Brussels native Féli Manoka: Proving there’s plenty of football talent in Belgium

During a crazy 2020 pandemic summer, the hearts of many football fans in Canada and around the globe broke when the Canadian Football League announced it would not  be able to play the season.

For many, this meant they wouldn’t be able to cheer for their favorite team or complain about bad calls. For others, including some European players, it meant that their dreams were put on hold.

For Brussels, Belgium native Féli Manoka, it meant staying patient.

And he has.

When the lanky, 6’3′”, 190 pound Manoka finished up a long, loss-filled 2019 season with the Düsseldorf Panther of the German Football League, he wasn’t totally despondent. Although his Düsseldorf team was relegated to Germany’s second division, Manoka had hopes. He had been given another chance to chase his football dreams, only this time it was in North America. He had been invited to a workout with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.

“During the bye week of my 2019 season with the Dusseldorf Panthers I met a CFL player, Stephen Adeloku, who gave me the opportunity to try out for the Montreal Alouettes.”

Manoka was a bright, shining light for the Düsseldorf Panther Photo: Frank Mandau

After the tryout, although Manoka didn’t leave Montreal with a contract, there was more good news on the way. Shortly after the 2019 season in which Manoka put up 1,138 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns, good for sixth overall in Germany in terms of yardage, he was invited to the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program combine. The 24-year-old was thrilled and honored to be a part of the event.

“It was definitely an uplifting experience and I want to take this opportunity to thank God and say that without him none of this would have been possible for me. The combine experience was amazing and I learned a lot. The organization was great, everything was taken care of for the athletes. I took the opportunity with little time to prepare myself for the testing as it was right after the season I just had. It was such a learning experience in a sense of feeling the pressure and the atmosphere of a combine especially with the NFL. It was a dream becoming reality. It almost felt like an out of body experience.”

After the combine,  Manoka’s football focus shifted north to the back to Canada. A few months later in February, he was invited to one of the CFL’s Global Combines in Europe, giving him another chance to demonstrate his skills to CFL coaches.

“2020. I feel grateful to have had such an opportunity because I was in a position that so many other international players dream of. The CFL combine was quite different from the NFL one, particularly on the organization side. The testing took place in a gymnasium so we had to wear interior sport shoes and a lot of the athletes were disadvantaged in their performance because of that. But I must say it was a blessing to display my abilities in front of CFL scouts.”

A young Feli Manoka playing for Collège Montmorency in Quebec

Manoka was disappointed that he wasn’t selected to attend the 2020 CFL Combine in Toronto but drew many positives from the event.

“Overall it went well. I performed the best that I could, but I can’t help feeling like I could have done better. With that being said I know I gave everything I could at that moment. I did not end up being selected for the combine in Toronto but I had interest from several teams in the CFL so I feel blessed.”

This  past year wasn’t the former Düsseldorf Panther‘s first experience with three down football. Manoka spent a year studying and playing at Collège Montmorency, a CEGEP (equivalent of a junior college) school in Laval, Quebec. Adjusting to football in Canada was a special experience for the young Belgian.

“The experience was great. It was my first time ever being a student-athlete, and it’s so different from what I was used to in Belgium. The experience can seem normal for someone from North America, but for a kid from Belgium, it was something very special. But I must say the adjustment was challenging, it was my first time living in another country. Adjusting to a new way of living and trying to make my mark in a CEGEP and in a football team was a learning experience.”

Before coming to Canada, the Brussels native had played rugby in his home country before switching to American football at the age of 16. He played for the Brussels Tigers, one of the best teams in Belgium, before joining the Dusseldorf Panther for the first time for one season at the age of 19.

Feli Manoka making a spectacular catch playing for the Allgäu Comets

Manoka wanted to use his experience and from Collège Montmorency in order to play college football in the United States, choosing Canada as the avenue because of family ties. College scouts noticed the tall receiver’s potential but weren’t willing to take a chance on the inexperienced European.

“I can say that It was a humbling experience, I learned a lot as a player. Through that experience, I kept pushing forward and I was able to participate in several NCAA football camps to showcase my athletics abilities and attract some of the scouts’ eyes. I received several interests but unfortunately, none of them culminated to a scholarship, so I had to make a choice: either I was putting myself in a debt hole or believe that I could make it wherever I play. So that’s when I decided to go back to Germany to compete in the GFL1 and put my name out there.”

Manoka certainly put his name out there. In his return to Europe the speedy Belgian racked up 977 yards and 13 touchdowns during the 2018 season with the Allgäu Comets of the German Football League. His athletic catches and tough blocking helped the high-flying Comets make the playoffs.

Its safe to say the Manoka has come a long way from the dusty fields of the Brussels Tigers. During the uncertainty of the CFL and German seasons, Manoka has stayed patient, honing his craft. When football returns, he knows he’ll be ready.

“Presently, I’m focusing on track and field and taking my speed to a new level all thanks to Damien Broothaerts. I have so much left in me and I feel like I left way too much on the table during the tests. I am definitely aiming for the highest level possible. For me it’s all about being able to learn and improve and be the best version possible. I don’t know where I’m going to be next season but wherever I end up I’m going to be the best I can be. All I want to do is let my actions speak louder than  my words. The NFL is still the target.”

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football