In the array of national team coaches, Florent Ibenge stands aside from most others. The 55-year-old doubles up as national team coach of Congo DR and one of the strongest club sides in his country, Vita Club. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Ibenge explains why Les Leopards remain on course to achieve their goals.
At the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations two years ago in Equatorial Guinea, Congo DR finished a credible – and remarkable – third, after only securing qualification on the last day as the best third-placed team.
“When I was appointed national team coach in 2014, the federation's president Constant Omari said that the goal was to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations finals and the 2018 World Cup. Making it to the finals two years ago was like a bonus and then the third place just made that even better.”
Since then, Ibenge has seen the team grow in stature and they have arrived in Gabon as one of the outside favourites to win a third title at the showpiece event of African football, which this year serves as a qualifier for the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
“We have steadily improved. Last year, our locally-based players won the African Nations Championship and with two victories out of two, we remain well on course to achieve World Cup qualification.”
The former defender, who played professionally in Germany and France, said that one of the reasons why the national team has improved so much is that many changes have been implemented.
“There have been significant improvements on important issues such as travel and equipment. We are not lying to the players. They know that everything is not perfect, that it is not as well organized as in their clubs in Europe. But we can also bring them something different. The national selection is now more competitive and more attractive.”
One of the players who will be missing in Gabon is Yannick Bolasie. “It is not easy to play without him, he is very important for the team, on and off the field. He was injured in December with Everton and will be absent for several months, and I hope he will be back soon,” said Ibenge.
A tough draw
The Football Gods were not kind to Les Leopards in the draw and Ibenge and his team will face the defending champions Côte d'Ivoire, Morocco and Togo in Group C. “Côte d'Ivoire is a very solid team. They do not lose. Since Herve Renard took the golden generation to the title last time around, they have improved even more under Michel Dussuyer.
“I know and admire him as a coach. He works very well, knows African football perfectly and has managed to create a very good mix between the new and older generations. Les Elephants can be considered the favourites, that is obvious. Even in the absence of Gervinho.”
Les Leopards start their campaign against Morocco, who are now coached by Renard, but will be missing several regulars, amongst them Younes Belhanda and Oussama Tannane who had to withdraw with injuries. They also lost their final warm-up match against Finland 1-0.
“I do not give importance to friendly matches. Yes, the Moroccans will be deprived in Gabon of several important players, but I have a lot of respect for this team. They have talent, a technical quality and with Renard a coach who has proved himself in Africa. Côte d'Ivoire struggled against them in a goalless draw in a World Cup qualifier, so I expect a tough game. It certainly will not be easy.”
Ibenge dismissed speculation that Togo will be the weakest team in the group. “I am weary of them. Like us last time around, they qualified on the final day. They will have less pressure than others, but they are a quality team.
“Emmanuel Adebayor is still one of the best strikers. He is a very classy player. There are also other good players in the side. Their coach Claude Le Roy knows African football. So they are capable of causing problems for any team.”