CAF Champions League

Black Dolphins leap for the prize

Egypt's Zamalek player Islam Awad (18) and team mate Mohammed Shafy challenge DR Congo's As Vita club player Junior Sentamu

When the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League are played on the weekend Congo DR will have two teams participating. There is little surprise that four-time winners TP Mazembe have – once again – made the last four, but few would have thought at the start of the competition that AS Vita Club would escape from the group stages. However, when the Black Dolphins kick off their two-legged contest against Tunisian club CS Sfaxien this weekend, it will be something of a return to their glory days.

In the early years of the competition clubs from Congo DR dominated the tournament, with TP Mazembe (then still known as TP Englebert) making it to four finals in a row starting from 1967. Vita Club were champions in 1973, semi-finalists in 1978 and beaten finalists in 1981. Some of the biggest names in the country's footballing history proudly wore the Vita jersey, with players like Kabasu Babo, Kibonge Mafu and Mayanga Maku, who represented Zaire at the 1974 FIFA World Cup Germany™, and Leon Mungamuni, who helped the Leopards to their first continental title in 1968, all being former players.

A more barren spell then followed for the club from Kinshasa as they qualified for the show-piece event of African club football just four times (1989, 1995, 1998 and 2004) in the following three decades. However, a run of four consecutive appearances starting in 2011 has re-energised a famously passionate fan base. Belgian Luc Eymael, who coached the club during the 2010/2011 season and is currently in charge of Tunisian club JS Kairouanaise, says that the club's support is special.

"I remember my first training session once I was appointed number one coach. It was in front of 35.000 fans. I was so impressed. In Belgium, my maximum attendance for a training session had been 100 people! So I was definitely on another planet.

“The public support is better than anything you can expect. Football is like a religion. Some people don't eat in order to buy match tickets. When I took walks in Kinshasa, it took just a few minutes before I was surrounded by dozens of fans," he remembers.

The 'Mazembe complex'
For several years Vita Club has been playing second fiddle to Mazembe, who won the event against in 2009 and 2010, and Eymael explains that it has left a mark on Vita. “The club is deeply traumatised by Mazembe's superiority over the last few years. We could talk of a "Mazembe complex", it would not be exaggerated."

Coach Florent Ibenge, who has been given much of the credit for taking Vita Club back to strength, is aware that the club does not have the same kind of resources as their big rivals from the mineral-rich town of Lubumbashi. “We have the example of TP Mazembe, which has much greater resources than ours. But we still try to compete with them, especially at the national level. There is a lot of pressure in this club, which is the most popular in the country.”

Ibenge, who has also been tasked with coaching the Congo DR national team, said that the strength of his team lay in the collective. “I have often been criticized for not having big star players in my team, but I have a homogeneous group. That is the strength. There are of course some players on whom I rely, like goalkeeper Nelson Lukong, captain Simbi Ebunga, midfielder Nelson Munganga and striker Ndombe Mubele.”

The coach added that much had changed at the club since he arrived in 2012. “A lot of facilities have been built, the players can be accommodated and we are working on the construction of training grounds. There is also an emphasis on the training of young players.”

A rising star
Unlike Mazembe, who have built much of their success on the strength of foreign players, Ibenge has only a handful of foreigners in his team. One of them is promising Ugandan striker Yunus Sentamu, who scored the only goal of the game in Egypt against Cairo giants Zamalek to send Vita through to the round of the last four. “It is a great club to play for, and I am very proud that I am a part of the team that has advanced to the semi-finals.

”We now believe that we can go all the way. We are very strong at home and North African clubs struggle to play against us in Kinshasa. We will have a full stadium and with the crowd behind us we can beat anybody.”

Just 20 years old, Sentamu is part of a rising generation for the Cranes, and he says he is conscious of the impact any success might have in his homeland. “When people watch me, they see that I am from Uganda, and they will realise that Ugandan football is strong. Hopefully other Ugandan players will also see that they can achieve anything they want to if they try hard and work hard.”

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