It is approaching half past five on Boxing Day and, as another deluge sweeps down on Loftus Road, a sodden Stéphane Mbia trudges alone across the turf.
He has lost his shirt having clambered over the advertising hoardings to surrender it to a fan high up in the Ellerslie Road stand. His white baselayer is soaked to the skin, his grimace a reflection of an afternoon of frustration. Queens Park Rangers have sunk back to the bottom of the Premier League, the weight of the division heavy upon them. It was not supposed to be like this.
The post-match trek in among the supporters has become a ritual even in traumatic times. Mbia climbed into the away section after defeat at Old Trafford and sought out willing recipients of his No40 jersey after distant contests at the Stadium of Light and the DW Stadium that should have yielded more than draws. Only once, against Fulham earlier this month, has the Cameroon player handed over his top in celebration of a victory and, depressingly, normal service has since been resumed to prompt the familiar pangs of guilt.
"People have spent hard-earned money on tickets for games, they've been through so much and we've given them hardly anything in return," he says before Sunday's visit of Liverpool. "You have to give something back. People say some footballers live in their own little world, where it's all about expensive watches, glitz and glamour, but that life's all false. Things like the visit to [Hillingdon] hospital the other day, seeing wards full of sick children … that opens your eyes. That's real life.
"I'll take the tube around the city, I have an Oyster card, I'll be 'normal' and, when you travel round, you see how people live, the stresses in their lives. Some footballers might not realise what's going on around them but there are others like me who know they're privileged and lucky to be living this life. I'm benefiting from a difficult past, a good grounding. That has formed my attitude on the pitch. I give everything, I try all the time, because I realise I have an opportunity. Life's simple as a footballer."
Those words were not supposed to boom out at a struggling club where at least one player did not deign to sit on the bench for that derby against Fulham. Indeed, Mbia has since expressed a desire for José Bosingwa to patch up his differences with Harry Redknapp for the good of a group hastily flung together by two sacked managers and whose defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday left them with one win and 10 points from the first half of the season. Yet the contrast in attitudes is still telling. The professional in Mbia would not stoop so low. "My life is easy: I play football," he says. "I have a chance to go through my life with a smile, joke, enjoy myself and try to make people happy. On the pitch it's different: that's my job, the serious stuff. But that's how this all works."
There have been sacrifices en route to this point. Born in Yaoundé, Mbia was seven when he left his parents, Jean-Marie Etoumdi and Adèle-Antoinette Belinga, for the distant Kadji Sports Academy in the port of Douala, 150 miles to the west. The institution has a fine reputation, having schooled Samuel Eto'o and Eric Djemba-Djemba, but it was a wrench leaving home. He went 10 years without seeing his mother, who left for Gabon after his parents separated, though it was Stéphane who would move further away. Having impressed at the Under‑17s World Cup in Finland in 2003, where Cameroon drew all three of their games with Mbia scoring a 94th-minute equaliser against Portugal in a 5-5 draw, France came calling.
"Lyon, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, Rennes … they all wanted me," he says. "I was 16 and was being offered the chance of a life in French football. But it was an opportunity, I could not turn it down. My father, a chef de service on the airplanes and a very intelligent man, advised me to go but I went alone, to Rennes. My mother ended up watching my first game as a professional on television but life alone in a foreign country was hard, so hard. It did make me stronger, it had to. I'd send my family money – I still do – and other stuff back to Yaoundé, too, for the hospitals there: clothes, sheets, whatever they need. They don't have the same resources as us here, so you have to help with things like that."
The 26-year-old has a standing back home, born of his 40 caps for Cameroon, even if he has had to prove his pedigree once again since arriving in west London. Mark Hughes had never seen him play in the flesh and those plucked from Real Madrid and Internazionale generated the fanfare. Yet Mbia is a seasoned international used to competing at the business end of a respected top flight. As a mainstay at Marseille, for whom he signed from Rennes in 2009, he won a French title, three League Cups and competed in the Champions League before financial necessities prompted his sale. Everton and Stoke had courted him in the past and Fenerbahce attempted to lure him to Turkey but it was QPR who finally offered his passage to England.
"I'd wanted to test myself here, in London, and I'd spoken to Souleymane Diawara [formerly of Charlton] at Marseille and to Alex Song before he went to Barcelona, and they both said I'd do well here in this league. But it has still surprised me. The football's so intense: it's like the Champions League, almost the same level, and there's never any let-up. Back in France I used to go through some games without breaking into a sweat but here you can't catch your breath. Whether I'm playing in midfield or at the back, I'm up against giants and you take so much physical damage. I come away exhausted, covered in cuts and bruises."
That is offered with a trademark broad grin, though he ended the draw with Aston Villa in hospital in a neck brace after a clash of heads with Gabriel Agbonlahor. By then he was learning what to expect. "Against West Ham Andy Carroll had caught me with an elbow and, when I complained to the referee, he just said: 'Welcome to England.' I just thought 'Wow'. And I'm big, I'm strong but it's still taken its toll."
He can still make a success of his stay. The midfielder is steadily acclimatising to new surroundings and even coming to terms with the language – how he wishes now he had not dozed through English classes after training at Rennes – after some teething troubles. Even sign language failed him on one early outing to a local restaurant, when he ordered by impersonating a chicken and the waitress still brought him fish.
The arrival of his family last week will make him feel more settled. He and his wife are setting up a clothing company, KMB, as an investment for their son Jayden's future. They have already implemented similar plans for their daughter, Kassandra, back home. Everything about Mbia's outlook is long-term. That had been one of the attractions at QPR. "They had a project and had spoken of this being a club for the future," he says. "Sure, the short term looks difficult because we haven't won enough games but this is a challenge.
"We have senior players in the squad who can inspire the others and, even if this is all new to me, I have experience. I have come from a club expecting to challenge for the title to one struggling at the bottom but we can survive. Yes, yes, yes, we can survive. We're learning every week. We have a manager who will get the best out of us so, if we stay united and keep working, it'll come." The recovery must start against Liverpool, given the daunting fixtures to follow, with Mbia desperate to climb into the crowd victorious before the tube journey home.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Tom Cuppens
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