Temperatures may be unseasonably pleasant in Osaka this December, but as far as the members of TP Mazembe squad are concerned the warmth in the Japanese air is relative, given the tropical climate of their native Congo DR. Wrapped up in blankets as they emerged from the Nagai Stadium, they could at least console themselves with the thought that they will soon be back home, not that warmer climes will help them come to terms with a second defeat in as many games at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015, this time at the hands of Club America.
As front man Roger Assale acknowledged, Le Tout-Puissant (“The All Powerful”) have failed to live up to their mighty name. “It was very cold to begin with and that was hard,” the Ivorian told FIFA.com, who had turned his jacket collar up to cover his neck, an image at odds with the sandals on his feet. “That’s no excuse, though. There are days when you try everything and nothing works.”
Or virtually nothing. Rainford Kalaba did get on the scoresheet for the Africans, but by that time their Mexicans had already scored twice en route to inflicting a second defeat on TP to go with their 3-0 quarter-final loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima. “We had hoped to fly the flag for Africa but we came up against teams who gave more than we did,” said Assale, who sat out his side’s first match and began the second on the bench. “On a personal level, I would have liked to have contributed more,” added the dejected forward.
A successful year
The TP man had every reason to expect more from his visit to Japan, having had a hand in two continental title triumphs in the last year. A CAF Champions League winner in his first season with The Crows, Assale had earlier helped Côte d’Ivoire win the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
“It’s not easy for a player to win two such big trophies in the same year,” he said, conscious of the fact that TP’s two defeats in Japan should not take the gloss off what have been a memorable few months for him. “I’ve been consistent and achieved success with my club and my national team, which shows that it’s been a good year for me.”
Looking on the bright side, Assale saw TP’s luckless Japanese campaign as the start of a new adventure: “The most important thing is that we learn from this disappointment for the future,” he said. “We have to take something from this competition other than defeat. We’ve learned a lot from some great teams and what we need to do now is push ourselves forward, prepare for the new season and make sure it’s another successful one.
“We’ll do all we can to come back next year and put in a better performance. We are the champions of Africa and we’ll be trying to make sure we stay that way.”
Assale turned down offers from France and Belgium to sign for Mazembe a year ago, a decision based on his desire to develop on a personal level and which also owed something to some unfinished business of his.
“I’ve made the right choice,” he said. “In 2014 I was on the losing side in the CAF Confederation Cup final with Sewe Sport de San Pedro, and I wanted to win an international club competition. One year on, I’ve won the Champions League and played in the Club World Cup with Tout-Puissant. I’m proud of this team and I’m grateful to them for what they’ve allowed me to achieve. I’ve progressed. I’ve developed. This is the ideal set-up if you want to develop in Africa.”
A two-time continental champion, Assale may have progressed as a player, but there is still one objective he has yet to achieve. Though a regular presence in the Côte d’Ivoire squad, he has yet to earn a starting place with Les Éléphants.
“Côte d’Ivoire are a great team, especially with so many players playing in Europe, which makes it difficult to get a call-up if you’re still based in Africa,” explained the TP forward, who names O Fenômeno Ronaldo as his role model. “What really counts is putting in good performances the whole time, to keep on progressing so that you stay in the squad.
“With players like Max-Alain Gradel, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou it’s hard to get into the side. They’re top players, but the important thing is not to compete against them but to try to learn from them.”
Assale is hoping a move to Europe can help him follow in their illustrious footsteps: “You can be a big player in Africa, but Europe is the pinnacle of world football,” he explained. “It’s important for an African player to start out in Africa, to progress and establish themselves, but if you want to prove yourself at the highest level, you have to go and succeed in Europe. You have to keep working and looking to the future.”
For Mazembe and Assale the future will perhaps involve a return to the Club World Cup next year, on occasion on which they will no doubt look to learn from the lessons of the past.