Offrande Zanzala: How Exeter City forward fled civil war to become a footballer

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Offrande Zanzala celebrates scoring on his Exeter debutOffrande Zanzala scored on his Exeter City debut as the Grecians beat Scunthorpe United 2-0 earlier this month

He may be nursing a knee injury that could curtail most of the rest of this season, but Offrande Zanzala can put sporting setbacks into context when he reflects on the journey that brought him to English football.

As an eight-year-old Zanzala, who is currently on loan at Exeter City from fellow League Two side Barrow, fled with his family from civil war in his native Congo-Brazzaville.

"You had rebels coming into the city and killing people or you had to live in the jungle; that itself is very difficult," he says, days after a goal-scoring debut for Exeter this month.

"It didn't go bad for us as we're still alive and my family's healthy. As you can imagine, along the way people have lost their lives."

Congo-Brazzaville, on the west side of central Africa, saw its second civil war in the late 1990s. Up to an estimated 25,000 people lost their lives with tens of thousands fleeing the country, including Zanzala's family.

They made their way first to Austria and then ended up in the UK when Offrande was eight. He joined Derby County's academy at the age of 12.

"Here I am today, privileged to say I can play football and to say I'm a professional footballer," says the 25-year-old forward.

"It's always been my dream to be a professional footballer. But going through what I had to go through from a young age made it very difficult. It was quite hard to see the future, if I had a future."

Offrande Zanzala gets treatmentOffrande Zanzala was forced off after just 17 minutes of his second Exeter City appearance at Walsall last week

After leaving Derby, Zanzala had loan spells at Stevenage, Chester and Accrington before moving permanently to Stanley in 2018. Stints at Crewe and Carlisle followed last season before he joined Barrow last summer.

But he only managed five goals in 27 games in the first half of this season at Holker Street, so was happy to make the 325-mile journey to Devon to try to kick-start his season.

'Don't leave anything behind'

After scoring on his debut in a 2-0 win over Scunthorpe on 15 January, Zanzala was forced off in his second Exeter outing at Walsall last week, and now faces the possibility of knee surgery.

"We're waiting for news from the specialist, but first impressions are that he's going to be out for a significant period of time," Exeter manager Matt Taylor told BBC Sport.

"We're not got a definite as yet. A specialist and probably a surgeon will make that decision and we might not fully know until they go into the knee."

While Zanzala had hoped to rediscover the form he believes he is capable of at Exeter, he says the challenges he and his family faced have prepared him for anything football can throw at him.

"I think what I've had to go through has formed me, who I am as a person," the striker says. "Going into every game, I always try to remind myself who I am first and foremost, not what people say I am.

"Regardless of what people have said, or are saying, in terms of that outside pressure, you just have to park it aside and believe who you are and believe that you're a good player.

"Other people who are maybe are not as fortunate as you will do anything to be in this position. So do the best you can, just play with your heart on your sleeve, don't leave anything behind and you get your rewards."

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