It took a personal phone call from Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila to persuade Claude Le Roy to return for a second spell in charge of the country’s national team, five years after leading them to the quarter-finals of the 2006 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
Le Roy rejoined the Congo DR fold in September 2011 to replace Robert Nouzaret, who had stepped down as coach just three days before the Leopards’ crucial Cup of Nations qualifier against Senegal. The returning Frenchman was unable to work any miracles in Dakar and could not inspire his side to a home victory over Cameroon, leaving Congo DR to miss out on a Cup of Nations berth for the third time in succession. But Le Roy had never expected a quick fix, and knew that rebuilding the Congo DR team would be a long-term project.
“It was clear from the start that the team was in very bad shape,” Le Roy, who led Cameroon to Cup of Nations glory in 1988, told FIFA.com. “They were the 35th best African team in the FIFA rankings, and many players no longer wanted to be involved. The political situation in the country meant that football had taken a back seat for a few years, so the priority was to restore confidence to the team and help it to operate more professionally.”
“Congo DR has too much potential to accept not being among the best teams on the continent,” Le Roy continued. “So my staff and I got down to work by watching lots of matches, focusing on nutrition and bringing in an osteopath.”
Since losing to Cameroon in early October, Congo DR have made positive progress and are giving their 64-year-old coach plenty of cause for optimism. The Leopards put eight past Swaziland in the first round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, before, as Le Roy put it, “making light work of Seychelles” with a 4-0 victory in their opening qualifier for next year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations. A goalless draw with Egypt followed two days later, “with four players born in 1993 and 1994 finishing the match,” much to the delight of coach Le Roy.
Confidence and momentum
“The team’s tactical and mental approach has been fantastic, particularly on the second day after the win in Seychelles, [when they played Egypt] with the journey still heavy in their legs,” said the former Ghana coach. “It confirmed to me the great quality of certain players in the team. There’s a growing feeling of confidence and momentum, which is exciting. The players are pleased to be involved; they feel like they’re regarded as high-level professionals with rights and responsibilities. We’ve created a great atmosphere and everyone is happy to be together.”
A run of seven games without defeat has only heightened Le Roy’s ambition, but he remains focused on the plan he put in place on his return to the helm six months ago. Le Roy has been given a wide remit by Congo DR’s football federation, and, just as he did during his spells with Cameroon and Senegal, he also acts as national technical director. “Getting back to the top of African football will involve thorough and careful work,” said the Normandy native. “This country has incredible potential, and we must exploit it.”
An U-20 side will be set up to that end, while two artificial pitches are also now installed in the country. “If we are to succeed, the state will need to meet its commitments,” Le Roy continued. “Without its help it will be impossible, as we need to be able to pay bonuses, and to fund friendly matches and training camps.”
Talent in abundance
A professional set-up clearly comes at a premium. But one thing that money cannot buy, as Le Roy knows all too well, is passion and commitment to the cause. “The days of European-based players being guaranteed selection are over,” said the French coach, who guided Oman to the Gulf Cup of Nations title in 2009. Le Roy plans to “develop local players” and rebuild the Congo DR team around those home-based talents, but stresses that the door remains open for everyone.
“Certain players are getting back in touch and putting themselves back in the frame for the national team,” said Le Roy. “If I were to list all the players in Europe who are available for selection, there would be almost a hundred names. At full strength, with the likes of [Lomana] LuaLua, [Dieumerci] Mbokani and [Cedric] Makiadi, for example, Congo DR can put out a great team. And we have an incredible attacking talent in the shape of Tresor Mputu,” he added.
The month of June should provide the best indication yet of just how far Congo DR have progressed. The Leopards face stern tests against Cameroon and Togo as they continue their quest to qualify for Brazil 2014 – Le Roy's ultimate goal – before hosting Seychelles in the return leg of their Cup of Nations qualifier.
It is, by anyone's standards, a demanding schedule. But, in light of what he has seen so far, Le Roy will no doubt believe in his side's ability to rise to the challenge.