Valley in western Germany where his father had arrived as a student and married a German woman – an international connection which paved the way for Soukou’s own childhood.
“My mates who I used to play football with on the street came from all over the world,” he says. “After finishing school together, most of them went to university. I was the only one who kept playing football.”
Soukou learnt his trade at local club TuS Querenburg, where he was soon spotted by scouts from traditional second division club VfL Bochum. But the breakthrough at Bochum never came and Soukou set off on an odyssey through the lower echelons of professional German football: Rot-Weiss Essen, Erzgebirge Aue, Hansa Rostock and now, as of next season, Arminia Bielefeld.
And then, one day, Benin came knocking. Scouts from the nation’s new French management team had spotted Soukou and he received his first call-up in November 2018. For the first time in his life, Soukou touched down on African soil on the continent where his father had grown up – but he got injured and never made the pitch.
So it was that the boy from Bochum ended up making his international debut in the must-win qualifier against Togo, setting up the first goal and contributing to a historic victory. “Incredible,” says the 26-year-old, looking back on the experience with goosebumps. “Absolute euphoria, so many happy people, I’d never experienced anything like that anywhere else. It was like a dream.”
Integration and teamwork
Now, three months later, another dream is about to come true for the striker after national team coach Michel Dussuyer included him in the Benin squad for the Africa Cup of Nations. From 21 June until 19 July, Soukou, who scored ten goals for Hansa Rostock in Germany’s third division last season, including one in a 2-1 cup win over Stuttgart, then of the Bundesliga, will be playing for Africa’s most prestigious trophy with his new colleagues.
First on the to-do list, however: integration and teamwork. After all, the squad is composed of 23 footballers from all over the world, united by one common link: their parents’ Beninese roots. Soukou doesn’t even speak French, the country’s official language, and communicates with his teammates in English. “On the other hand, the assistant coach played in Germany for a few years and speaks good German,” says Soukou, who has also been surprised by the quality of the squad.
“We all play in top European leagues so the level in training and in games is really impressive,” he says. Striker Steve Mounie, for example, plays for Huddersfield Town, relegated from England’s Premier League last season, while midfielder Stephane Sessegnon plays for Genclerbirligi Ankara in Turkey’s second division. Many others play their football in Ligue 2 in France. Still, the third-division striker from Germany has integrated quickly.
“The lads have made it easy for me,” says Soukou. “They’ve all been really relaxed and friendly and have accepted me as one of their own.”
Now they have big plans for the upcoming tournament. “We’re going there to win,” says a confident Soukou. “We’re full of confidence and we trust in our ability. Then again, the same applies to the lads from the other 23 countries too!”
But it won’t be easy. Benin have been drawn in Group F where they will begin their campaign against reigning champions Cameroon, followed by games against Ghana and Guinea-Bissau. The top two from each group progress automatically to the knock-out rounds, plus the four best third-placed teams.
“Doable,” reckons Cebio Soukou, who experienced for himself against Togo three months ago what Benin are capable of, and what football means to the small West African nation.