With the second leg of the CAF African Champions League final against Esperance seemingly a foregone conclusion, TP Mazembe are likely just days away from claiming consecutive continental club titles, a feat they last achieved 42 years ago.
The holders from DR Congo were the first side to win back-to-back Champions Cups in 1967 and 1968, and a fourth crown overall would cement their re-emergence as an African football dynasty and leave only the Egyptian pair of Al Ahly (6) and Zamalek (5) with more triumphs. This weekend Mazembe will travel to Rades, in the outskirts of Tunis, with a five-goal cushion, but the club from Lubumbashi know that any slip of nerve or defence will be fuel for the powerful Sang et Or (Blood and Gold) and their supporters.
“Esperance are a good side still, so we will not underestimate them. We need to go there with a plan. They are a strong side, but we are also determined,” said Mazembe’s Senegal-born coach Lamine N'Diaye. Determination is something that the black-and-white clad club have shown in spades.
Mazembe’s story is that of a team that, after many years of internal unrest in their native land, have risen from the ashes and defied all the odds to climb to the summit of African football again. The success of Les Corbeaux (The Crows) has given the nation ravaged by civil war a reason to smile.
The club have built a reputation for being a daring team, a side that often relies on quick and scathing counter attacks. However, they have proven in the last few games, especially in the second leg of the semi-finals when they killed off JS Kabylie's aspirations and forced a scoreless draw, that they can defend with the same intensity and gusto. It’s been a welcome development for N'Diaye, who had an unhappy stint at the helm of Senegal’s national team in 2008. The coach was only brought in two months ago to replace Frenchman Diego Garzitto, but he has lived up to his goal of stabilizing what was beginning to look an unconvincing Mazembe side. They had experienced turbulence in the group stage of the tournament, and, even though they looked solid in patches, there was no fluency to their play.
The club were undoubtedly shaken by the lengthy suspensions handed to two of their key players, Tresor Mputu and Guy Lusadisu, earlier this year after a brawl in a regional tournament. The club’s President, Moise Katumbi, is a notable businessman and politician whose passion for the club is notorious. He has largely been responsible for the club’s rise in fortunes, and his move for N'Diaye has paid off. The former Senegal international striker, who previously had coaching success with Cameroonian club Coton Sport, will have to call on a range of his skills to ensure his team are properly prepared for the second leg against the Tunisians. One thing he will not have to worry about is moving forward.
Overcoming the doubters
Zambia-born Given Singuluma has been in rich form lately, and the forward was one of the chief destroyers when they played Esperance in Lubumbashi, scoring a brace. His five goals in this year’s tournament are second-best on the team to the seven claimed by his strike partner, Alain Dioko Kaluyituka, who also added one in the first leg. The final two goals in the drubbing came from Ngandu Kasongo, a midfielder who also netted a vital goal in the 3-1 first leg win in the semi-final against high-flying Algerian side JS Kabylie.
The trio have been instrumental in overcoming the loss of goal-hungry Mputu and in continuing to battle the underestimation that Mazembe suffer in African football circles. The club’s success in 2009 was considered both a surprise and a fluke. After all, they had only reached the semi-finals of the event once in the previous 37 years, and they narrowly scratched their way through the initial knockout stages as well as the group. A 5-4 aggregate victory in last year’s semi-final over Sudanese side Al Hilal saw them hang on for almost an hour in the second leg when another goal would have sent them out. And their triumph in the final, where they beat Nigeria’s Heartland on away goals thanks to an own goal, was written off to luck in many quarters.
But the 2010 campaign has confirmed the meteoric rise of the side from Lubumbashi, and they now look set to carry on the challenge of breaking the dominance of the North African clubs in African continental competition. Their 5-0 triumph over Esperance matched their own record for a win in the final, a mark they set in 1968 when they beat Etoile Filante of Togo 5-0 in the first leg of the final. However, N'Diaye is confident his team can avoid the drama of that tie when they fell in the second leg 4-1. He says his players have their eyes firmly on the prize. “What I have noticed about this team is, there is a strong will to succeed. It’s not about the spotlight, but about hard work,” N’Diaye said.
Given their record, it's odd that Mazembe have had to fight for respect, but they are clearly driven to overcome their relatively lean decades in the wilderness of continental competition. An opportunity to make history beckons for the club now, and the words of in-form goal-getter, Singuluma, sums it up: “What has been done before can be achieved again. Mazembe will be on the map again."