"The hardest part isn't finished – it’s just beginning," Congolese international goalkeeper Barel Mouko told FIFA.com, in reference to his side's ongoing quest for a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Mouko's words reflect the kind of caution that comes from decades of striving, but ultimately failing, to reach world football's showpiece event. And despite Congo's 1-0 victory over Gabon on 23 March, which sent them six points clear at the top of Group E in the second round of African qualifying, the veteran keeper knows the road ahead is still strewn with obstacles.
"We started as outsiders and have since become the team to beat. A lot will be expected of us, particularly in our two remaining away games. Every match will be a cup final," said Mouko, who plays for Lille in the French top flight. "Our squad is solid, both mentally and on the pitch. We know that we're in control of our destiny."
As Mouko explained, lessons learned from past mistakes have been among the main factors driving Congo's recent progress. "Our failure to qualify for the Cup of Nations in recent years has served as a catalyst," said the current Diables Rouges captain. "We players have had many discussions and asked all the right questions to be able to press ahead. The management staff and the Federation also understood that things needed to change. Lessons have been taken on board, and now we must try to stay on track."
Diamond in the rough
A Congo international since 2004, Mouko is enjoying first-choice status in Ligue 1 for the first time in the career, and is testament to the virtues of perseverance. In 2001 he moved to France and joined FC Massy 91, where he spent two years in the amateur leagues before earning a move to Dijon in 2003. There he played under current Lille coach Rudi Garcia and his assistant, Frederic Bompard, who described the keeper as "a rough diamond who just needed polishing".
Mouko soon cemented a regular starting role for Dijon in the French third tier, and continued to impress after the club's promotion to Ligue 2. However, after a fall-out with the then coach Faruk Hadzibegic, he spent six months without a club before eventually dropping down the divisions and joining Gueugnon.
"I've never given up. I’m pleased for everyone who has believed in me, and happy to be where I am now " said Mouko, before reflecting on his first start for Lille in Ligue 1 against Reims on 10 May. "The coach came to see me in my room a few hours before the match and told me the news. I was happy, but I also felt a knot of stress in my stomach."
"I knew it would go away as soon as I got on the pitch, and that's what happened," he continued. "Signing for Lille was a huge enough achievement for me, so starting a match was a feeling of pure joy. I know, however, that things can change quickly, so I'm just working hard and trying not to overthink it."
Mouko, who turned professional in 2004, six years after his first outings for Congolese side CS La Mancha, has yet to concede a goal in three second-round Brazil 2014 qualifiers. Congo's rearguard has been impressive so far, and their captain has a simple explanation for their success. "We know each other well – that's all," he said with a smile.
"There haven't been many changes, so we're benefiting from the habit of playing together. It's nothing more or less than that," added the experienced 34-year-old. "The new players bring their own touch to the team, and we are all conscious of the fact that we're playing for our country, and not a club."
For the people
Mouko is enjoying leading the team and guiding the younger players, and says he is delighted that "even our state leaders are starting to think that we can achieve something". The Congo captain is also full of praise for head coach Kamel Djabour, who took charge of the national team in October 2012.
"The coach talks to us man-to-man, like his younger brothers, in an honest and sincere way," Mouko explained. "He is sharp and has a winning mindset, which is what we need. I talk to him a lot because I understand the inner workings and mentality of both this team and of Congolese football in general."
"I'm a link between the management staff, the coach and the players," he continued. "When people ask for my opinion, I give it to them straight, especially when it concerns the squad and their feelings. I have the respect of the other players, and they listen to me. It's my duty, then, to set the example."
Before their upcoming double-header against Gabon, and their final group game against Burkina Faso, Les Diables Rouges will have ten days together to work on achieving their main objective. "We must continue to make the people happy," Mouko said as the interview concluded. "This is our responsibility."