A large nation that has struggled to live up to its potential over the last four decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo has one unqualified success within its borders that its sport-mad population can rally around. TP Mazembe, an intriguing club from the mining-rich area of Katanga Province in the far southern tip of the country, have won four CAF Champions Leagues, more than any other club, barring the Egyptian pair of Al Ahly and Zamalek. It’s been an unlikely journey for the ambitious outsiders, who are driven to maintain their place as standard-bearers for sub-Saharan Africa.
The birth of an institution
Founded in 1939 by missionaries in then-Zaire's second-city, the club was in its early days named after both a series of Christian saints and the colonial Belgian moniker for Lubumbashi: Elisabethville. Just a few years later, they left their religious underpinnings behind and became known as FC Englebert, which was a tyre brand that sponsored the team. Dressed in black and white and known for their flamboyant and fierce performances, they soon picked up the nickname Mazembe, *or ‘crows’. Still, they found little success before independence from Belgium in 1960, winning their first league title in 1966, a year that saw them go undefeated and win a treble. That historic season left them christened with yet another name: *Tout Puissant, meaning ‘Almighty' or 'All Powerful’ in French. The new addition was shortened and the club settled down for their glory years known as TP Mazembe Englebert.
The making of a legend
The 1966 team was a juggernaut, and they took their act on the road in the era that followed. A year later, they won one of the earliest African Champions League precursor tournaments, topping Ghana's Asante Kotoko by a walkover in the final after two drawn legs. In 1968, they backed up their initial triumph by lifting the trophy again after dismissing Etoile Lome of Togo in the final. In that case, they lost interest in the second leg after a resounding 5-0 home win in the first and won by a 6-4 aggregate score.
Inspired by arguably the country's greatest-ever footballer, Pierre Kalala, known as ‘The Bomber’, Mazembe’s early successes could even have been greater. They returned to the final in each of the next two years, relenting in the second leg of each to leave them wondering what might have been. In 1969, Egypt’s first continental champions, Ismaily, surprised the Crows 3-1 in the second leg after a 2-2 opening draw. Even more unsettling came in 1970 when a talented Kotoko extracted revenge on the Congolese side with a shock 2-1 win in Congo after a first-leg draw in Kumasi. Star winger Martin Tshinabu missed a penalty in the second leg that would have given Mazembe a third continental triumph, which might have cemented their trendsetting place as the Real Madrid of Africa.
Although they never hit the heights of the Spanish legends, they remained the continent’s only back-to-back winners until 2004 when Nigeria’s Enyimba duplicated the achievement. As well, they were the only team to reach the final for four years running until Egyptian giants Al Ahly did the same between 2005 and 2008. The squad also provided many of the players much of the confidence that helped the national team to win two CAF Africa Cup of Nations trophies (1968, 1974) and qualify for the 1974 FIFA World Cup™ finals.
An African Cup Winners’ Cup trophy in 1980 added to the trophy cabinet, but Mazembe’s heyday was seen as largely in the past until just a few years ago. Political instability and violence hit the region hard, but the Crows have been an inspirational success story. Inspirational businessman and politician Moise Katumbi grew up a superfan of the club, and it has been his money and determination that have been behind much of its rebirth. With an emphasis on keeping Congolese talent, the club began a gradual build-up domestically and in continental competition throughout the 2000s, which culminated in a return to the top that few could have predicted.
Having only reached the semi-finals of the continent’s biggest club competition once in the previous 37 years, Mazembe burst back on to the scene in 2009, winning the Champions League after a narrow triumph over Sudan’s Al Hilal in the semi-finals and a win on away goals in the final over Heartland. Determined from the off to prove that the trophy was no fluke, the club became the first to win back-to-back titles twice, thumping Tunisian giants Esperance 6-1 over two legs in the 2010 final.
It was a burst of achievement similar to the high times of the late 1960s, but the Crows had yet another shock in store. In the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup, Mazembe had become the first sub-Saharan representative in the competition’s history, although they failed to impress on the pitch. The following year, however, they stunned the world by beating first CONCACAF champions Pachuca and then former world champions Internacional of Brazil 2-0 in the semi-final to become the first side not from Europe or South America to reach the showpiece match of the event. Given their struggles of the year before, and the poor showing of African clubs in the competition traditionally, it was a moment of tremendous pride for the club, for Congo DR and for the continent as a whole - no matter the reverse to Inter Milan in the final.
The club has also played its part in furthering national team success. Congo DR won the inaugural African Championship of Nations, which is made up of domestic-based players only, and they called upon a dozen Crows to form the backbone of the team. Likewise, shock 2012 CAN winners Zambia, whose border is not far from Lubumbashi, featured five Mazembe players on their continental championship roster.
Mazembe began the process of building a new stadium to house their ambitions in April 2010. Known simply as Nouveau Stade Mazembe, the 18,500-seat arena has artificial turf and possesses many modern conveniences. Although it is a significant step forward from their previous homes, the stadium is in the neighbourhood where the club has its roots, and it will surely be one of the best places to watch the sport in Africa.