Tonton Zola Moukoko: The Greatest Championship Manager Player Of All Time
The date is Thursday, 22 December 1983 and a storm hits the heavily populated area of Kinshasa.
Congo's largest city is overcast but inside a local hospital, away from the heavy winds and torrential rain, a baby boy brings a ray of sunshine to proceedings; a Championship Manager legend is born.
Tonton Zola Moukoko's name will certainly resonate with hardcore fans of the popular football management series. Available from then-Premier League side Derby County for a fee of around £500,000, he would bang in 30 goals a season and become a prized possession.
The 16-year-old would flourish in the virtual world and in the late 90's, he had the potential to make a name for himself in the Premier League as well. He joined Derby from Djurgarden in 1999 with high hopes of a successful career in England's top-flight, but a series of tragic events struck.
Born and raised in bustling Kinshasa, a mega city with a population of over 11 million, a young Moukoko enjoyed a happy childhood in a normal family setting. He spent most of his days on the streets of Zaire, now DR Congo, where he watched older kids play football.
"You needed to be very good to be involved in street football." he told SPORTbible. "I wasn't good enough so most of the time, I just stood there and watched. That's the way it was in the capital. We lived in a normal house. It wasn't a rich area but I was happy."
Moukoko's life was then turned upside down at the age of 10, when both of his parents tragically died.
He was advised by his older brother and mentor, Fedo, to join him in Europe. Fedo, who studied in Stockholm, was convinced it was the right thing to do for Tonton's career and the prospect soon boarded a flight to Sweden's capital city.
"When I arrived in Sweden it was all very strange." he said. "I stepped off the flight and it was so cold
and snowy. I had never actually experienced snow before. I ran to the taxi but I didn't have a jacket!
"The first football team I joined was Djurgarden. From there things picked up."
Despite his personal-life tragedy, Moukoko was an extremely gifted footballer who caught the eye of one of Sweden's biggest clubs. He accelerated through Djurgarden' youth ranks and, at the age of 15, a number of European teams expressed an interest in signing the highly-rated teenager.
In fact, Tonton attended a series of trials after travelling to Italy with his brother but it was another club that stood out among the rest.
"I had a trials at Bologna and Empoli." he revealed. "I didn't stay there though. We didn't think the youth set up was good enough. I thought I could get lonely over there.
"I was supposed to go on trial at AC Milan as well but that didn't go ahead after we heard of Derby County's interest."
It was the perfect scenario for Moukoko. His cousins lived in England and he could speak the language. He was also impressed by the club's facilities after visiting the complex. "The set up at Derby was really good for me. That's why we moved to England, not because of the money."
The Rams snapped up the talented midfielder and two years later, he was offered a professional contract after turning 17.
There were mumblings of a prospect in the academy ranks, and as fans began talking about his undeniable potential, those behind the scenes at Championship Manager would flick a switch and change Tonton Zola Moukoko's life forever.
It was during a friendly against Rushden & Diamonds where the Congolese-born player would experience his first encounter with fans of the popular game.
"Lots of people crowded around me after the full-time whistle, just because they wanted my autograph. I was thinking to myself 'why are they doing this?'
"My teammate, Ian Evatt, then came over and said: 'Tonton, you are one of the biggest players on this computer game!' - he showed me how to play and I kind of liked it!"
That frosty night in Northamptonshire was just the tip of the iceberg for Moukoko. In the coming years, he was recognised by fans in Malaysia, Italy and Australia. In fact, the 38-year-old still receives phone calls from admirers on a daily basis.
"They tell me how I made their lives better, even if it was through a computer game." beams Tonton.
The stories keep on coming. A guy once called him from Australia to speak about his failed relationship with a former girlfriend. "It turns out they broke up because he was playing too much Championship Manager. He even called her "Tonton" because of me."
There was also that time he arrived at passport control in Malaysia, where his wife is originally from.
"When we landed at this airport, I handed over my passport to the officer who was controlling the gate. He said: 'What, are you actually Tonton?' No way!' - It turns out he was a big fan of the game."
Away from his virtual stardom, the teenage sensation was training with Derby's first-team squad after an impressive spell in the reserves. He was starting to make a real impression at Pride Park but just as his career was starting to take off, Moukoko received the most harrowing phone call imaginable.
"I think I came really close to making a breakthrough but during that time, my older brother Fedo, who took me to Sweden as a 10-year-old boy, passed away in Congo. I don't know if someone did something to him."
It was reported that Fedo died after being poisoned. He was in Congo doing some business when the tragedy struck.
Moukoko would return to Sweden and understandably decided to take a two-year break from football. He never played for Derby County again.
"After his death, football was not important to me. I could not concentrate anymore. It was really tough because Fedo was the one who took me to Sweden. He helped me so much, so to find out that he had died was too much for me, really.
"At that time I was doing really well and then I got the phone call. It was the lowest point of my life."
When he finally decided to make a return to football, Tonton struggled to find a club. Without an agent, he personally made phone calls to try and convince clubs to take a chance on him.
After several failed attempts, an unexpected figure in former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson handed him a lifeline in 2004.
"He told me he could do something to help." he says. "Sven got me in contact with Carlstad United manager Tord Grip, who was his assistant at national level."
It wa a far cry from the pristine, Premier League standard training pitches he graced in Derbyshire but Moukoko made 43 appearances for the Swedish second division side Carlstad United before leaving to join Atlantis FC in Finland.
Tonton was now playing in front of an average attendance of 500, and that was on a good day.
He went on to make ten starts for the Finnish second division side but despite his efforts, the Helsinki-based team were relegated.
It was time to call an end to his once fledgling career, aged 28.
Instead of looking back at what could have been, Tonton decided to make a positive impact in the community by starting his own football club based in Stockholm.
He has huge ambitions as the owner of Kongo United FC; a name that stems from his native roots.
"We want to step up and play at the highest level of Swedish football one day." he tells us.
Moukoko certainly keeps himself busy. He also works as a football agent for Swedish players who are aiming to become professional, a scenario he knows all too well.
"I help young players try and make it in England." he said. "One player on my books, Gulutte Zunda, currently plays for Championship side Huddersfield. He is a very good player."
Humble and reserved, Moukoko, who lives with his wife and two kids, remains thankful for those who still remember his legacy.
"I appreciate the fans. They haven't forgot me and I am really humble."
Featured Image Credit: Image: Championship Manager