“I became a footballer by an accident”
French football has benefited a lot from the black footballers. However, many of their feats and achievements have been forgotten or lacked media coverage. People know the modern-day footballers, who enjoy multi million deals with major football clubs and brands, but they would not have such a success without the struggles their predecessors had to overcome. French football would not be as diverse as it is now without the efforts of Eugene N’Jo Lea. This is his story.
Eugene N’Jo Lea was born 15 July 1931 in a small Cameroonian village called Batuchi. Since the early days, he was keen to study hard and get a good education. In his free time, he was playing football for the local amateur side Vent Lalanne until 1951. N’Jo Lea went to France to continue his education, where the 20-year old Cameroonian studied in Roanne. He was focused on education, but the same as before, his spare time was filled with football trainings and matches for the local club. The debut of the Cameroonian was impressive… he scored 12 goals in a single game!
When his club participated in the French Cup, the talent of Panther (meaning of his surname in Duala language) was soon spotted by the Saint-Etienne’s scout Pierre Garnier. He had a strong built, great pace, and stamina. After Garnier saw the Cameroonian score another hat-trick, he convinced the ASSE manager Jean Snella to give it a try and sign the talented striker. Soon the deal was reached and in 1954, N’Jo Lea moved to Saint-Etienne to continue studies at the local university and try himself in professional football.
Snella had a specific view of the young striker. He was in no rush to give him a place in the starting lineup because of the lack of experience on the professional level, and unorthodox technique. When Cameroonian finally earned his chance, he made his debut with a style, scoring two goals against Toulouse. This was the first step towards his role as the leading force in Saint-Etienne’s attack. Alongside N’Jo Lea, there was another African star in the making. The young Algerian striker Rachid Mekhloufi, who eventually became one of the legends of ASSE. They formed a great duo, and in the 1956/57 season, Saint-Etienne finally won its first Ligue 1 title. N’Jo Lea had a sensational season — the best in his career, scoring 29 goals in 32 games and leading Les Verts to the title, and a chance to make a debut in the European Cup. Unfortunately, the European journey was cut short after a loss to Glasgow Rangers.
Although the Cameroonian striker became a key player of Saint-Etienne, he soon faced odds due to his studies. He enrolled at the university in Lyon and this meant that he had to travel a lot between trainings, games, and lectures. This put some toll and led N’Jo Lea to a controversial move. He joined the Saint-Etienne’s arch-rivals — Olympique Lyonnais. However, this move was purely out of necessity to finish his studies. N’Jo Lea still contributed 21 goals in 50 games in his two seasons with Les Gones, but his motivation to pursue footballing heights was not the same anymore.
Before the 1961/62 season, N’Jo Lea moved to Paris — once again to study. For a short stint, he joined the Racing Club Paris, but just after two games, the Cameroonian striker retired from football at the age of 30. It may have been difficult to end a career early for most of the footballers, but this was not the case. The best and the most exciting period in his life started after he hanged up his boots.
The situation in French football was far from good in the early 1960s. Footballers did not earn much, and all the power was in the hands of the club owners. Even the best players in the league could lose their hard-earned money. The famous Raymond Kopa once said: “We, footballers, are slaves!” N’Jo Lea was keen to change the situation for the fellow footballers and alongside former footballer Just Fontaine and lawyer Jacques Bertrand, they founded the Union Nationale des Footballeurs Professionels. This organisation acted on behalf of footballers and did a great job in the following years to get more respectful conditions for the players of French professional leagues. Cameroonian was the frontrunner of this idea. As Just Fontaine said: “Eugene had a new idea every 30 seconds!”
The independence of his homeland, Cameroon, also opened new horizons for N’Jo Lea. He found himself in a diplomatic career and represented Cameroon in several European states, as well as in the United States. Also, he did not forget the game that he played so well in his early days. N’Jo Lea saw football as a great toolto promote Africa and develop professional leagues there. His vision was far ahead of his time since the situation in African countries was tough. Most of the politicians looked only for their interests and gains. Idealists with pure intentions had a hard time finding their place in this chaotic environment.
Cameroon’s local governing bodies were not excited about N’Jo Lea and his ideas. He had serious opposition. Enthusiasm was not appreciated. Eventually, his son, William, who also became a professional footballer, was stripped of the opportunity to play for the national team because of his father. It was kind of revenge to N’Jo Lea by those, who felt envious of his visionary mind.
Eugene N’Jo Lea died in his homeland at the age of 75, in 2006. His legacy may have lacked the attention it deserves, but the impact remains strong. He was one of the first African players to earn a star status in Ligue 1. It paved the way for the next generations of African talents, and the way coaches looked at them. They gained an appreciation and earned new opportunities in football. The creation of UNFP helped the next generations of footballers to gain financial security. All this was possible thanks to a humble and highly intelligent man from Batuchi.