Christopher Samba has to duck his head as he walks through doors at Blackburn Rovers' training ground. Paul Robinson greets him as "Big 'un". When the Rovers captain shakes your hand it is like gripping a baseball mitt which is how Carlos Tevez will feel today when he greets Samba for the coin-toss at Eastlands.
At 6ft 4in, Samba is still a gentle man with a soft French accent. It conflicts with his reputation as a penalty-box menace but, even so, he does not lack confidence. On facing Manchester City's superstars today, he says: "I never believe someone is better than me or that they can beat me. They have two arms, two legs and they are going to have to come through us to win. That's simple. If they can do that, fair enough. But it will be tough."
Samba, 26, is an established Premier League footballer with an unusual story. Later, after he has finished talking me through his life, he offers up his philosophy unprompted. "I think one of my strengths is that I have already been on the floor. I have been nothing. I know what it is like so I never want to be in that position again in my life."
When you hear the story it is hard to disagree with him. He was signed for £300,000 by Mark Hughes in January 2007 after a week's trial. He made his debut on 3 February against Sheffield United and has never looked back. Since then Rovers have twice extended his contract, the latest to 2015, and there are those at the club who feel fortunate to have got through the summer without an offer from a bigger club for their newly appointed captain.
Having beaten Everton on the first day of the season, Rovers have lost their last two games to Birmingham City and Arsenal. They have never lost three on the spin under Sam Allardyce but they know today will be difficult. "People try to say 'Yeah, Blackburn Rovers, everything is about set-pieces'," Samba says. "It is true we are good on set-pieces and we take a lot of time [practising that]. But we have a lot of other quality all over the pitch.
"If we win games, I don't care [how we play]. I don't think there is a way to win, [as long as] you win. We have been playing well since the start of the season but we haven't got what we deserved. Sometimes we don't play as well but we win. So I don't really think there is a way to win. Just the victory is important."
Samba was born in Créteil, a suburb in the south-east of Paris famous for its university and also some dangerous estates. But to really understand the man you have to hear the story of why he chose to play international football for the nation of Congo-Brazzaville (also the Republic of Congo), where his parents Jean-Jacques and Clarice emigrated from before their son was born.
Congo-Brazzaville, or Congo as Samba calls it, is a small sliver of land in central west Africa. To the east it is separated from its much bigger neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), by the Congo river and it shares a border with three more nations. It has a population of 4 million and a life expectancy for males of 52 years. As a football nation, it is ranked 25th out of Africa's 52 teams and won the 1972 African Cup of Nations but has not done a lot since.
Samba, however, says that he owes his football career to Congo. "A lot of people have said that to me, 'Today you could be French, you could be playing in the France team'. I say, 'Well, what people don't know is what happened to me when I was 19'."
At 19, Samba was coming to the end of his time at the academy of Sedan, a club in the north-east of France who go up and down between the top-flight and the second division. Samba broke his fibula and Sedan decided, he says, not to give him a professional contract. "They said, 'He's injured, he's finished', so I was on my own," he says.
"I had no club and I had to train by myself for a long period of time. I was 19 years old. I had to recover from the injury myself without a physio, no money. For six months I did not have a club and I was just training. I went to small teams like Rouen who did not even want to let me train with them. I went for trials at Charleroi in Belgium and Cannes. I was travelling around trying to get my career back on track. I was not good enough for them. That's football, you know?"
He says that he became so disillusioned with football during that time that he considered quitting the game. Then he learned that Congo-Brazzaville were organising training camps in France for the children of émigrés who were eligible to play for the national side. It gave him the opportunity to train at a good standard and, eventually, play games on a big stage.
It is at this point that Samba's recall of history is a little hazy. He remembers a friendly in Johannesburg when Congo got a surprise draw against South Africa as the game in which Hertha Berlin scouted him. Congo did indeed get that result in South Africa but that was in September 2006. Samba joined Hertha in 2004. Either way, he credits Congo with giving him the platform. He spent three years at Hertha and from there he joined Blackburn.
He did not play in Congo's 2-0 defeat to Sudan in Khartoum last Saturday. He is taking a break after the last World Cup qualifiers. His issue is not with the team, rather more the Congo football federation's organisation of a national team that is 106th in the Fifa rankings, equal to Iraq. He says it is "small things" that worry him although they do not seem that small.
"I mean we cannot expect to have the best facilities but the minimum at least," Samba says. "And if you play for the national team you shouldn't be worrying if you will have a shirt to wear."
"A shirt to train in?"
"A shirt to play in."
For a man who plays in the most popular league in the world – not to mention the fact he occupies one of the prime car parking spots at Blackburn's training ground (they are all designated by name) – playing for Congo is a different world. It is African football, gloriously chaotic compared to the order and routine of the European game, and Samba cannot help but smile when he talks about it.
"I can hardly describe it. They wait for you at the airport, carry you to your car. It is crazy, only in Africa do you see that. They don't really understand football so they expect so much from you. They are very critical. Not in a bad way. We only come a few times to play in Congo so when we win we are treated like gods. When we lose we are garbage, proper garbage. We get insulted. We don't want to blame them. We just try to win.
"Congo is a poor country. We have some petrol and stuff like that to make the country live and progress but I don't think we manage to do it in the right way. The people live a lot through football and that is very important. When we come to play with the national team you cannot describe [the experience] because it is only once in a while they can see us. We try to win and bring them a little bit of joy."
The political situation in Congo is best described as fragile but not as bad as in DR Congo next door, where the conflict on the eastern border is among the bloodiest of the last decade anywhere in the world.
"It is never easy because I have got family who are still there, my grandparents, auntie and uncle," Samba says. "I just try to make sure that everybody is alright and not in the same area as the trouble. We don't really hear much [about the war]. I think it has settled a bit down. It was bad but it is better. When they [relatives] call they say it is a bit better. We don't need fighting, not in our country. That is what is really sad about it."
It is hard to imagine that Samba admits he had "shaky legs" so nervous was he when Hughes gave him his Blackburn debut in 2007. He had previously been told he would not be playing until the following season. But one game became two and then three and from then on he was established. Now he lives near Stockport with his German wife and two children and his biggest problem is the traffic on the A6.
Later, as he is having his photograph taken, he tells me about his 12-year-old brother, already a very promising young player. Blackburn were keen to bring him to their academy from Normandy where Samba's parents now live. "I told him to wait," Samba says. "At that age football should just be fun." At 26, he already knows that football can be a lot more complicated than a 12-year-old could ever imagine.
My other life
"I go home, I sleep, I play video games, I watch a lot of movies. I like mafia films like 'Goodfellas'. As for music, you have to listen to Koffi Olomide [from DR Congo, right]. People say that Youssou N'Dour is the most famous artist in Africa but he's not, it is Koffi Olomide."Reuse content