Not long ago, the term Leopards in African football was synonymous with the national team of Congo DR. In 1974, the Leopards, then still campaigning under the country name of Zaire, became the first sub-Saharan country to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ finals. However, in recent times, an unheralded club from neighbouring Congo, AC Leopards, have grabbed the headlines and taken up the menacing mantle with confidence.
Based in the western part of the country in Dolisie, AC Leopards last year became the only club from Congo to win Africa's second-tier club tournament, the CAF Confederations Cup, and this season they are just one game away from becoming the first-ever club from their country to advance to the semi-finals of the Champions League. The foundation of their success was laid in 2011, when the club hired Cameroonian Joseph Marius Omog to coach the side, and FIFA.com spoke to the man widely credited with the rise of AC Leopards.
In his first season with the club, Omog took them to victory in the domestic cup. That win was the start of a two-year fairy-tale run through African cup competitions, which saw them become the first Congolese club to lift an African cup since 1974, when CARA Brazzaville won the African Champions' Cup. Their run has continued this year as they impressed in the Champions League, for which they qualified after winning their first league title last season.
Wins through three rounds of head-to-head action - including overturning a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Nigeria's Kano Pillars and overcoming Algeria's ES Setif on penalties - put them in the group stage where they have recorded famous victories over five-time champions Zamalek and 1995 champions Orlando Pirates.
Ahead of their final Group A game in Egypt against Zamalek, Leopards have seven points from their five matches and share second place with Pirates. A win against the White Knights will see them through on the head-to-head results, while even a defeat would be enough if Pirates lose at home to Al Ahly.
Omog, who spent several years in Germany with lower-league clubs and worked as assistant national team coach in his native Cameroon when German Winfried Schaefer was in charge, says his side deserve the high-flying position they find themselves in. "We are in a very strong group, and the team has done very well to stay in contention. We have incorporated a number of new players this season, and they have strengthened the team even further."
Although he also coached the Indomitable Lions on an interim basis as well as other Cameroonian clubs, the time he spent assisting Schaefer and in Germany and Europe, where he also obtained his coaching license, can be seen in all aspects of Omog's work. Not only does he speak fluent German, AC Leopards play with some of the traits that have made German football so strong.
"There are aspects in the way German teams play that have taken them to the top. They are very disciplined and never give up. That is something that my team also practices. But of course, we also make use of our African flair. My players are technically very gifted, and we play with a combination of the two: German precision and African flair," he explained.
Needing strength on the road
Another factor that has played a part in Leopards' success is their strength in Dolisie, where they have lost just two matches of 19 in African competitions. Their form on the road has been far less impressive though, and they have won just three of 18. Their last away win dates back to April 2012 when they won 2-0 in Tunisia against CS Sfaxien to overcome a 2-1 home defeat.
Looking for a win in Egypt against the continental giants is a challenge in itself, but coupled with their dismal away record, Leopards have a tough task ahead of them. It is something that Omog is well aware of. "I have spoken to my players about our away form, and they are up for the challenge. We will go to Egypt with a positive frame of mind and go for a win. Of course we will hope that Al Ahly come away from South Africa with a win against Pirates, but we will not sit back and depend on that. We need to play our game and then we can win."
A place in the semi-finals of the showpiece of African club football would place not only Leopards firmly in the spotlight, it would also plant Omog firmly in the ranks of rising coaching stars. It is not something he is concerning himself with while the season is in full swing. "At the moment, the only thing I am concentrating on is the Champions League. We are in a good position ahead of our last game, and we are now looking for a place in the last four."
Leopards travel to Egypt for their match this weekend, which sees the end of the Champions League group stage. The semi-finals begin in October, and the winner of the two-legged final in November qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco at the end of the year.