At the age of 54, the Frenchman Patrice Neveu is, in coaching terms, a battle-hardened warrior. Motivated by challenges, he has always followed his instinct, and having worked in his home country, China, Niger, Tunisia, Egypt and also Morocco, the former Guinea coach has this time laid his hat in Kinchasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although Neveu has scarcely had a minute to himself since touching down there two months ago, he found time to talk to FIFA.com about the continent's qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa ™ which get underway this weekend.
"I've not exactly been slacking these last few weeks... I needed to spend a fair bit of time in the country in order to get my bearings and be able to work under optimum conditions there. It gave me a chance to assess the potential of the clubs and watch some of the local players. I paid particular attention to Mazembe's African Champions League campaign (Congo DR's only representative in the group phases), and now I'm even more convinced that we've got the elements needed to produce a quality side."
In conversation, the steely determination of this friend of Philippe Troussier is immeadiately apparent. "Every country has its own culture and I needed to soak up the prevailing atmosphere here. ."
Neveu has therefore been quick to run the rule over his Leopards. From a friendly match against France (0-0), to the qualifying games for the 2009 African Nations Championship (open only to local players), by way of encounters with Gabon (0-0) and Algeria (1-1), the new coach has seen everything, warts and all.
"These matches have enabled me to form a fairly precise view of the options available to me and to draw up by initial list. Some people are saying that I've left out established first-teamers, but I'm determined to make all my own choices. It's important to impose my own mark, because if I start off hesitantly, I risk being swamped."
'Extremely tricky game'
To further complicate matters, his introduction could scarcely be much tougher. On Sunday 1 June in Cairo, Congo DR kick off their campaign in Group 12 of the second round of qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup against two-time African champions Egypt. "It's an extremely tricky game for us, as my team's not really gelled together yet, so I'm expecting to have to suffer a bit."
In fact, that is pretty much Neveu's general feeling about this qualification phase. "The most complicated task will be to get through this round. While we should be able to get the better of Djibouti, Malawi could cause us problems. On paper at least, we should be in line for a place in the top two, but we need to stay fully focused so we don't drop any points unexpectedly en route."
With players like Shabani Nonda (Galatasaray, Turkey), Tresor Lualua (Olympiakos, Greece), and Tresor Mputu (TP Mazembe Englebert, top scorer in the last CAF Champions League), the Congolese side boasts impressive attacking potential. "It's the foundation of my squad and, in the end, ."
Although satisfied with the quality of his squad, Neveu admits to feeling a degree of pressure. "My chief enemy is time, as it's not easy to put everything together quickly. But I know I will only be judged on results." On this point, however, he is nothing if not bullish and concludes the interview by saying: "If we manage to get through this round, I'm sure we'll qualify for CAN 2010. Give me a year and we'll have a very strong side which will have a say in the battle for World Cup qualification."