New life for Congo's Red Devils
© AFP

After a lacklustre qualifying campaign during 2011 for this year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations, few expected Congo to turn around their fortunes quickly enough for what is a key period in African football. But with the preliminaries for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and the next continental championship already under way, Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) have emerged from their purgatory into a position of being a genuine contender.

This positive run is reflected in their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, which jumped from 130 in February to 101 in March – their best placement since the start of last year. That leap of 29 spots was one of the best movements of the month, and it pushes them to 24th in Africa, where they are just behind 2012 CAN finalists Botswana. Considering that their lowest-ever ranking came just in September of last year, at which point they had slumped to 144, the Congolese side have proven their true worth during the early stages of two key events.

So far so good
The champions of Africa four decades ago this year, Congo also reached the semi-finals of the following tournament, but it's been nearly that long since they have had a major impact on the sport at senior level. They have never qualified for the FIFA World Cup, and although they have reached Africa's elite competition six times, four of those came in their glory period between 1968 and 1978. They have managed to qualify for the continental finals just once in the last ten events, with a quarter-final spot in 1992 being the last time they made an impression, but even in that case they failed to win a match.

However, led by French coach Jean-Guy Wallemme and buoyed by a good run of results at the youth level, the Congolese are slowly working their way back into continental reckoning. It started in November of last year when they blitzed minnows Sao Tome e Principe 5-0 away in the first leg of the first round of Brazil 2014 qualifying. Although the second leg ended 1-1 to the consternation of the home fans in Pointe-Noire, that result has since taken on a new context given the sudden improvement in the plucky islanders, who themselves jumped a combined total of 81 spots over the past two FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.

No matter the style, the victory in that two-legged tie accomplished the all-important task of sending them through to the group stage of qualifying for the world's biggest football event. The draw has placed them in a challenging, but largely manageable section, one that seems quite balanced between the Red Devils and a trio of sides that were in the recent Cup of Nations finals; Burkina Faso, Niger and tournament co-hosts Gabon. Their first match - an away date with the Burkinabe on 1 June - will be perhaps the most difficult they will face, so a positive result to start could go a long way towards achieving their initial goal of progression to the final round of CAF qualifying.

Grounding the Cranes
It was in the other ongoing campaign, for the 2013 CAN in South Africa, that Congo really caught the attention of outsiders when on 29 February, they shocked Uganda 3-1 in Pointe Noire. Ranked at the time 43 spots better than the Congolese, the Cranes were on their back foot from the start, and they went behind within two minutes thanks to Congo's rising attacking star - Fabrice Nguessi Ondama - who capitalised on a defensive error with decisive force.

Although the early lead seemed to unnerve the hosts and they went into the break even at 1-1, Wallemme's second half shuffling worked wonders and the promising Delvin Ndinga began to control the midfield. It was Ndinga that won the penalty that finally secured the Red Devils their breakthrough, and the 3-1 final score was a deserved outcome. Wallemme's team was hailed by supporters for their flashes of brilliance, and the promise of things to come, although of course, the away goal they conceded looms ahead of the second leg – still far off in the middle of June.

Congo's best run of results since they beat Sudan, Chad and Mali in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Cup of Nations, the win over Uganda was a high point for Wallemme, who took over the side in August of last year after leaving the club he is most closely associated with, Lens, in January. The former defender has actively been mining Congo's expatriate community and has recruited new players to the team, most of which play in France.

He has also been pushing an ethos of teamwork, and he said that has produced results to date. “We will continue working as much as possible with the players we know, and we are always analysing possibilities to make the current group stronger,” said Wallemme. “But we know that it will be the whole group that brings success, not any one player.”