Despite having spent more than ten years grafting away at two of France's more unfashionable clubs, 29-year-old Oscar Ewolo is never without his trademark smile. Following nine seasons with Amiens SC, where he progressed from the third-tier National league to the final of the French Cup - whilst still in Ligue 2 - the journeyman midfielder brought his defensive talents to FC Lorient in 2005.
At the end of a campaign which has seen Les Merlus notch a respectable tenth place in Ligue 1, the Congolese anchorman shared his thoughts with FIFA.com. "We can be very satisfied with what we've achieved during this campaign. To be honest we've all been taken by surprise by how well we've done. Our good start enabled us to quickly build up points and approach the remainder of the season without any pressure. That was the basis of our success.
"On a personal level, I feel I've made further progress and have become more consistent. I'm just disappointed that the coach rotated the squad in the last few matches. I'm a competitor, I don't like sitting on the bench," he tells us with a smile.
When reminded that those brief moments of respite will no doubt serve him well in a few weeks, when he embarks on a gruelling qualification trail for South Africa 2010 with Congo, he says: "I never thought about it like that. You're right! Sorry, ."
I'm preparing to get married and I've got other things on
my mind besides football at the moment
So between wedding plans and national team commitments, Oscar will have to balance his priorities for a while longer: "There are still a few details to sort out with the Association, but we'll be ready for these qualifiers. June is going to be a make-or-break month. If we're caught napping at the start, it will be almost impossible to catch up."
Respect for Sudan
Congo will certainly need to be quick out of the blocks to progress from Group 10 ahead of Mali, Sudan and Chad. "Mali are the team to beat... at least on paper," remarks the tough-tackling linkman. "But we've already beaten them (1-0 in Brazzaville on 4 July 2004, in a qualifier for Germany 2006), so I don't see why we can't do it again. But neither should we underestimate Sudan. They took part in the last Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana, whereas we didn't. That just goes to show their vast potential."
As one of the mainstays of the current Congo team, the tenacious ball-winner is hoping his drive to succeed rubs off on the rest of his nation's camp: ". And I'm not just talking about the players."
If we go about things
the right way, there's no stopping us. But if we don't get
our act together, we'll pay the price
"We have a talented young squad but if our preparations are chaotic it's not going to work," comments Ewolo. "That's what concerns me a little. Organisational worries are something that all African countries have to contend with, but Congo is not one of the continent's strongest nations. We don't have individuals who are capable of carrying the team on their own. That's why we often start campaigns well, but then crumble due to the disarray that surrounds the team. We need to be calm and well-disciplined, otherwise we won't qualify."
On 1 June, Congo face Mali away in Bamako before hosting Sudan five days later in Brazzaville. And with the right support from their countrymen, these two encounters could be a perfect opportunity for the Red Devils to start on the right foot.