Leopards showing their claws

9 May 2019
  • Congo DR are the fifth-highest African side in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking

  • Continental champions in 1968 and 1974, the Leopards are dreaming of a third title

  • Their recent success is founded on overseas experience and domestic talent

There was a time when the Leopards were the kings of African football. Back in the days when Congo DR as known as Zaire, they became first sub-Saharan nation to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™, at Germany 1974, and also won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations twice, in 1968 and 1974.

Since then, however, the Congolese have failed to return to the global stage, while their best performances in the Africa Cup of Nations were third places in 1998 and 2015.

Yet there are signs that the Leopards might be about to enjoy a revival. Not only have they claimed a place at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, they have also broken into the top 50 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. FIFA.com looks at the reasons behind Congo DR’s recent resurgence and their goals for the future.

Congo DR's place in the world

  • Current position: 46th

  • Position in CAF Zone: fifth, behind Senegal, Tunisia, Nigeria and Morocco, who all appeared at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™

  • Highest Ranking position: 28th (July and August 2017)

  • Lowest Ranking position: 133rd (October 2011)

  • Climb on last month: + 5 places, + 1425 points

International success

The Leopards’ rise up the global ranks owes a lot to their qualification for this year’s African finals, which was secured in the final round of matches. Drawn into a group with neighbours Congo, Liberia and Zimbabwe, Congo DR began with a 3-1 win in the Congolese derby in September 2017.

Then came a run of four games without a win (three draws and a 3-1 home defeat to Zimbabwe), which left the Leopards needing to win their final match, against Liberia. Win it they did, with Cedric Bakambu’s solitary goal clinching them a place in Egypt.

Bakambu is one of the leading figures in a revitalised Congo DR line-up, along with Gael Kakuta, Neeskens Kebano, Yannick Bolasie, Dieumerci Mbokani, Chancel Mbemba and captain Youssouf Mulumbu, who have all acquired valuable experience in Europe’s major leagues over the last decade.

“With the squad we’ve got, I think we’ve developed a lot and we’ve matured,” said Mulumbu before the crucial meeting with Liberia. “I can sense it in training, in what the players say.”

Domestic talent

While Congo DR’s foreign legion played a large part in their qualification success, unlike African football’s other powerhouses, the Leopards are also drawing on home-based talent. The best example of that can be seen in the dugout, where Florent Ibenge is one of the few African coaches to be in charge of his own national team. What is more, he has held the post for five years, something of an eternity in African football.

Ibenge also coaches AS Vita Club, one of Congo DR’s biggest clubs, which enables him to cast his eye over the country’s best players and bring the pick of them into the national team fold.

A Leopards and TP Mazembe icon, the veteran Tresor Mputu had a part to play in the qualifiers, while Vita Club defenders Botuli Bompunga and Ndonga Muzinga are now an established part of the set-up, and 19-year-old Mazembe front man Jackson Mulecka heads up a new breed that is knocking on the door.

Pressure on as goals set higher

With that kind of talent at their disposal, Congo DR are entitled to think they can succeed in Egypt, where they have been drawn into a challenging group with the hosts, Zimbabwe, who beat them to top spot in their qualifying group, and Uganda, one of the continent’s surprise packages.

“Egypt are the giants, so we’re going to be the minnows. But this is a clever little minnow,” joked Ibenge after the draw for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. “It’s fantastic. They’re the host nation and it’s a match that will be covered right across the media, so it’s up to us to rise to the occasion.”

Ibenge has the resources to make a big impact in Egypt and build on the progress Congo DR have made in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “In saying that, we’re not going there to be whipping boys. It’s a position that could work for us and help us spring a surprise,” he added, aware of his side’s potential and the responsibility that comes with it.

A stark reminder of that came when Congo DR Secretary General of Sport Barthelemy Okito set the national team’s objective in Egypt as nothing less than victory: “If the goals are not reached at the Africa Cup of Nations, we’ll have no choice but to part with the coach and his staff.”