Leopards back on big stage

It’s been some time since the Democratic Republic of Congo made an impact at the Africa Cup of Nations finals. There has been a lot made of the changing of the guard in Africa

and DR Congo have been absent since reaching the quarterfinals in 2006.

The form of the Congolese in 2012 was somewhat patchy, with four wins, three losses and three draws. What it showed is that they are clearly a better team at home - not to the extent that fellow Group B contenders Niger are, but they do need to lift their game away from the familiar confines of Kinshasa.

They have a trump card on the bench in the form of coach Claude Le Roy who is a legend among African national team coaches and will early next year be in charge of a team at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the seventh time. It’s his second time around with the Democratic Republic of Congo and he has managed to bring a new hope to the team.

Le Roy's predecessors had huge problems in convincing the Leopards' professional players based abroad to join the team, but the 64-year-old said that at the moment, it seems to be quite the opposite. "When I arrived, I found that many of the players had said they no longer wanted to play for the team. But that has changed now and players like Youssouf Mulumbu (West Bromwich Albion), Bedi Mbenza (Anderlecht), Cedric Makiadi (Freiburg) or Cedric Mongongu (Evian) have re-committed and now everybody wants to play. They are even encouraging each other to join the national team and as a result we have fantastic players."

The Leopards have been described as the dark horses for the tournament, but Le Roy wants to hear nothing of it. "Please, please, please," he says when asked about his side's chances in Group B against Ghana, Mali and Niger. "We were ranked 129 when I took over, now we have just broken into the top 100. We're in a group with Ghana and Mali. If we qualify for the second round it will be the beginning of a beautiful dream. If you are looking for favourites and dark horses, you have to look elsewhere."

The Leopards also have a potent domestic weapon in the form of leading club TP Mazembe. In 2010 Mazembe became the first African team to make the final of the Fifa Club World Cup. The club won the back to back Caf Champions League titles in 2009 and 2010 and reached the semi-finals in 2012 after their 2011 ban.

Their striker Mabi Mputu is a proven goal scorer, not only in international club competitions, but also for the national side. He has attracted the interest of a number of European clubs, but has never made the move abroad largely due to the rewards on offer with Mazembe.

Lots of Congolese have forsaken home comforts. Former TP Mazembe player Dieumerci Mbokani, after stints with VfL Wolfsburg, Monaco and Standard Liège, is now with Anderlecht and is a regular scorer in the Belgium. He possesses skill, pace and good finishing, making him an all-round handful for defenders.

Youssouf Mulumbu has made a huge contribution to the midfield of English Premier League West Brom.

In a difficult group with West African heavyweights the Congolese will find it tough going, but Le Roy puts it best when he says they want to be competitive.

 

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