DR Congo’s Leopards ready to pounce
© AFP

The proud reputation of football in the Democratic Republic of Congo is back in bright lights again after decades in the shadows. However, it is the success of champion club TP Mazembe Englebert rather than the national team that is bringing the game back into the spotlight.

The inspiration of two CAF Champions League titles and a place in the final of the recent FIFA Club World Cup for Mazembe looks to be rubbing off on the national side, and there are high hopes that the country can regain the heights reached when it was known to the world as Zaire.

DR Congo’s Leopards have moved up six places in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, advancing to 122nd in the world and 32nd in Africa. It is a far cry from the high of 51, which the country achieved in September 2003, or indeed their average over the last decade around 78th place.

Wins in January’s Nile Basin tournament in Egypt over Kenya and Sudan contributed to the points gained for the latest leap, and the hope exists that DR Congo can sustain their momentum when they play Mauritius in their next assignment in the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. They are at home to the islanders on 27 March.

Last September, when DR Congo were beaten 4-2 at home by a rampant Senegal in their opening group game, did not bode well for reaching the 2012 finals. But one month later, a 1-1 draw away against FIFA World Cup™ finalists Cameroon restored hope. Their chances of qualifying remain difficult, as they're in a veritable ‘group of death’ with two of the three African countries who have achieved the heady heights of a FIFA World Cup quarter-final place.

Reviving the glory days
The Congolese were the first African country south of the Sahara to go to the FIFA World Cup finals, but that achievement of 1974 is a long way from the realities of today. Returning to the dominance they enjoyed in the 70s is a perennial cause for Congolese football and they have turned to veteran French coach Robert Nouzaret to engineer their latest bid at a comeback. Nouzaret’s previous experience with the Ivorians and Guinea brings a valuable outlook on the African football scene and the contacts to prise out new talent.

These days TP Mazembe provide the bulk of the national side as the number of high profile Congolese players at clubs in the major European leagues are limited. Nouzaret has managed to persuade Youssouf Mulumba of English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion out of a brief period of self-imposed ‘retirement’ from the international game and will look to the likes of Cedric Mongongu (Monaco), Cedric Mfuyi (Valenciennes) and Turkish-based defender Landry Mulemo to prove the backbone of an increasingly youthful side.

Recent new caps include Joachim Munungu (Genclerbirligi), Benjamin Mokulu of Lokeren in Belgium and Cypriot-based full-back Mike Mampuya.