Jordan Botaka says he came to Leeds United from “very far away.”
Far away geographically and even further emotionally. Football produces remarkable stories but Botaka’s is an improbable tale of something from nothing.
Born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, he and his family were chased out by civil war at a time when Botaka was no more than an infant. He went through the sort of experience that is dominating the news agenda presently: heading for Europe, reaching Holland and passing through a string of asylum centres.
Botaka held onto a dream of professional football and he and his family used to play on patches of grass around their various refuges. When chances presented themselves with clubs in Holland and Belgium, his late father pushed him to take them. Botaka’s only regret upon signing for Leeds United last week was that his father was not alive to see the day.
“I’m very proud of myself because I’ve come from very far away,” Botaka says. “A lot of people didn’t expect me to come this far. I don’t know what I expected but I always had faith and I always had confidence in myself.
“My path has been difficult. It made me stronger and it made me the man I am. I’m not happy with what happened. It doesn’t make me happy to think about what happened because no-one would ever be happy with that. But it happened and you live with it. You try to rise from that.
“It made me very strong. I can say that now. I had to deal with it. It was my dream to come to England and to play in the Premier League. Do you make your dreams happen? You try. I’m here in the Championship and I want to win games so we can go up. I wanted this.”
Botaka is not quite pinching himself but the 22-year-old winger oozes anticipation.
He will face up to an Elland Road crowd for the first time on Saturday and is quietly hoping to make his debut against Brentford.
He encountered some large attendances during his two seasons with Excelsior in Holland but the Rotterdam club have a tiny stadium with a capacity of less than 4,000; more Wetherby Road than Elland Road.
“It will be madness,” he says as he imagines tomorrow’s atmosphere. “Crazy. It will take my breath away from a moment.”
In unfamiliar surroundings, Botaka will ironically have a recognisable face in the away dug-out. Brentford’s head coach, Marinus Dijkhuizen, managed the winger at Excelsior last season. Fresh from promotion from the Dutch second division, Dijkhuizen altered the club’s style and changed Botaka’s focus. The Congo international was asked to be more inventive and found himself less able to chip in with goals as he had in the previous season.
“He sent me a message to congratulate me,” Botaka says. “Of course I enjoyed working with him. We had a lot of good times together. I wish him all the best but I want to win against him. I hope we do.
“At Excelsior we went from the second division to the first division and then we stayed in the first division. But it’s a dream for every player to go forward and to play higher. For me, I really wanted to do that this year. I wanted to make a transfer after last season.
“The window was almost closed in the end so I didn’t expect to make a transfer anymore. It was a surprise (when Leeds bid for him) but my decision was made very quickly.”
Uwe Rosler, United’s head coach, will not move with undue haste to blood Botaka. Rosler is a stickler for high fitness levels and, as he did with Lee Erwin last month, is inclined to hold new signings back until they are schooled in his tactics and ready to shine.
“He’s a very mature player and person,” Rosler said. “But he’s only had one proper training session with us and he’s aware that he wants to present himself to a home crowd in the best possible way. We have to assess him.”
In Holland they talk about Botaka as a winger with skill and speed up his sleeve and the ability to play on either flank. “Right, left, no problem,” Botaka says. YouTube makes him glitter as YouTube often does. Many players have come to Elland Road burdened with highlights which accentuate their strengths or their moments of brilliance.
“I’m trying to be myself and show what I can do,” Botaka says. “I want to show what I can bring to the club.
“What people see on YouTube is just natural. It happens. When it happens in a game it happens not because I’ve promised that I’m going to do something. It happens naturally.
“In my head I’m calm. The thing is just to be myself and show people what I can do. To always do my best. The football world is a bit hard, a bit strange. When you do good, everybody loves you. When it goes not the way you want it to go, everyone will hate you.
“But I know who the real people around me are. I know my real people. I know who supports me from the beginning through good and bad.”
Botaka’s father did that; no doubt one of the few who encouraged him the periods when trials went wrong and doors seemed to close. He died of cancer a few years ago. “He would be very proud of this,” Botaka says. “Very proud. It would be different if he was here and I wish he was. I would have liked him to see this but my dream is to continue making him proud.
“We had a plan together, a plan about what I would do. He’s not here anymore so I have to finish it.”