How mid-season arrival Béni Badibanga breathed new life into 5x CPL finalists Forge FC
How do you motivate yourself to keep winning when you’ve already made a habit of doing so on a regular basis?
To be fair, once winning becomes a habit, it's not one you typically want to give up – but the idea of being comfortable with winning is also dangerous. There’s a fine line between comfort and, say... complacency.
Forge FC have had no such problem this year, however. Having reached their fifth straight Canadian Premier League final, in which they’re looking to claim their fourth North Star Cup in five years, they’ve continued their habit of being a team that shows up in the big games, as they showed when they defeated Cavalry 2-1 two weeks ago to reach the final.
Even though they finished second in the CPL with 42 points, 13 behind Cavalry, Forge didn’t let the fact that they were coming off their worst regular season in club history bother them as the playoffs came around, as they turned up when it mattered.
Of course, they’re frustrated to not add a second regular season title to their trophy cabinet, given that this was the first year that the regular season winner earned a trophy for their efforts (although Forge’s 2021 triumph will be retroactively acknowledged), but they knew that they had to put that behind them when the playoffs came around.
Yet, while they did that in the semi-final, now putting them within touching distance of that fourth North Star Cup, it didn’t always look like they’d be able to pull it off.
After heading into this season as one of the overwhelming favourites to win the regular season title, having come off arguably their most convincing North Star Cup win of the three they’ve had to date, it felt like they’d run away with the CPL this year, especially given that they’d brought back 19 players from that trophy-winning team.
For a team that had won a title, to have that little roster turnover is unheard of, which is why many had pegged them as early favourites.
“Those are things that we’ve got to think about,” Forge’s head coach Bobby Smyrniotis admitted on the Northern Fútbol Podcast this week. “We won last year, it was another successful season, but then just a few days later you’re already thinking about how you can do it again, and doing so while having 90% of your squad back?”
“That’s a challenge, because you’ve got a handful of guys who have won three championships, a couple of guys who have won two, and you ask what the motivation can be? You’ve got a team in our league with a new coach, you’ve got a team who hasn’t won who has that fire, so how do we keep up with that and get new fire?
And as some know, running it back with the same roster comes with its own set of perils, with the biggest one being the potential for complacency. There, Forge seemed to be struck with a decent bout of that ailment, as after storming out to a hot start, winning four and drawing three of their first seven games to kick off the campaign, they slumped in the middle portion of the season, going on a stretch where they won three, drew two and losing five of their next 10 games.
Not only that, but they had a few big worries, too, as scoring (and especially depth scoring) was an issue, while they also struggled to find a consistent lineup that worked for them.
Things were good defensively, as they were posting good underlying numbers and were getting strong performances from the likes of new signing Manjrekar James, who along with Triston Henry, were helping Forge keep it down defensively.
With their offensive struggles, however, that was holding them back, making it feel like Forge needed a tweak in their attack to take another step forward.
Terran Campbell and Woobens Pacius were doing well up front, while Kyle Bekker was having arguably the best offensive season of his life, but other than that, a lot of Forge’s best depth options were either battling injuries or struggling for form.
Because of that, Smyrniotis decided to pull the trigger on a new attacking piece, feeling that he needed to inject some new life into his offensive group. Having seen the effect that James had provided to his team defensively, he was hoping a new name could do the same up front.
As a result, Béni Badibanga, a former Belgian youth international with over 100 appearances in the Belgian top flight, was signed on July 27th.
And immediately, he provided the impact Smyrniotis was seeking, wowing in a cameo against Cavalry, before making his first start against York. He didn’t score or assist in either game, but he left his mark, impressing fans and teammates with his ability to take players on, all while playing creatively and without fear.
Therefore, despite being a new arrival on a deep team, he quickly became an indispensable member of their attack, playing all but seven minutes in Forge’s last nine games of the season.
Seeing that Forge of three wins and five draws over those nine starts, allowing them to climb to second as teams like Pacific and Ottawa stumbled down the table at the most pressure-filled time of the year, he certainly left his mark on those matches.
That continued into the playoffs, too, with Badibanga playing 90 minutes in Forge’s semi-final against Cavalry, creating three chances and completing three dribbles, while having an impact on both sides of the ball.
Safe to say, he’s provided that injection he was supposed to bring… and then some.
“(To refresh), you bring in some good quality players into the squad,” Smyrniotis continued. “We did that with Manjrekar James early in the season, and then with Tristan Borges and David Choinière missing time, it was important for us to get another attacking piece, a player that can attract the attention of the opponents and change things around in an instant, and that was Béni Badibanga.”
“They’ve been excellent for us, too, and I think if Béni was here earlier in the year, he could’ve been an even more impactful player, but we’re happy that he’s here. Sometimes you need to find those different sparks, sometimes it is new players, depending on your squad rotation and where you are in the year, and then it’s our job as coaches to come up with different ideas to be able to evolve, as it just can’t be the same thing year-after-year, and I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
Yet, this has also been exactly what Badibanga was looking for when he came to Forge. Fresh off a stint in the Belgian third flight, after a short adventure in Morocco, the 27-year-old was eager for a new opportunity, one where he could show the quality that he demonstrated when he burst onto the scene in the Belgian top flight as a youngster.
Knowing that he was coming to a Forge team filled with winners, it’s been the exact fit that he expected, and he’s pleased that he took the risk to come to a burgeoning club in a new league, which isn’t one many players of his pedigree might take.
