There will be few coaches at the FIFA U-20 World Cup who will have had a more interesting or more difficult road to travel to the finals than Congo coach Eddie Hudanski.
When he took on the role in May 2005, the Frenchman arrived with a reputation forged from the foundation of a football academy in Cameroon, where his most notable achievement was the work he put in with global superstar Samuel Eto'o to help him become the player he is today. Hudanski was fortunate to be able to call upon such a huge name when the time came to start all over again in Congo and it is easy to see where the Little Red Devils got the inspiration to succeed at Canada 2007.
"I was the one who first sent Samuel to Spain when I was working with him in Cameroon and one day he called me up when he was in Congo's capital Brazzaville," Hudanski explained. "He didn't want anyone else to know he was there because he was on holiday with his fiancée and I was very surprised to hear from him. He said he only wanted to see me when he was in Congo, nobody else. We talked and he agreed to come along to speak to my players. I told the boys to go and have a shower after training and that someone was coming along to see them."
Eyes wide open
The meeting was to have a lasting effect. "When Samuel Eto'o showed up, their eyes were wide open... just amazed to see him. He spoke to them for 45 minutes, telling them that work, work, work was what they had to do to get to the point that he had in his own career. He also said that they must listen to their coach and of course that was a great help to me."
The Barcelona striker gave the Congo players the motivation and belief that Hudanski would be the man who could take them as far as they can possibly go in the game. "Samuel told them that I was the one who always pushed him to play and to keep practising after school," said the former Limoges Foot 97 boss. "He told my players to follow me, whatever I was telling them to do. Of course I'm very pleased about where Samuel has got to but he said it was because of being pushed and pushed that he has managed to achieve what he has."
Naturally, the Congo story is not quite as simple as all that, as Hudanski explains: "It was not easy for me because I had to go out looking on the streets for players. There is no junior championship in Congo and I had to find them, bring them together and try to build the team from there. That's where we are right now and I had to do a lot of hard work. We just didn't have enough players and we built this squad like you might build a house, from the bottom up to the top."
Midfielders Delvin Ndinga and Cecil Filanckembo, along with strikers Franchel Ibara and Fabrice Nguessi were discovered in this way but Hudanski insists: "There isn't one guy that particularly stands out for me because this is very much a team now. The spirit among them is great. I am very proud of what we have achieved on this journey in such a short period of time and we must not forget there was a war going on in Congo only eight years ago."
Hudanski conceded that instilling the necessary discipline into such raw prospects was "very, very difficult at the beginning" but he shaped a squad that would grow to become African youth champions on home soil when they beat Nigeria 1-0 in the final in Brazzaville this February to book their passage to Canada 2007. "That was very surprising even for me," he said. "We were up against the big teams in Africa, such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Gambia. Once we won the championship I knew we had something here. I did the same thing while I was in Cameroon and also China, so I knew what kind of work I had to do."
The final reward for all that labour is Congo's first appearance at the U-20 finals and after being pitted in a group with Chile, Canada and Austria, Hudanski knows the hard graft starts once more. First up will be Austria at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Monday and, with no Cameroon at these finals, it is safe to say that Congo will have at least one celebrity supporter in Eto'o rooting for them to do well. With fans like that, Congo could prove hard to beat.