Tonight, Ilombe Mboyo may make his first full international appearance for the Belgian national football team.
Nothing remarkable there: Mboyo is a talented striker who has been called a “rare pearl” by Vincent Kompany, captain of Belgium and the English champions, Manchester City. He has scored five times already this season for his club side, KAA Gent.
However, his selection for the national team has caused justifiable consternation in some parts. When Mboyo was seventeen, he took part in the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl and other violent acts as part of the ‘African Mafia’, a gang operating in the Matongé area of central Brussels. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2005, part of which was suspended.
It is undoubtedly hard for the victims of his crimes to see him become a star; potentially to see him be idolised.
But what is the greater social good? Mboyo’s crimes are dreadful. But he has shown remorse and a desire to change his ways. He recognised that he was squandering the talent recognised by Kompany, a contemporary in the youth team at Belgium’s most successful club, Anderlecht. In custody, he secured a transfer to Belgium’s most modern prison, in Ittre. He took part in a rehabilitation programme called Football in Prison, founded in 1995 by Belgium’s current queen, Paola. This helped him secure a post-prison move to Charleroi. Football has probably been Mboyo’s saviour.
The heinousness of the crimes is beyond doubt: the next steps require more careful consideration
It is easy to see the selection of Mboyo – and his continued employment as a footballer – as another example of football’s moral degeneracy. It’s hard to argue that someone imprisoned for such a crime should be able to earn the (relative) riches and fame of playing top-level football.
But while the heinousness of the crimes is beyond doubt, the next steps require more careful consideration.
Mboyo has served his sentence. He now has a job (a very public job) and is on the right track. He appears to be working hard and improving himself. Without the support of the Football in Prison programme and a willingness of some to give him a second chance, it is not implausible that he would be on the social scrap-heap, without motivation, and a potential re-offender.
The pain of Mboyo’s victims – not least the 14-year-old girl – will not go away. But the striker’s story may have helped to prevent further victims – not least by the example that Mboyo himself sets to others.
In the end, Belgium’s manager and football association have taken a brave decision. It is one that is contestable, and rightly so – there are no easy answers, however much some may pretend that to be the case. Remorse, forgiveness and hope for the future a stops on a tough but necessary path. As the President of the Belgian FA, François de Keersmaecker says, “Being in prison does not mean that you are permanently lost by society… Everyone deserves a second chance”.