When Lamine N’Diaye received the call in September to take over the African champions TP Mazembe Englebert, the Senegalese coach had no hesitation in accepting the challenge. Not only would he be leading a side with an excellent pedigree in African football – in 1967 and 1968, then still called Tout Puissant Englebert, they became the first club to successfully defend the African Champions Cup – they were also well poised to advance to the semi-final of this year's CAF Champions League.
N’Diaye, who coached Senegal’s national team in 2008, was not wrong in his instincts, and he piloted the DR Congo side through to the last four, building their confidence as he went. Against JS Kabylie, a 3-1 victory and a goalless draw in Algeria were good enough to see the club through to their fifth Champions League final, where they were to meet Tunisian club Esperance, whom they had beaten once and lost against in the group stages. A 5-0 victory at home in Lubumbashi made the 1-1 draw in the return leg almost a formality, but that did not lessen the celebrations as Les Corbeaux (The Crows) not only became the first club in the history of African football to twice successfully defend the Champions Cup, they also earned themselves a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup.
For N’Diaye, being able to take a team to the biggest stage a club can perform on is like a dream come true. In last year’s competition in Abu Dhabi, the African team lost their opening match 2-1 to the Asian champions Pohang Steelers and then lost the play-off for fifth place to Oceania's representative Auckland City 3-2. N’Diaye, who replaced Frenchman Diego Garzitto, is determined to help the club improve this time around.
"We want to perform better than last year when we lost our two games,” the 54-year-old told African Football Media. “We are ambitious. Not only me because it is my first FIFA Club World Championship, but the players as well are driven to show the world how skilful and good they are."
Mazembe have been drawn to play against Mexican club Pachuca CF in the first round and N’Diaye believes it is a match they can win. "We have done some research on Pachuca, so we know them well. They are participating for the third time. ‘Appetite comes while eating,’ as we say in French. So it means we will target a victory for our first game."
The chairman of the club is Congolese businessman and politician Moise Katumbi, who has spent a small fortune bringing the club back to its old glory days. His money means that N’Diaye can call on the best-possible preparations for the tournament in Abu Dhabi. "We will do everything to reach our goal, so we are training seriously, trust me,” said N’Diaye. “We already played a friendly against a Zambian side, and we won 1-0, and we might play an extra friendly in Abu Dhabi against a side there. But I also have to remember that my players are tired, some of them have played around 60 games this year since January. The season has been very long for them.”
A point to prove
One of the players who can look back on a long season is goalkeeper Robert Muteba Kidiaba, for whom the defeat of Esperance has opened up an opportunity to prove a point. Last year, in the game against Auckland, he was sent off midway through the first half for handling the ball outside the area. The 34-year-old knows that his playing days are nearing an end and he is grateful that he will once again have an opportunity to parade his skills on such a high level and hopefully perform some of the bottom-dragging celebrations that he is known for.
"I am looking forward to playing,” he explained. “Last year people remembered me because of the red card. This year I want them to remember me for my skill, not a sending off. Immediately after winning the Champions League we started preparing for the Club World Championship, and I think we can do much better this time around."
Africa's past performances in the competition have not been particularly impressive and only north African teams Al Ahly and Etoile du Sahel have managed to win a game at the showpiece of club football, with Al Ahly's third-place finish in 2006 being the continent’s best showing. "We want to win a game, and we will try our very best to make that happen. Not only for our own fans, but for Africa, because we will be representing Africa in Abu Dhabi," Kidiaba said.