From McDonalds to Olympiacos: the curious career of Lomana Trésor LuaLua

From McDonalds to Olympiacos: the curious career of Lomana Trésor LuaLua

He has played in England, Greece, Qatar, Turkey and Cyprus, collecting 39 caps for the Democratic Republic of Congo along the way. But for Lomana Trésor LuaLua, things could have turned out very differently.

LuaLua’s talent was first noticed when playing for Leyton Sixth Form College as a teenager, having moved to East London from DR Congo with his father when he was nine years old. The Colchester United scout who spotted him invited him for trials and his natural flair and skill impressed the coaching staff enough for them to make the youngster’s move to Essex permanent in 1997. 

Things didn’t go entirely to plan for the teenager, though, as he was sacked by the Division Two club for repeatedly turning up late to training. A gruelling work placement at McDonald’s led LuaLua to reassess his priorities and he agreed a return to Colchester, where he would learn to appreciate the sacrifices involved in becoming a professional footballer. 

His opportunity came earlier than expected. Having scored plenty of goals for the youth team and reserves, the 18-year-old striker was called up to the first-team squad for an away fixture at Chesterfield in January 1999. Thrown on with 19 minutes to go, LuaLua bagged a debut goal to force his way into manager Steve Wignall’s plans. 

In the coming weeks and months, LuaLua won the affection of the Layer Road crowd with a string of impressive performances and had established himself a place in the first team for the 1999/2000 season. But it was not just the striker’s mesmeric dribbling and long-range finishes that endeared him to the Us faithful: he was also perfecting a spectacular, acrobatic goal celebration that would become his trademark.

LuaLua, who originally dreamt of becoming a gymnast, would celebrate his goals with as many as seven backflips, followed by a backward somersault. It would be a point of tension with his various managers, who feared he would cause himself an injury – a fear which would prove to be well-founded when he hurt himself celebrating a goal for Portsmouth against Arsenal in 2006. 

However, it was his raw talent and uncanny ability to take on defenders and leave them on their backsides that was attracting interest from Premier League clubs. By the time the 2000/01 season began, it was only a matter of when and not if that the young talent would be playing in the top tier. Before September was out, Newcastle had secured his signature for a fee of £2.25m, a significant fee for a club such as Colchester in search of funds for a new stadium project.

On Tyneside, LuaLua was greeted by the familiar face of Mick Wadsworth, assistant to manager Sir Bobby Robson who knew LuaLua from his brief spell as Colchester manager in 1999, and who would also go on to be the manager of LuaLua’s national team DR Congo some years later.

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The move up north was another huge milestone in the young striker’s career, but one that would bring new challenges. His first season in the north-east was a challenging one, failing to score in 21 appearances, although most of them were from the subs’ bench. It gave him the opportunity to train alongside the likes of Alan Shearer and learn from the great Sir Bobby Robson, and it turned the 20-year-old into an overnight celebrity, with all the distractions that Premier League fame brings with it.

Much as he had done earlier in his career at Colchester, LuaLua came back stronger the next season, determined to be a better professional and prove that he had what it takes to cut it at the highest level, both on and off the field. 

He had to wait a long time for his chance, but when it finally came in April 2002, he managed to seize it with both hands. Newcastle were fighting with the likes of Leeds and Chelsea for fourth place – which for the first time would guarantee a place in the Champions League third qualifying round – and faced a tough trip to Derby who were involved in a battle to stay up. With the game heading for a 2-2 draw, second-half substitute LuaLua drilled home Nolberto Solano’s cross in the 89th minute, scoring his first league goal for the club, one that would keep them in the hunt for Europe.

The following week, the LuaLua name, which he adopted to honour his grandfather, appeared on the scoresheet once more as he bagged the second of Newcastle’s goals in a 3-0 win over Charlton, a game in which he played the full 90 minutes. He continued to partner Shearer up front for the remainder of the season, and once more got on the scoresheet in a 3-1 over West Ham to make it three goals in four games in the penultimate fixture of the season. By this point, Champions League football had been secured and LuaLua played no small part in helping the club achieve the feat. 

It was during his time at Newcastle that LuaLua first started to appear for DR Congo, quickly becoming captain of the country of his birth, who he would go on to represent in four Africa Cup of Nations. But the striker, who was also comfortable on the wing, was finding first-team opportunities at St James’ Park hard to come by.

In the autumn of 2003, he made public his desire to go out on loan in search of game time, which didn’t go down at all well with Robson, who told the Newcastle Chronicle: “How dare he say this? I run this football club, not LuaLua, and I decide who does or does not go out on loan.  If he has anything to say he should do it the honest way and come and see me face to face and not go behind my back and put it on his website.”

As tends to happen in this kind of situation, the player got his wish and in February 2004 LuaLua joined Portsmouth for the remainder of the 2003/04 season with a view to a permanent deal. This was, in fact, the first season where Premier League clubs were allowed to loan players to each other, and LuaLua made history by being the first man to score against his parent club in a Premier League game.

LuaLua felt more appreciated at Fratton Park and repaid manager Harry Redknapp’s faith in him by, turning down West Bromwich Albion and signing for the south coast club permanently in the summer of 2004 for a fee of £1.75m.

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The Congolese enjoyed some happy years at Portsmouth where his flamboyant style made him a favourite with the Pompey faithful. After three full seasons there, he was finding goals and appearances harder and harder to come by, so when Olympiacos came calling in 2007, Redknapp didn’t stand in his way. It was a chance for LuaLua to get regular game time and, more importantly, play in the Champions League.

It was a particularly memorable European campaign for the Greek side, with LuaLua starting group games against the likes of Lazio, Werder Bremen and Real Madrid. In one of the highlights of his long career, he appeared as a second-half substitute at the Bernabéu, though he could do little to prevent an unfortunate 4-2 defeat as the Spanish giants bagged two goals in the final minutes.

That would be Olympiacos’ only defeat in the group stage, though, finishing as runners-up to the Spanish side, thus qualifying for the knockout stages. Injury would see LuaLua miss out the next round as they were defeated 3-0 on aggregate by eventual finalists Chelsea.

Despite his injury, it was a successful season in Greece for LuaLua, playing an important supporting role alongside veteran goalscorer Darko Kovačević as the Piraeus-based club achieved a league and cup double.

This time on the sidelines led to LuaLua’s departure from the Greek side at the end of the season, securing a one-year contract at Qatari side Al-Arabi. He was soon back in Greece, though, as his old club Olympiacos re-signed him on loan for another half-season in 2010, where he linked up with English striker Matt Derbyshire.  

Heading into his 30s, LuaLua was past his peak. But rather than making the obvious move back to the UK, the tricky striker, who learned to play the game on the streets of east London, preferred to try his luck abroad. For LuaLua, a devout Christian, the Mediterranean lifestyle offered not just sunnier weather but a more relaxed and positive attitude to life. 

Over the next nine years, LuaLua would play for various clubs in Cyprus and Turkey, barring a brief spell in the Championship with Ian Holloway’s Blackpool in 2011/12. With his professional career coming to an end, LuaLua joined Peterborough Sports in England’s seventh-tier in November 2019. 

Lomana Trésor LuaLua might not have fulfilled the potential that he possessed at the beginning of his career, but one thing he took with him wherever he went was the ability to get fans off their seats. A flair player in the truest sense of the word, LuaLua used his talent to entertain. Whether through his dazzling dribbling ability or acrobatic goal celebrations, this was a player who gave supporters their money’s worth and his name will not be forgotten by any of the clubs he represented.

By Gareth Thomas @gareththomas54

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