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The fall and rise of Congolese football

Piers Edwards | 10:05 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

If you blinked, you probably missed it - the debut appearance of one of Africa's legendary clubs on the global stage, that is.

For at this year's Fifa Club World Cup, TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo became the first sub-Saharan side to ever contest the competition.

Their stay was brief, beaten 2-1 by Pohang Steelers in the quarters before Wednesday's unfortunate 3-2 defeat to Auckland City. Yet it's worth paying attention to Mazembe because there's no knowing when they will return - especially given the impending departure of star player Tresor Mputu and the routine chaos of the Congolese game.

So why are Mazembe one of Africa's greatest names? And I'm not simply talking about their previous incarnation as Tout Puissant Englebert...

Well, for nearly four decades, the club was the only one on the entire continent to win back-to-back African Champions Cup (now African Champions League) titles. That was during their heyday in the 1960s, when the Lubumbashi club reached four consecutive finals.

But the first continental trophy for TP Englebert (the name rather unromantically coming from their tyre manufacturer sponsors) was fortuitous. 'Before the first leg, Englebert were forbidden wine and women and interned at a military camp,' World Soccer magazine reported - fitting preparation for a club founded by Benedictine monks in the 1930s.

After the two legs against Asante Kotoko ended all square, a mix-up meant the Ghanaians never learnt of the rescheduled play-off in Cameroon - leaving Englebert to pitch up alone and thus 'win' the trophy.

The next year they triumphed more regularly, beating Togo's Etoile Filante in the final, but the 'Crows' were then beaten finalists in both 1969 and 1970.

Nonetheless, their achievements were in large part thanks to the politics of post-independence Congo in the swinging sixties, when music, dancing and football all flourished.

Midway through the decade, Mobutu Sese Seko took office - and here was a man who instinctively understood football's propagandist values. A football tournament was staged to celebrate his accession to power and after the national team thumped high-flying African champions Ghana 3-0 in 1966, Mobutu invested heavily in the sport.

Amongst other measures, he brought home all Congolese then playing in Belgium by buying out their contracts, renamed the national team the 'Leopards' to match his trademark hat and then oversaw them beating a touring Santos side for whom Pele scored twice.

Tresor Mputu
Tresor Mputu is in the running for BBC African Player of the Year 2009

That wasn't the only reward for the Congolese won the 1968 and 1974 Nations Cups, and reached the 1974 World Cup - the players receiving cars, houses and the country's highest honour as they did so.

But 1974 was a rollercoaster for Zaire (as DR Congo was then) as the African champions - and sub-Saharan Africa's first World Cup finalists - were humiliated in West Germany.

While the opening 2-0 defeat against Scotland was disappointing, it paled into insignificance compared to the 9-0 destruction by the Yugoslavs. Worse was to follow in the final group game when defender Mwepu Ilunga showed he didn't actually know football's rules, infamously running out to kick the ball as Brazil prepared to take a free-kick.

The Zaireans' 3-0 defeat was fortunate though, since Mobutu's security officials had reportedly warned the players they would be exiled should they lose by four goals. But the damage had been done and the love affair with football was over for Mobutu - and hence largely over for the fortunes of Congolese sides.

Ever since, Africa's third largest country has developed a well-earned reputation for chaos affecting its football, with coaches going unpaid, regular rows over bonuses and chronic administration.

Perhaps there's no finer example than DR Congo's final 2006 Nations Cup qualifier, for which coach Claude LeRoy literally found two players at an airport. This was in South Africa, where a draw was needed to qualify but where only 13 players had travelled due to administrative issues.

"There was a big contingent of Congolese fans at the airport and I was explaining my problem when they told me there were two good players in the crowd," LeRoy recalled.

Inviting the duo - who both played for Johannesburg's Orlando Pirates - to train with the team, LeRoy was impressed by what he saw, using one as a substitute as the Congolese drew 2-2, and ultimately both airport well-wishers made the Frenchman's Nations Cup squad.

"I bet no other coach has been able to do that," LeRoy claimed.

But though ever present at all Nations Cups between 1992 and 2006, the Leopards have been absent since - even though some 100,000 fans often roar them on in Kinshasa - nor they have ever returned to the World Cup.

In fact, Congolese football's downward spiral only stopped when another politician stepped in. And being both club president and governor of Mazembe's home province, Moise Katumbi was prepared to pump in some US$5m in a bid to rekindle former glories.

It was mission accomplished as Mazembe beat Nigeria's Heartland in the Champions League final to become Africa's third most successful side in the competition. But the glory may not last for both Katumbi and Mazembe are resigned to losing Mputu, whose replacement has already been lined up.
So without the talisman of recent years, DR Congo's most popular club may well drop off the global radar again.

You can cast your vote here for BBC African Footballer of 2009.


  • Comment number 1.

    It's unbelievable how much more interesting this type of article is than "Woodgate states Spurs will be going all out to beat Everton" or "Mourinho may or may not leave Inter".

