He has played with some of the biggest players and taken down one of Europe’s powerhouse teams. Now Yeni Ngbakoto is in Australia with Western Sydney Wanderers and chats to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani about his career.
Western Sydney have landed a star attacker who burst onto the scene with French club Metz, and was once courted by the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea and Tottenham.
DR Congo international Yeni Ngbakoto is one of the Wanderers’ many new acquisitions; a goal scorer who has played with the likes of Sadio Mane and Sylvain Wiltord, defeated a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain outfit and was enticed to the Isuzu UTE A-League by an inspired Mark Rudan conversation and reference from a Melbourne City star.
It is the latest chapter in a career which, early on, made him one of Metz’s most sought-after products during his time with the academy in the northeast of France, and had strong interest from London.
“I did have contact with Tottenham but at this moment my mother and father didn’t want me to go there because I was so young,” Ngbakoto told KEEPUP.
“I needed to prove myself in the Metz academy, to build my body and grow with the team. It was too early.”
For a teenager finding their feet in the game, it’s not easy to deal with the attention and interest.
“It’s difficult,” the 30-year-old said. “When you hear big names like Tottenham, Barcelona and Chelsea, you want to go there and you think about, at that time, there was John Terry, Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda [at Chelsea], and at Tottenham there were big, big names.
“So you wanted to go but I was very lucky because I had a manager at Metz who kept me on the right road and told me that I don’t have to focus on those things, you have to focus on your formation, your growth, body shape.
“I needed to progress a lot and prove myself first with Metz and maybe after yes, go to this kind of club.”
Koulibaly on speed dial
Ngbakoto made a name for himself at Metz, where he debuted in 2009-10.
He tallied more than 200 appearances and scored 53 goals at Stade Saint-Symphorien, and played alongside the likes of Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane; Sylvain Wiltord, the former France and Arsenal striker who won the Premier League and European Championships, and Chelsea’s 2022-23 prized defensive signing and Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly.
Before he became a Napoli legend and captained Senegal to AFCON glory, Koulibaly started his career at Metz.
Ngbakoto and Koulibaly, who also came through the youth system, spent four seasons together at Les Grenats.
It’s a relationship that remains intact today.
“Koulibaly is one of my best friends. We speak everyday on the phone,” said Ngbakoto, who also played for QPR in England, Guingamp in the first and second tiers of French football and Greek giants Panathinaikos.
“I’m proud to be part of the success because we used to play together. We won trophies together. Okay, today we have separate careers, but the thing is I’m really happy.”
Koulibaly is preparing for his first season with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but could agent Ngbakoto help bring his former team-mate to Australia?
“I will speak to him,” Ngbakoto joked. “Not now but maybe in a couple of years. He signed for four years at Chelsea so maybe in four years we can see him there. I wish I will sign here for four years, so I will say come here it’s a good thing.
The thing is when I see the signing of Nani, good players like this, Australian football starts to improve a lot and grow. It’s important for football in Australia.
“Men and women’s football are in World Cups. That’s very, very good to build this. I’m very happy to be here and be part of the kind of success in Australia.”
As well as Koulibaly, Ngbakoto teamed up with another Senegalese star-in-the-making at Metz – Mane.
Metz was the stepping stone for Mane, who only spent a season there before making moves to RB Salzburg and Southampton, and eventually Premier League juggernaut Liverpool.
Now a Bayern player, Mane won the Premier League, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, FA Cup and EFL Cup during his time at Anfield up until 2021-22.
“He was a crazy player. He wanted to do everything fast,” said Ngbakoto.
“He could dribble like four or five players. Starting in front of the goal, bam he could put the ball in the net. I learnt a lot of things from him.
“He was my friend and we still speak sometimes. He deserves what he has because he is a hard worker.”
That famous night in Paris
It’s the result no one ever would have predicted.
Paris Saint-Germain – the French juggernaut – had won five consecutive Coupe de la Ligue titles and came into the January 2019 quarter-final showdown boasting Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Marquinhos.
On the other side of the field at Parc des Princes was Ngbakoto and his unfancied Guingamp.
Ngbakoto was at the centre of the memorable boilover in the French capital.
After Neymar put PSG ahead in the 62nd minute, Ngbakoto converted an 81st-minute penalty before Marcus Thuram avenged his earlier miss with a successful spot-kick in the third minute of stoppage time.
The Brittany side went on to reach the final that season, undone by Strasbourg in a penalty shoot-out.
“It was massive enjoyment,” Ngbakoto said as he reflected on the PSG upset.
“When we play against these type of players, it’s just fantastic because you can test yourself to see where you can grow and be a better player.
We suffered a lot but in the end we won the game. It was a fantastic feeling. To score against Paris in their stadium, there were massive, massive emotions.
“Playing against this type of team and players is really exciting. When you’re on the pitch, you don’t think about it. You just want to play, show yourself and defend your team and club.
“Afterwards, they were really good guys. At the end, they shook our hands and said congratulations. We played them two weeks later and they beat us 9-0. So I think they were so angry about it [laughing].”
The advice of a Melbourne City star
Ngbakoto is in Australia with a familiar face in the A-League Men -Nuno Reis.
The Melbourne City defender and ALM champion spent a season with Ngbakoto at Metz in 2015-16.
Now, the two imports will go head-to-head on opposing sides Down Under.
“Before I signed for the Wanderers, I spoke with him about Australian football. He told me a lot of good things,” said Ngbakoto, who was also a team-mate of Australian midfielder Massimo Luongo at QPR.
“I know it’s a lot of transitional football, so I need to be ready. He is enjoying it here. I think he wants to end his career here.
“He is a good person also. We share a lot of moments with him, his family and wife and children. I spoke directly with him.”
The Wanderers ‘family’ and pursuit of glory
After time in France, England and Greece, Ngbakoto is outside of Europe for the first time and part of a major rebuild at Wanderland.
Without finals football in five seasons, the Wanderers have made 16 signings ahead of the 2022-23 ALM campaign.
There is Sydney FC legend and two-time Johnny Warren Medallist Milos Ninkovic, former Lyon and PSV defender Marcelo Guedes, Socceroo Oliver Bozanic, French midfielder Romain Amalfitano, Brandon Borrello from Dynamo Dresden, ex-Melbourne Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas and Kusini Yengi among others.
But why the A-Leagues and why the Wanderers for Ngbakoto?
“It’s easy,” he replied. “I spoke to Rudan maybe in June and the feeling was unbelievable.
“I had one coach at Metz who thought the same and I had my best season, and he reminded me of Mark.
“When Mark spoke to me about coming to Australia… the key for me was his speech about the family. The family he wants to build around the club. Everyone in the club has to be like a family, not everyone in separate positions etc.
“He wants to take care of our family also. When I first came, he said I want you come here and feel like home. That’s why I really appreciate this conversation. My wife also felt really confident.
“He wanted to build a very, very good team to compete and win the league. That excited me.
I want to be part of the winning success of the club. With hard work, I think we will do something this season. We have great players and as a family, if we are together, we can do a very good season.