By any standard, the man known then as Silas Wamangituka had a debut season in the Bundesliga, with VfB Stuttgart, that qualified as an overwhelming success.
After playing a key role in Stuttgart’s promotion from the German second tier in 2019-20, the Congolese striker manhandled Bundesliga defences in his first season in the top flight — ending the year with 11 goals in 25 games.
The 21-year-old dazzled with his footwork, his movement, his confidence and his finishing ability — a sensational wondergoal against Mainz being the highlight — but there was a problem: Silas’s name wasn’t Wamangituka, and he wasn’t really 21.
The Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Season revealed in June, via a statement by Stuttgart, that he had been playing under a false identity and that his name was really Silas Katompa Mvumpa and that he was a year older.
The revelation led to a three-month fine by the German Football Federation — he still has another three weeks to serve — and a €30,000 fine.
Stuttgart stood by their man, with club and player together alleging that the forward’s identity was changed by a previous agent, Olivier Belesi, in order to facilitate a move and to establish greater influence over the player. [ESPN attempted to contact Belesi numerous times but received no response.]
“Silas was under the influence of the agent, who siphoned off part of his wages and threatened him that he would never play football again if the matter ever became public,” read a statement from Stuttgart.
The player himself, who left the DRC as a teen, acknowledged how the deception had cast a shadow over his career: “Over the past few years, I was constantly living in fear and was also very worried for my family in Congo.
“It was a tough step for me to take to make my story public and I would never have had the courage to do so if Stuttgart, my team and VfB had not become like a second home and a safe place to me.”
Agent of chaos
Silas isn’t the first player to have allegedly fallen victim to Olivier Belesi.
Silas’s friend and countryman Colet Kapanga told ESPN about the devastating impact of his own partnership with the agent, who he accuses of pocketing his salary after signing for Paris FC in July 2019.
“He said to me that we could do things together and took me to Paris FC,” Kapanga told ESPN. “I was taken there as a professional intern, but didn’t get my salary for six months.
“He explained things to me, that [the money] wasn’t there, and that they were working on it, but it had already gone.
“I’m now trying to push myself forward and trying to find another club, but it’s too much to talk about this — it’s completely destroyed one year, and I haven’t played.”
Kapanga, now 21, says he found himself in a position of vulnerability with his agent after accepting an invitation to live with him in Paris, ultimately leaving the player isolated and dependent on Belesi.
While Silas will be able to return to action following his three-month ban, Kapanga’s career has unravelled in light of his alleged mistreatment at the hands of the agent, and the subsequent emotional toll he says it has taken on him.
“It’s been a year since I’ve played, because mentally I’m not well,” he continued. “I’m just training in the gym and waiting for a club.
“I’m playing at the weekends so as not to lose the rhythm, I’m not injured, but now it’s the new season and I just don’t know where I’ll be, I can’t just turn up at a club.”
Alejandro Moreno cautions clubs when looking at which players could be on the market during the summer of 2022.
Silas and Kapanga were both spotted by Belesi while at fifth-tier Ales, and Kapanga says the agent convinced the duo to hand over the management of their careers to him.
“[Silas and I] played in matches that took place between friends, and we knew each other,” he continued.
“We grew up together, woke up together, did everything together. He’s my best mate, and we played together at Ales FC, and at Paris FC.
“I knew his name had been changed. It had already been resolved, but now it’s been finished and, ultimately, it’s no longer a problem.”
Kapanga has urged fellow aspirants to be particularly judicious about choosing the agents and representatives in whom to place their faith.
He and Silas certainly appear to have been particularly unlucky with Belesi — the agent has also been the subject of legal action from ex-Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu and his former teammate Distel Zola.
The origin of the deception
Beyond the issue of self-seeking agents, the Silas affair — coming only months after a similar episode involving Manchester United wonderkid Amad Diallo — also brings the long-term African football conundrum of identity modification back to the fore.
In light of the riches available to players within European football — and gross fiscal disparities with African football — much of the continent’s sporting structures are geared towards transferring players across the Mediterranean.
Unscrupulous figures take advantage of the dreams — and the desperation — of a multitude of young talents looking to seek a brighter future for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for prospects to be encouraged to change their biographical details in order to make themselves more appealing for potential clubs.
It’s a reality that Gambia coach and former Nigeria Technical Director Tom Saintfiet has seen throughout his career — both in Africa and Asia — as players seek an easier route into the European game.
“In Europe, people are registered as soon as they are born, so you can’t change identities or date of birth,” he told ESPN.
“It’s a sad thing… maybe in the short term, [African players who change their age] get an easier contract in Europe, because that’s the intention.
“Or the federation may manipulate an U-17 or U-18 championship, but you’re cheating yourself if you win games because of overage players, it doesn’t show any development.
“The player who goes to Europe on a contract, but who is older than he shows, his career will be over sooner — maybe when he’s 28-30 — you see that a lot. But if you’re a quality player, playing in the Bundesliga or the Premier League, you don’t need to change your age.”
While Saintfiet is keen to eradicate the problem within the African game, he believes that fining the players is risky, as it is often the agent or other forces who have motivated the change in documentation.
Things don’t need to be this way according to Gerard Jones, a UEFA A-licensed coach who recently served as Elite Coach Educator for the Royal Moroccan Football Federation.
“There’s a stigma, whether it’s prejudice or… I wouldn’t want to use the word racism… but there’s something that’s limiting the perception of African players,” he told ESPN.
“I was guilty of this when I first arrived, but I was amazed by the infrastructure, the quality of the facilities, the quality of the training.
“If someone is capable of playing in the Bundesliga, then they’ve got the talent, they just need the right environment, the right training centre, the opportunities, the pathway to the first team and the right level of competition.”
For Jones, who has over 14 years of coaching experience with the likes of Rochdale, Bradford City, and Bristol Rovers, it’s only a drastic change in attitude and perception among coaches that will lessen the pressure on African players to fall for the temptation of identify modification.
“I’d want to look at the person behind the number; what are their talents, their strengths, how can we help them grow as a player and a person,” he added. “We know that learning and development is non-linear.
“Many players are judged [young], but I don’t agree with that, I think a player can be 22-24 and be improved. What you have to look at is the character as well as just the technical, the physical, the tactical.”
Jones also believes that by changing the ethos of federations — encouraging them to focus on player and coach education, rather than the short-term gains by putting out over-aged players passed off as younger — will benefit African football in the long run.
“If we can re-educate and change the perspectives of talent development, then we will change the problem [of age alteration] because if players feel confident that we can look past [just their age] then we can actually look at other qualities and get them through the door.
“It will impact the industry because these players will then play to their strengths and they don’t need to be falsifying their date of birth, but rather focusing more on their qualities.”
Saintfiet remains optimistic that the progress made in African football development — in infrastructure and facilities — will ultimately lead to a change in mindset and a focus on longer-term rewards.
“There’s so much more development than 10, 15 years ago, when ASEC Mimosas was the only ‘development club’ in Africa,” he concluded. “Now, many clubs all over the continent invest in development, and it’s a good sign.
“It means you don’t need to cheat on the age, or the changing of names, or these things — whether by an individual, or a federation, or the agent — if a player is good enough for the top, then it doesn’t matter if he’s two years older or not.
“No one plays at Stuttgart, or at any club in a top league, just because he has a different age or a different name. They play there because they have the quality to do so.”