    Probably just as well, if even 1/5 of the articles in any paper / website weren't just the same regurgitated sh*te I'd get nothing done in work!

  • Comment number 2.

    Watched their match and they played pretty well. If they had beaten Pohang I believe they could have beaten Estudiantes. Nice to see a Sub-Saharan African team and I hope this trend continues.

  • Comment number 3.

    Watched the Mazembe vs Auckland match - Mazembe were a pleasure to watch especially playing for so long with 10 men - cruel decision to red card the 'keeper. Too bad they didn't have any steadiness in front of goal or they'd have won easily. This is what's great about the World Club championship - seeing such good players that we'd otherwiase never know about.

  • Comment number 4.

    #1 - couldn't agree more.

    Where's Tresor Mputu going?

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for the historical perspective, I found it very interesting.

    What I don't know is whether Mazembe is so dependent on one player that his departure brings so much gloom to the team. I hope not and I hope the team will defend its title next year and at least reach the later stages of the competition.

  • Comment number 7.

    Is the author by any chance related to poster #1?

    This is pretty dull stuff. It sits somewhere between a kind of old colonial smirking and the 'Collins book of not-so fascinating facts about Africa'.

    3/10 must try harder.

  • Comment number 8.

    Nice one Piers.
    I understand it might not appeal to everyone but I prefer reading about either the history of football or stories from different parts of the world rather than the usual non-news that is constantly served up.

  • Comment number 9.

    Its an interesting blog again Piers. I didn't know almost any of the facts you listed, so its enlightened me a little more on African football - which is surely the aim of the piece? Brilliant ab\\out the 2 guys at the airport been called upon :D

    Whilst people can say TP did well at the finals, lets not forget they lost both games against very weak sides. So it doesnt really bode well for the state of the domestic African game, does it? Its a shame all their players have to leave the continent to better themselves BUT this is obviously to the benefit of the National teams.

    Looking forward to your next blog!

  • Comment number 10.

    Sadly, I have to confess to not knowing where Mputu is off to. In the past, he has trained with Arsenal, reportedly gaining some heavy praise from Arsene Wenger, while other clubs named as having a previous interest include the likes of Tottenham, Blackburn, Hull, Olympique Marseille and Belgium's Standard Liege but as with so many transfers I'll believe it when it happens.

    As to how it will affect TP Mazembe, I certainly think Mputu's impending departure will certainly count against them - as would removing the heartbeat of most sides. If Congolese football was better structured and was as stable as some of the North African sides (who tend to enjoy the most success on the continent since their clubs have the best facilities), then I would have some belief they'll return to next year's final. But, as you may have guessed, I'm not so confident.

    Now I know that the article above may not tickle the attentions of most readers but the Club World Cup presented a fitting time to look at one of Africa's most established clubs, and if not now then when? Phil, I'm glad someone mentioned the airport story as it's surely a classic and certainly puts in the picture the contrast of DR Congo's football to most of the rest of the world. And finally #7 - no I am not related to Kieran nor Nattysupper in case you're also wondering!

  • Comment number 11.

    Very enjoyable article. Thank you

    More posts about football from outside the World Cup competing countries would be great.

  • Comment number 12.

    I just think its great to read about D.R. Congo football. There is so much negative news that comes from the DRC and its nice to finally ready about something positive about this country. Maybe next time they will do better!
    Thank you!

  • Comment number 13.

    Good blog. Sweet story.

    Nice one about Claude Le Roy and the airport kids. I heard him tell the story himself and it cracked me. However, I still felt it was a bit back-handish of him to pick-up a few boys from the airport. Would he do that if he were in charge of a European national team?

    It rather gave me the impression that Congo was in such a lack of talent that anyone could jolly-well stroll into the national team. Of course Claude was arguing that the reverse was true: that talent was so abundant you could find it in a cheering crowd.

    On another note I'll like to support #9's view. The fact that TP could not beat the Asian or Oceania champions is rather disturbing news for African club soccer.

    In fact, all the noise about Tresor Mputu shows the dearth in talent in local leagues. Tresor is a guy who couldn't cut it abroad and had to return to the DRC. If he is the best in Africa to the point that he's on the same nominee sheet as Drogba, Eto'o, Esssien, Yaya Toure then Africa has a terrible problem.

    I remember when he broke into the big stage at the 2006 (?)Nations Cup and watched him during the CAF Champions League. I was in the Ivory Coast for the CHAN where I observed the DRC team that won the tournament. He can wriggle and dribble, but he seems to lack the mental strength and tactical discipline to be a great professional footballer elsewhere.

    I pray he surprises me!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    Fantastic story, Being Scotish brings back memories of 74 when the yugoslavs cheated there way past us. African football has come a long way since that guy ran out and kicked the ball away agaisnt Brazil, I love watching African teams in the world cup, more stories like this please


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