Congo climb to new heights
© FIFA.com

Stricken by the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a place in the third round of African Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Congo fans will at least be cheered by the sight of October's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) have leapt 43 places into an all-time high of 57th, as well as boosting their points tally by 181 to a total of 536. As a result Congo, they are now the 12th highest African nation on the world ladder, and the continent's biggest mover over the past month by some distance.

And the healthy progress of men's football in Congo is not just limited to senior level. Indeed, the country's U-20 side were the first to stick their head above the parapet in 2007, with a historic triumph at the African Youth Championship on home soil. This performance further cemented Congo's status as a producer of up-and-coming stars, with the likes of midfielder Harris Tchilimbou and winger Fabrice N'Guessi Ondama likely to grace the senior side for years to come.

Sudan defeat proves costly
The combined qualifying phase for South Africa 2010 and the same year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola have been packed with incident and nerve-racking suspense, with the fate of Congo themselves only sealed on the final matchday of the second round.

Drawn in a tightly contested Group 10, alongside Mali, Sudan and Chad, Congo were one of three teams still in the hunt to advance going into the last round of games. Three home wins, 1-0 over both Sudan and Mali, and 2-0 over Chad, combined with away defeats by Mali and Chad, meant that Oscar Ewolo and Co travelled to Sudan needing just a draw to stay on course for a top-two finish.

Sudan, three points behind the visitors going into the match, had other ideas. A 2-0 victory for the Sokoor Al-Jediane (Falcons of Jediane) on 11 October in Omdurman edged the Congolese into third place on goal difference and out of the race for the 2010 tournaments in South Africa and Angola.

The current situation means that we've agreed to rely on our expatriate players
Coach Ivica Todorov is utilising foreign-based players to drive Congo forward.

With hindsight, the warning salvo of captain Ewolo in the build-up had proved eerily accurate. "Even though we can count on a good generation of players, we do lack composure and thoroughness," said the Lorient man. "If we do our job properly, we're capable of getting what we need from the game. But if we don't give our all, we'll pay a very heavy price."

Prophetic words, but despite this disappointment, credit must still go to the team's Serbian coach Ivica Todorov for taking Congo so far. Following his appointment in February this year, the former Crvena Zvezda player succeeded in bringing stability to the national side and giving the fans license to dream of a reviving their once glorious past.

To do so, Todorov's selection policy leant heavily on the country's legion of foreign-based players, with the exception of reserve keeper Daniel Chancel Massa. "I'm one of those coaches who has brought through local-based players, wherever I've been working," he explained.

"But Congo's best team were knocked out very early on in the 2007 edition of the African Champions League and that made me think that the players are not yet ready to compete (at the highest level). ."

In this vein, Todorov has recalled Rolf-Christel Guie-Mien, out of the national-team picture for four years, and promising youngsters like Chris Malonga-Nsayi of French Ligue 1 side Nancy.

It is players like Malonga-Nsayi, and the aforementioned Tchilimbou and N'Guessi Ondama, who will determine if Congo can become a force on the African stage once more. And if their dramatic rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is anything to go by, Les Diables Rouges are most definitely on the right track.