Can The Leopards Bounce Back?

The Democratic Republic of Congo often grabs headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the country appearing on the front pages of newspapers with far more regularity than the back. But the DRC has a rich history of footballing success, winning the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) twice as well as qualifying for the World Cup in West Germany in 1974. This appearance made DRC, then Zaire, the first sub-Saharan African side to compete at a World Cup, even if the side, which conceded 14 goals in three matches, was widely seen as one of the worst to ever compete in the tournament.

Yet now football in the DRC is in disarray. Despite the incredible successes of domestic side TP Mazembe, which beat Brazilian side Nacional to become the first African side to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup last year, disorganisation in the DRC football federation (Fecofa) is endemic and a complete overhall will be needed if the country is to have any real impact on world football.

The national team is ranked a lowly 126th by FIFA, a long way down from its high of 20th in 1974. The DRC’s failure to qualify for the 2012 CAN tournament marks a third successive failure to qualify.

Fecofa’s failings

DRC was drawn in a tough group for CAN 2012 with West African giants Cameroon and Senegal, but failure to qualify for the third time represents a real down turn in the nation’s on field fortunes. It is not just on the field that the nation faces problems. There are rumours of Fecofa failing to pay players adequately, which was a problem as far back as 1974 when Zaire defender Mwepu Ilunga infamously ran out of his side’s wall while defending a free-kick and hoofed the ball up field. Ilunga claimed it was financial issues that motivated the decision, and that he wanted to get sent off.

Such corruption within Fecofa has prompted several key players to retire from international football, the most recent being UK-based West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu. Several players also had disciplinary problems under former manager, Frenchman Robert Nouzaret. One prime example was Wolfsburg striker Dieumerci Mbokani, who was bannedindefinitely after a row with Nouzaret after being left on the bench during a CAN 2012 qualifier. The loss and banning of some of the nation’s top players is clearly detrimental to the DRC cause: Mulumbu is playing regular Premier League football and is only 24, yet due to disorganisation in Fecofa has opted for retirement while in his footballing prime.

Fecofa also reportedly interferes far too much in the running of the side, which led to Nouzaret’s departure from the job. His staff were reportedly sacked without his say and Fecofa interfered with team selection, forcing him to prioritise local players over overseas players. The farcical nature of this was compounded by the fact that when Nouzaret left his post the side were second in their group with two games to go and thus still had a chance at reaching the tournament.

Diaspora desire

There may, however be light at the end of the tunnel for DRC. Journeyman French manager Claude Le Roy – who has already coached and had success with Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana, in addition to a previous stint with DRC – is working to bring in more Europe-based players in to the team. He recently included Chelsea winger Gael Kakuta in his squad, as well as Jordan Lukaku, brother of Chelsea forward Romelu.

Le Roy’s policy is focused on tapping into Congolese diaspora communities in Europe, and taking advantage of the growing desire for diaspora players to spurn their adopted nations for their African home countries – as epitomised by the decision of Arsenal’s Emmanueal Frimpong to pick Ghana above England. And Le Roy is taking a particularly close look at France, where several players eligible for DRC play in the country’s esteemed youth academies.

This move to snare the African talent that has been utilised to such great effect by teams like France combines with the success of TP Mazembe to be a cause for optimism amidst the failings of the national side and the ineptidude of Fecofa. It is to be hope that by improving the standard of the domestic league and club youth teams the national team’s fortunes will be improved, and that Le Roy will be given the autonomy and support he needs to bring the Leopards back into the world’s footballing elite.

This article was simultaneously published on the Think Africa Press:



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