After getting into contact with Forge through a connection he had with a member of their staff, he decided to give it a shot with a trial, and he hasn’t looked back since, quickly realizing that this is where he wanted to be.
“I've been in football for a while, and the best teams are always the ones where the players know each other well,” Badibanga told OneSoccer this week. “So I paid attention to this when I signed, as when starting a new project, it takes time to adapt in football, but knowing that I was coming into a group where people knew each other, I knew it would be my duty to just reach and connect with them, and not have to bring everything together, and that’s easier in the process of winning.”
“If you are building something where pieces are coming and going, you can showcase yourself and go somewhere else after or build, but if you want to go somewhere to win, you have more of a chance to win in a team that has experience of having played together already, so for me, this was a good opportunity.”
It can often be forgotten, too, but it took a lot of confidence from Badibanga to come to a new team in a new country, and try to establish himself in a team that knows each other so well, even if he’s quite talented.
Usually, there’s an integration period, and that Badibanga was able to skip that only speaks to his confidence as a player, as much as it does his ability.
For example, it takes a lot of confidence to come in and have the nerve to take free kicks on a team that employs dead ball sharpshooters like Bekker and Borges, but that Badibanga is already trusted on those set-pieces, having scored two free kicks already this year, is just an example of how he’s been able to integrate himself into this Forge side.
He wasn’t always this confident, as he admits, but over time, it’s something that he’s learned through experiences that he faced, both on and off the pitch.
“I think it's part of my life off the pitch,” Badibanga explained. “I’m a guy who has had some difficulties outside of the pitch, so that's where my mindset comes from. For me, the games aren’t the biggest thing anymore, because I make sure that my training is much harder than anything I face on the weekend, so that when I play games, I'm fully alert and ready for anything.”
“Then, when you're new somewhere, I compare football to a jungle or a prison. When you come in new, you can’t show opponents that you are weak, but instead have to be a threat to them. So right from the first game, I had to make sure that people understood that yeah, I'm here now. That's what I tried to do, and I can’t say that they were my best games ever, but they were games that showed my qualities as a player. For example, I had the opportunity to take some free kicks, and thank God they went in for me.”
“But at the end of the day, it's a game, there are some people who don't know what they’re going to eat at the end of the day, and we’re (privileged) to do this, so for me, it's about having confidence, but also playing like I’m free. And I feel free on the pitch, in 1v1s, I make sure that I’m a threat to the defender you know, that's, that's, that's where I had to train, making sure that when I take the ball, I have to make the defender scared to think about what I can do, and that’s what I make sure to do every time that I get the ball.”
And he makes sure to express that in different ways, too.
Of course, there’s the way he plays on the pitch - it’s hard to miss his skills and flashy playstyle, as he does a good job of expressing his personality in his play.
But he also shows it in another way - his fashion, as a look at him on matchday, or a parse through his Instagram reflects his relationship with clothes and style:
It may seem a small thing, but when he was younger, that was something that he was insecure with, as players who play with flair like him can often be accused of being selfish or arrogant, especially if that extends off the pitch with their style.
For Badibanga, however, he feels that his fashion helps show that he’s a normal guy, not a flashy one, something that he came to learn over the course of his career.
“Yeah, I struggled when I was younger because people were expecting me to be a certain person,” he continued. “So it was difficult to take all of those things away and to show who I am, because sometimes if you dress in a certain way, or if you play a certain way, people think that you can be arrogant, but I just wanted to express myself and show that I'm a normal person, that I just play football.”
“I know that people who watch footballers on TV think that we are superhuman, but we’re just normal people, like I’m also a son of God, I pray like everyone, I go to the toilet like everyone, but then on the pitch, I play determined, as I’ve got big goals to reach, and I want to show people that.”
And one thing that’s hard to deny with Badibanga? His desire to win, which has been clear to see since his Forge debut.
Especially given that his lone professional trophy to date came all the way back as a 20-year-old in 2016, when he was part of the Standard Liège side that won the Belgian Cup, he’s eager to add another trophy to his cabinet, this time while playing a key role in doing so (he didn’t feature in the final two rounds of that cup run).
Because of that, this final is a huge opportunity for him to change that, and he knows it.
A rematch against that same Cavalry side that Forge defeated in the semi-finals, who were able to take advantage of a second-chance opportunity to make the final by defeating Pacific last week to reach this stage, Badibanga and his Forge team know a stiff test awaits them, too.
Seeing Cavalry’s regular season dominance this season, they enter this game with all sorts of confidence, even despite Forge’s past playoff dominance.
Especially given that no team is yet to win a final at home in the CPL’s history, that’s also something that’s working against Forge, giving them another thing to try and combat.
But if there’s a team who could avoid that trend, this Forge team seems like one worth betting on.
Because of that, Badibanga and his teammates are unbothered by that history - instead, they’re focused on changing that.
And Badibanga is eager to lead the way in that charge, as he continues to chase some long-awaited silverware, all while pushing his teammates to add another to their quickly filling cabinet, rewarding Smyrniotis’s faith to bring him into the fold.
“Yeah, I'm very excited because that's why I came for, and we are now one game away from reaching the objective that we all set out in our heads at the beginning of the season, so we’re excited,” Badibanga admitted.
“We expect a good Cavalry side, but we won’t pay special focus to them, we will focus on ourselves and what we can do and on the things that we can impact.”
“We are going to fight, and I hope they fight, too because that’s football”
“Those kinds of streaks (of not winning a final at home), they are made to be broken, so let’s bring it on."