Feature

'I love games at rival stadiums'

Sambi Lokonga

Following a hugely promising start to his Gunners career, the matchday programme spoke exclusively to Belgium international midfielder Sambi Lokonga about his upbringing at Anderlecht, his first impressions of the Premier League and how he relishes the challenge in the most intimidating of arenas.

Sambi Lokonga knows all about being a fans' favourite.

He still holds a special place in the hearts of all Anderlecht supporters, having grown up in the club's academy, before progressing all the way to become club captain by the age of 21. Born in the Belgian capital of Brussels, but raised in Verviers, near Liege, Sambi joined Anderlecht at the age of just 10 – and swiftly moved through the ranks. He was highly sought after throughout his development stage at Anderlecht, as he represented Belgium under-17s, then under-19s and under-21s.

But he stayed with the Belgian giants to continue his footballing education, signing his first pro contract shortly after his 18th birthday, and making his first-team debut just a month later, in December 2017.

The teenage Sambi was thrown straight into the starting XI (wearing the No. 48 shirt as a nod to his postal code in Verviers) and helped his side to a 1-0 win over Eupen in the Belgian top flight.

"I remember that game well," he grins. "I played very good! 

"I must have done quite well because I also started the game after as well, so I think I did well on my debut, and the manager was happy with me and my performance."

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Both of his first two games were at Anderlecht's home, the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium - a place where Sambi had watched his heroes as a youngster himself.

His first ever away game for the first team, incidentally, was at Standard Liege. A match that ended 3-3 and in which Sambi was up against his older brother, Paul-Jose M'Poku, who had spent two years at the Tottenham academy before moving back to Belgium.

But Sambi had only ever played for one club before making his senior debut, so it was understandably an emotional moment when he got to run out at Anderlecht's home for the very first time. 

"To be honest when I was a kid I liked always to watch the individual players, rather than a specific team," he explains. "My family didn't support anyone in particular. 

"But I was only 10 when I joined Anderlecht, so I grew up there and we used to go to the stadium all the time to watch the first team with the rest of the youth players - we would go a few times a month with the youth team.

"Then when I was 18 I got to play there for the first time, in a full stadium.

"All my family was there – I bought them all tickets and everyone came to support me! I had my parents, friends, cousins, aunties. A lot a lot of people!

"It was three years ago, but I remember how excited I was. Honestly, I’m not someone who gets nervous so I was more excited than anything, and I just couldn’t wait to play, to start a game. 

"In fact the night before I couldn’t sleep because I wanted to play in a big game, and that’s just the way I am."

It was the same when Sambi was a fan. Like most of us, he relished the big games against the big rivals, and one in particular stands out.

"Yeah, I remember one against Standard Liege. They were always a big rival for Anderlecht and this was a really, really good game. I think I was about 12 at the time, but the thing I remember about it most was the atmosphere.

"Anderlecht was always a difficult place to play for any team to come to. For a few years we used to beat every team at home, and everyone was afraid to go and play there. So the supporters were always really important for us."

This feature first appeared in the matchday programme

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He's never lost that passion for the big occasion. Having signed for us after the end of restrictions on fans attendance, all of his Arsenal appearances have come in front of sell-out crowds.

His debut came in the particularly lively atmosphere of a promoted club's first ever game in the Premier League, and although the result was not what we wanted that evening against Brentford, it helped prepare Sambi for life in English football. 

"Before I came here, I’d heard that the English fans are crazy in love with football and are really passionate – and they’ve confirmed it from day one," he says.

"The atmosphere at that first game was very good. When you’re a player you like to have a crowd like this – you feel the crowd there as well, and you like this kind of environment.

"I really didn’t like it when there were no fans at games. I much prefer football with fans. In fact I love football with fans.

"I don't know if I've got a favourite stadium to play in, but what I really like is to play in the stadiums of our biggest rivals. I love that, when everybody doesn’t like you and they hate your club. It gives you more energy and I think you play better."

With that in mind, is there a particular game this season that Sambi is looking forward to in his debut season in England?

"I think for me the Liverpool and Manchester United away games," he says. "They are in big stadiums with a big fanbase, and a lot of fans around the world will be watching.

"I watch a lot of Premier League football now because I like to know a lot more about the teams we are facing. I knew a lot about Belgian football of course, because I watched it all the time, but I need to get to know the Premier League better. 

"To tell the truth, I only really watch football anyway, I'm not that interested in other sports. I might watch some basketball sometimes, but nothing else particularly - just football. 

"It's a new league for me, everything is new, so I've got to watch a lot and keep learning.

"But to be honest I have always followed the Premier League when I was younger anyway. 

"I like the way the teams play over here - there is always a lot of intensity and most of the games have a lot of chances. I think that's why it's so popular with fans everywhere. It's really exciting to watch and to play in."

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Now he's at Arsenal, Sambi is hopeful he can build a similar relationship with the fans to the one he enjoyed in Belgium. 

And there are plenty of examples to follow as he looks to make his mark in a new league. Indeed the path from Anderlecht academy to the Premier League is a well-trodden one. Sambi is following the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans, Cheikhou Kouyate and Vincent Kompany among others by graduating from Anderlecht and moving to England.

Already on the fringes of the Belgium national team, he made his senior debut for his country just a few weeks after making his Gunners bow when he replaced Eden Hazard in the second-half of a 5-2 World Cup qualifier win over Estonia in early September. And if he wants to know what it takes to become a fans' favourite in north London, he can always ask his coach at international level, a certain Thierry Henry. 

So what sort of relationship does Sambi think he will create with Arsenal fans over the coming years?

"I hope they will like my style of play," the midfielder, who turns 22 this Friday, says. "I know fans will either love me or not love me, but I hope most fans will love me because the most important thing to me is to carry the right values of being a human being. That's what I want to do here.

"I had a very strong connection with the Anderlecht fans," he continues. "I think I was popular because I’d grown up there. I knew everyone at the club and had been captain. They knew me very well. So it would be great to have that again at Arsenal. 

"I've already met a few Arsenal fans when I've been out, shopping or something like that. A few fans have recognised me and asked for a picture. They’ve been very friendly. They say they are happy to have me at the club and are telling me to push for the team, to do something special this year."

One thing Sambi is particularly looking forward to is scoring his first goal in our colours. He didn't break his Anderlecht duck until last season, three years after making his debut, but he swiftly followed it up with two more last term and now has the taste for it. He admits though, that he doesn't know how he will celebrate the moment yet. 

"Haha, I'm not sure," he grins. "For my first goal for Anderlecht I slid on my knees. That’s the best one for me but I don’t know what I’ll do when I score for Arsenal yet because it depends. Sometimes you get emotional, sometimes you plan something, but then I’ll probably have to make it up if it’s a last-minute winner!"

Player Profile

Name
Albert Lokonga
Squad number
23
Born
October 22, 1999/Brussels, Belgium
National team
Belgium
Arsenal debut
v Brentford (a), Premier League, August 13, 2021 (lost 2-0)
Previous clubs
Anderlecht

 

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