Cuper hoping to make the Leopards roar
Congo DR dreaming of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™
The Leopards face Tanzania, Benin and Madagascar in Group J
Coach Hector Cuper outlines his team's ambitions
The years roll on, but the dream remains the same for Congo DR. Although the nation formerly known as Zaire became the first from Sub-Saharan Africa to grace a FIFA World Cup™ in 1974, they have struggled to repeat that feat ever since, falling short each time for almost half a century.
Ending that long wait is now the job of Hector Cuper, the Leopards' coach since May. With kick-off fast approaching in Africa's second round of qualifiers, the new man at the helm is eager to discover the secret to making Congo DR's dream come true.
For that to happen, the 65-year-old Argentinian will need to reverse the team's current trajectory. Their most recent results have proved costly, with the Leopards slipping four places in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola Men's World Ranking to 65th, leaving them 12th among African sides.
Congo DR failed to qualify for the 2021 CAF Africa Cup of Nations – their first absence since 2012 – and since then, under Cuper, Congo DR have recorded one draw and one defeat. "We came to some important conclusions after our first two friendlies and we're trying very hard to make corrections," Cuper explained to FIFA.com. "The only obstacle to our ambitions is the time factor. We're working on the squad's intensity and cohesion, and we're staying focused on our upcoming opponents."
Cuper's mission now is to transform his charges into a side capable of booking a World Cup spot, a challenge that fed his eagerness to get involved. "This country's absence from the World Cup for 47 years boosted my motivation when I accepted this job. Now, I'm making the most of being able to prepare in good conditions and I'm staying optimistic."
Despite their need to rebuild, Congo DR look to be the favourites in Group J, where they will take on Tanzania, Benin and Madagascar. Cuper is hoping his own luck will hold too, after he steered Egypt to Russia 2018. "Taking part in a World Cup is something unique," he said. "That's why I owe it to myself to pass on to my players that extraordinary grinta which only a tournament like this can provide."
Cuper also coached the Pharaohs to the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, an eye-catching return after they had missed the three previous editions. Nevertheless, he is staying modest. "Africa is an immense continent. True, we got some good results, but that doesn't mean I have experience in African football. The style of play changes from one country to the next, even though the rules of the game are the same for everybody."
First up for the Leopards in Group J will be a home meeting with Tanzania at Stade TP Mazembe on Thursday – and it is a game that could set the tone for their whole campaign. "What I'm really hoping for is that everyone feels convinced it's possible [to qualify]," said Cuper. "We'll have to be united and extremely motivated because we'll be playing to give joy and pleasure to the Congolese people."