Shock FIFA Club World Cup runners-up TP Mazembe swap their black and white club jerseys for the blue and red of Congo DR when the African Nations Championship begins tomorrow. Mazembe stars formed the backbone of the Congolese team that won the inaugural tournament for home-based footballers in the Côte D'Ivoire two years ago and are favoured to repeat the feat in Sudan.
Winning coach Muntibile Santos remains in charge and has selected 11 players from the Lubumbashi-based club in his 23-man squad for the three-week championship featuring 16 teams from all African regions. "I am very proud of the work ethic and enthusiasm displayed by my players. They understand that wearing the national colours is something special," former national star Santos told the Congolese media.
Even Sudan coach Mohamed Abdallah admits the Congolese are the team to beat: "The Congolese appear the best team because they have experienced footballers who did very well at the Club World Cup."
The Congolese club sprang to international prominence in Abu Dhabi last December by defeating SC Internacional of Brazil in the semi-finals and ending a European and South American monopoly of the world championship final.
Italian and European champions Inter Milan were comfortable winners of the decider, but Mazembe had made their mark with stars like veteran goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba becoming cult figures. Kidiaba, who continually postpones his retirement from top-class football, boasts a funky, dreadlocked hairstyle and celebrates goals by using his bottom to bounce around the penalty area.
Another Mazembe star capable of taking Sudan by storm is midfielder and frequent scorer Dioko Kaluyituka, a pivotal figure for his club and country since the suspension of talismanic Mabi Mputu. Mazembe captain and midfielder Mputu was banned by FIFA for one year last May after assaulting a referee during a regional club championship match in Rwanda.
Congo DR are with Cameroon, the Côte D'Ivoire and Mali in Omdurman-based Group C - which appears the toughest of the four - with the Ivorians getting precious practice by reaching the CECAFA Challenge Cup final in Tanzania last November.
Sudan, who can field a full strength team as they have no foreign-based stars, are the top Group A seeds and kick-off the tournament against outsiders Gabon with Algeria tackling Uganda the following day.
Well-prepared Ghana, runners-up to the Congolese in Abidjan after whipping them 3-0 at the group stage, look the pick of the Group B quartet which includes surprise qualifiers Niger, South Africa and hyper-confident Zimbabwe.
Senegal are the top Group D seeds on the back of reaching the semi-finals two years ago, Angola prepared in Brazil and Tunisia in Morocco, while Rwanda have been beset by problems with clubs freeing players at the last minute.
Group winners and runners-up qualify for the quarter-finals at the first Confederation of African Football tournament hosted by Sudan since 1970 when they maximised home advantage to lift the African Nations Cup.