Experience is often the key to success when it comes to major international tournaments, and Tshinyama Tshiolola is one player with no shortage of know-how. Tiko, as he is known, is a survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo side that reached the 2006 CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals, and he has established himself as captain since Frenchman Robert Nouzaret took charge of the ailing Leopards in August 2010.

The role of skipper and the pressure surrounding it is something Tshiolola takes in his stride. “It’s my duty as a senior player, whether it suits me or not,” the versatile Lokeren defensive midfielder told FIFA.com. “I have to accept it. I have experience so the coach looks to me to guide the younger players, give them advice and explain to them what football is all about.”

Congo DR won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974, and their quest for renewed success continues in Kinshasa on 3 September and 9 October. If the Leopards fail to qualify for the 2012 edition, however, they will have to content themselves with nostalgic memories of past triumphs.

“We don’t want to let this chance pass us by, having failed to qualify for the last two tournaments,” said the former TP Mazembe captain. “It’ll be very tough playing against Senegal and Cameroon, but I’m optimistic. Those who wear the shirt and love their country will give everything they can.”

Tshiolola clearly believes qualification is possible, but he is also frank in his assessment of the national team’s current state of health. “The coach took over a team that was really struggling,” said the former Ajax Cape Town player. “He needs to be given time. He’s still looking for the right formula and changes the starting line-up and system every match. He regularly talks with the players, because in the end, it doesn't help to have all this instability."

“However, the responsibility lies first and foremost with the players who shun the national team,” added the 30-year-old, who plies his trade with Lokeren in the Belgian top flight. “There are many talented players in Europe who don’t want to come over and help us out. They often tell me that it’s not the right time. I can’t force them but I feel sorry about it.”

Managing fan pressure
For his side’s recent friendlies against Gambia and Angola, Nouzaret had to make do with a very different squad from the one that drew with Cameroon and recorded a double victory over Mauritius. The Leopards face group leaders Senegal in Dakar on Saturday, but this time around they should be at full strength. 

“Togetherness will once again be our main weapon,” said Tshiolola, who is likely to start in a defensive midfield role against the Lions of Teranga. “It’s also vital that we don’t concede any goals, and that we block their midfield and hit them on the break with our two pacy wingers. Against less dangerous teams, I occasionally play at right-back,” he added.

Congo DR face another high-quality opponent in the shape of Cameroon in October, and the result will no doubt be crucial to their hopes of qualifying. “We’ll need to be able to handle the enormous pressure that the Congolese people place on us when we play at home,” said Tshiolola. “It’s their right. They need victories and it’s our job to satisfy them.”

“It’ll be a tough task but not an impossible one, because we have talent, as TP Mazembe have shown with their recent performances on the international stage,” concluded a cautiously optimistic Tshiolola. “We’re on the right track but it’s all rather fragile.”