Exclusive | Distel Zola: From international midfielder to World Food Programme ambassador

Former DR Congo international Distel Zola’s career took him from the Monaco academy to Le Havre and Châteauroux, before late-career spells in Turkey and then the USA. Now retired, the ex-midfielder dedicates his time to charitable actions focusing on helping vulnerable youth in the DRC through his and his wife’s foundation, Banazola, across various issues – from food insecurity, to education, to building orphanages.

Get French Football News recently caught up with the 34-year-old again to discuss the work he has carried out as an ambassador for the UN’s World Food Programme, the short-term prospects for the DRC national team ahead of next year’s AFCON, and the advice he would give to current players on finding their way after retirement:

When we last spoke more than three years ago, you were playing at El Paso in the USA – a lot has happened since then. Could you first talk us through what led you to setting up your foundation, Banazola?

It’s a charity that I founded with my wife, which looks to help the children of Congo. It’s really the product of our own personal backgrounds – my wife’s father was a humanitarian worker and she lost her parents at quite a young age, so that’s something which motivated her. And then there’s my own story, from my time in the Monaco academy to seeing the youth of Congo. There are a lot of elements which made us think that we should help out, and create Banazola.

The objective is to set up social assistance for children in Congo, and we use sport as a tool for that. We realised that the fact that I’m a former DRC national team player gave us a certain credibility in terms of raising awareness and having more of an impact and having a presence in the media.

We’ve been working on it for two years now, and it’s going well. What started it all was when we renovated a school in Kinshasa – I was still playing in the USA at the time, it was my wife who went out to Congo and we coordinated everything with the teams who were on site. Everything developed from that.

We also help out orphanages, we work with a paediatric unit in Kinshasa, and most of all we carry out awareness campaigns – via football – on different topics. We do these with our partners, for example with the World Food Programme. Step by step, we’re developing it and also learning ourselves.

Is food insecurity a particularly important topic for the foundation?

We’ve been working with the WFP for a year now, and seven months ago I was named an ambassador for it. So it’s often a topic when we carry out initiatives with them, but at its heart Banazola is really about issues surrounding children in general. Since the WFP looks to help children in terms of food insecurity, we have the same vision in that sense.

What kind of specific initiatives do you carry out in that role?

I work on an initiative which focuses on providing school meals. So the objective is to build as many canteens as possible in schools across the DRC, and to raise awareness among children of the importance of a healthy diet. 

What are the long-term goals of the foundation, how do you see it developing?

The aim would be to go on and build emergency shelter homes and infrastructure for vulnerable children.

Whether it’s through Banazola or the WFP, I often use the network of contacts I’ve built up through football. Monaco have been with us since we started Banazola – when I came back from the USA, I showed them what I was working on, and they supported us. Last year, they provided help when we organised a tournament in partnership with the WFP centred around sport and nutrition. Recently we had the idea of playing a match in a refugee camp in Goma [in war-torn eastern Congo], and they also supported us. We set off two months ago, and we managed to set it all up, even though it wasn’t easy. 

I think it’s a good thing for our own exposure and for them as well. It also allows us to send out a message to other retired athletes, who might be thinking of doing something themselves, that you should look to help out however you can, with your means. That’s another aim – to position ourselves as a model for former teammates to go out and get involved.

So you’d also like to encourage other ex-pros to carry out these kinds of initiatives?

If they want to, of course. But for those who are interested, they should go for it. During your playing career, you develop a lot of skills, but it’s difficult to transfer them elsewhere after you retire, in the real world. So I’d really like to encourage my former teammates to get out there and get started.

Did your time playing in America shape your decision in any way?

I would even say it was fundamental. Over there, you really have this community spirit, this anglophone self-starter mindset. When I was over there, after training my teammates would never be lying around, nobody would be going for a nap! Some would be taking online courses, another one was writing a book, someone else was setting up his clothing brand, doing coaching… 

So I got myself into that mindset. Seeing as my wife and I had been discussing this project in the five or six years before that, the planets aligned and we decided to go for it. I’d say my time in the USA was decisive. 

So it was a formative time for you, on and off the pitch

My first year at El Paso went well, I had a lot of playing time. But towards the end of the season, I had to leave the club, and I had a few offers. When Charlotte came up, we made the decision to go there straight away. Over there, I didn’t get the playing time that I’d have wanted, but off the pitch is where things really developed. The club even supported me when I launched my foundation. It’s kind of contradictory, because I wasn’t playing a lot, but they supported me and were behind me, and I think that’s amazing. 

In France, when you’re not playing, you’re often cast aside, in a way. You kind of become the person to avoid. In America, they know how to dissociate performances and personal life. So that was very important for me.

You can go knock on the CEO’s door, and he’ll listen to you, regardless of whether you’re playing or not. In France, that could be difficult. It’s really a case of different mentalities.

I’m not saying this to put France down, but just to show the difference in mentalities from one continent to the other. Over there, there’s really this spirit of wanting to give back to the community. You can see it in the initiatives the players carry out, whether it’s hospital visits or helping out the less fortunate. You have celebrations within the club for festivities like Thanksgiving.

Is that the kind of mentality you want to transmit to your colleagues, then?

Of course. It can be hard to bounce back after the end of your playing career. If you’re already getting involved during your career, making yourself busy and putting some ideas together, it won’t be as difficult after you retire. In France, we’re told to think about what we’ll be doing after our playing careers, but we’re not necessarily being given all the tools to do that.

It would be good to explore other interests – reading, going to museums, creating something. In France, you train, you nap, you train, you nap – and in the end, you’re not actually doing anything. In the USA, you can do what you want, as long as you perform on matchdays.

There’s a lot of potential. Obviously, if you’re playing every three days, it can be difficult to think about other stuff. But I think that it’s important for a professional footballer to develop themselves during their career, to explore other interests. That’s the advice I would give to young players.

I was able to get started while I was still playing, and it’s something which helped me a lot. It opened a lot of doors for me. You also don’t necessarily need to have had the best of careers to make an impact. Some might think that they weren’t necessarily high-profile in their playing days, so they’ll keep to themselves at the end of their careers. They think that they wouldn’t be effective because of that, but in reality that’s not necessarily true.

To finish on some football – what do you make of The Leopards’ chances at January’s AFCON?

It’s funny how there’s so much going on after my retirement that we’re only getting to football now! I’d say it’s still a part of my life, but I try to “serve” football off the pitch now.

A lot of people tell me that I’m young, that I could still be playing – of course I could, but it’s not what I want. Even before doing all of this, I didn’t see myself pushing on and playing lower down the divisions. These days, I’m happy because I can spend time with my wife and my three children. Being an elite athlete requires a lot, and sometimes that can make you selfish in terms of focusing on giving it your all on the pitch. Now, even if I’m doing well in other areas, I still have time for my family, and that’s important for me. I do still like football, though!

I think DRC have a good chance. Since the new coach [Sébastien Desabre] arrived, and the normalisation committee [appointed by FIFA to run the scandal-riddled FA] results have been positive.

The team has a real backbone, with players like Chancel Mbemba, Arthur Masuaku, Samuel Moutoussamy, Yoane Wissa, and Cédric Bakambu. We know that a lot of things need to be put in place to have a shot at being champions, but I think we have every chance of going all the way. We’ll need to take it step by step and get past the first round – after that, it becomes a whole different tournament, and anything can happen.

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