'With Zola, even our defence has to attack'

West Ham's Congolese left-back Herita Ilunga tells Simon Hart why he hasn't given up on playing in Europe next season, and why his home country will always be close to his heart
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The Independent Football

Herita Ilunga has possibly the best "Did You Know?" in football. The West Ham left-back's surname was once identified by linguists as the world's most difficult word to translate. Originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, "Ilunga" means in the Tshiluba language: "a person ready to forgive any abuse the first time, tolerate it a second time, but never a third time". "It's precisely that," says the 27-year-old Congolese international, born in Kinshasa but raised in Paris from the age of three.

His name may be a handful for translators but it earns a warm reception at Upton Park. Ilunga has been one of the most consistent performers in Gianfranco Zola's upwardly mobile squad, since arriving on loan from French club Toulouse in September to replace Sunderland-bound George McCartney – a shrewd piece of business by the technical director, Gianluca Nani.

He has not missed a league game since debuting at the Hawthorns, earning a £3m transfer last month, and he should figure today as West Ham tackle Everton away in the fight for the final Europa League spot. "I could not have wished for more. I arrived on the Wednesday and on the Saturday, Kevin Keen [then caretaker manager] picked me, so they put their trust in me from the start. The players, coach, the whole group."

The supporters, too. A Congolese flag in the away end at Middlesbrough helped cement a bond with the Hammers faithful. "That touched me, so I wanted to get closer to the supporters," says Ilunga whose blog now features a "fan of the week" slot. "The fans, atmosphere, the old-fashioned English stadiums. It is really special here. People live the games – that is what I love about it."

It must help working under a promising young manager in Zola. "He can become a great coach as he was a player," he says. "He knows football so well. He commands respect. When he speaks we listen and we trust what he is saying because he has shown it on the pitch. He is very humble. Beyond being a coach, he is a good psychologist. He makes the players want to give everything for him. Be it Diego Tristan, Junior [Stanislas], [James] Tompkins, Luis Boa Morte, they have gone in and done the job for him."

Zola, the erstwhile attacking artist, has added defensive obduracy to West Ham. Prior to last week's 3-0 home loss to Liverpool, they had conceded just four goals in the preceding nine league matches. "We have worked hard on the defence," Ilunga explains. "Steve Clarke deals with the attack, Kevin Keen the defence, and the 'Mister' oversees everything. He insists on the basics of defence – defending as a unit, watching the space between the lines, communication. We repeat the same things all week – football is just that, constant repetition." But Zola being Zola, it is not all defending. "As a player he loved the ball and he insists we work on our passing. It has to be clean and quick, he wants us to keep the ball and move forward quickly."

Although West Ham slipped to ninth with that defeat by Liverpool, they can revive their hopes of taking seventh spot – and the final Europa League berth – with victory at Everton today. "It would be a shame to miss out," says Ilunga, who was in the Toulouse team beaten by Liverpool in 2006/07 Champions League qualifying. And he draws heart from West Ham's draws at four of the top six – Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa – already this term. "There is no fear. We never play for a 0-0 like in France. We go to win."

Away from West Ham's push for Europe, Ilunga has become involved with the Congolese community in London. He was at the Houses of Parliament last week to support Congo Now, a campaign drawing attention to the suffering in eastern DR Congo where conflict between the army and Rwandan-supported rebels has brought the displacement of more than 1.5m people. "We want people to open their eyes and see something has to be done there," says Ilunga, who plans to visit the affected region with a charity. "Women and children have suffered terrible violence at the hands of the rebels. I went back the first time to play for the national team and little by little I've been rediscovering the country. There is a lot of poverty, unemployment and sickness like everywhere in Africa.

"But if you look beyond that, people are happy. There are artists and singers and that is what Congo is known for in Africa – music and football. Football is massive there. There are 80,000 at the national stadium. The fans are very demanding. But they are always backing you, like the fans in England."

My Other Life

We live in Canary Wharf. My wife and I like the peace and quiet there. She is a student and has to do a six-month placement abroad so she has started working for an internet website.

I really admire London. It is a wealthy city, it is cosmopolitan, you can see all races living together. Everyone lives together and you don't see discrimination. In France it is a bit more complicated, there are places where people keep themselves to themselves.

It is starting to change but they are behind by comparison with the British. The winter was harder in St-Etienne, it was much worse there. It's freezing there. My wife and I are very happy although we'll be even happier when we can speak the language.

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