From Cliftonville to Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is officially the world's worst country to live in, according to the charity War Child.

The vast central African nation is recovering from a war in which an estimated three to four million people died - a conflict considered to be the deadliest since World War Two.

So, what would you say if you were offered a job as manager of one of their top football teams? Thanks, but no thanks.

However, Belfast man Chris O'Loughlin took up the challenge with Kinshasa club AS Vita in 2009.

The 33-year-old spent his childhood in South Africa but returned home in 1997.

He played for Cliftonville Reserves and Larne before gaining a Uefa B licence on an Irish FA coaching course.

"I went back to South Africa after after getting my licence and met Bibey Motombo, who was originally from Congo," explained O'Loughlin.

FACTBOX

  • DR Congo is Africa's second biggest country with a population of 71 million
  • AS Vita's Stade des Martyrs in capital city Kinshasa has a capacity of 80,000
  • AS Vita won the African Cup of Champions Clubs in 1973
  • DR Congo are 125th in the latest Fifa world rankings

"He was coaching Orlando Pirates and took me as his assistant. He was the one who advised me to go to Congo with him.

"Sadly, he passed away but thanks to his recommendation AS Vita phoned me and I took the gamble and had a go at it.

"To be honest I didn't know anything about the Congo. I was incredibly naïve. I was incredibly nervous about going because of the Congo wars.

"Everybody would think because I had lived in South Africa that it wouldn't be that difficult to adjust.

"But South African culture is so different from Congolese culture. It was a challenge understanding their history and how it defined them as people.

"I was able to adapt and take the good out of their culture and work with it."

O'Loughlin plays down the danger and frightening aspect of his time in Congo but he did feel scared on one occasion.

Guns were drawn and shots had been fired around the Presidential Palace.

Chris O'Loughlin

The team was travelling to an African Champions League match earlier this year when there was an attempt to overthrow the country's President.

"We were three miles from the stadium, then next thing the police had panic on their faces," added O'Loughlin.

"Guns were drawn and shots had been fired around the Presidential Palace. That was kind of a nervous moment."

O'Loughlin laughs and says his young players were far more relaxed than he was when they found themselves in uneasy situations.

But what were their perceptions of Belfast?

"There was always banter about comparing the national teams (Northern Ireland and Congo) but they didn't know much about Belfast so they googled it on the internet.

"Congo is an incredibly talented footballing nation. If you look around Europe a lot of stars from European football are either originally from Congo and fled during times of war, or they are second generation Congolese players like Claude Makelele."

Despite enjoying his time there O'Loughlin decided that two seasons was enough and he has come back to Belfast to be close to his wife and two children.

His next target is taking the helm at a European club.

"I think I've contributed a lot in Congo. I just feel at my age, now is the time to live closer to home."