The rebirth of a footballing nation: how Congolese football is once again among Africa’s best

The rebirth of a footballing nation: how Congolese football is once again among Africa’s best

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (DRC) is the second-largest country in Africa, and its fourth-most populated. It’s also a place as much enamoured with football as any other African nation, which, given its size, makes Congo arguably the continent’s greatest underachiever.

That’s not to suggest Congolese football is unfamiliar with success, but rather that it ought to have experienced so much more. Yet the DRC’s footballing underachievement is in many ways a reflection of the country’s dispiriting inability to make the most of its resources.

For centuries, Congo has been hamstrung by the machinations of foreign powers, megalomaniac leaders and a host of other rapacious forces seeking bounty from its rich soil, leaving it in a near-constant state of unrest. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that, like the country itself, Congolese football has, for the most part, been prevented from fulfilling its potential; its one true period of international competitiveness – until recently – came during an era of relative stability during the 1960s and early 1970s.

But football in the DRC is now once again on the up, both at international and domestic level. Having taken third-place at the 2015 African Cup of Nations and won the 2016 African Nations Championship (CHAN), Congo go into AFCON 2017 with an outside chance of victory, while TP Mazembe and Vita Club have re-established themselves as giants of club football on the continent. It’s a renaissance that bears echoes of events and figures from times past, not least for the implicit influence of politics on the Congolese game.



Katanga, a former province now split into four separate entities in the south of the DRC, is a place of immense natural wealth. Its lush surface vegetation conceals an earth saturated with valuable minerals like cobalt, copper and uranium. Had the region’s authorities been able to exploit these gifts without interference, we might now know Congo as one of the planet’s most prosperous countries. Instead, for much of its history, Katanga has found itself preyed upon, its assets coveted by both internal and external forces.

To those desirous of its treasures, Katanga is a place worth fighting for. And many have. After Congo gained independence in 1960, the province’s secessionist leanings came to the fore, with Katanga seeking autonomy and a centralised government desperate to prevent them from achieving it, a wrangle which culminated in the 1960-1965 Crisis. This brutal conflict, essentially a civil war but more broadly a Cold War proxy, ultimately led to the creation of a unitary Congolese state and ushered into power a man who, backed by the west, would become inseparable from the country’s identity over the next 30 years, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.

From the ashes of the Katanga Crisis sprang an African sporting titan. Writing in The Blizzard in 2013, Ian Hawkey noted that “a fairly compelling case can be made that international club football in Africa, or at least in black Africa, started in Katanga.” Tout Puissant Englebert, now TP Mazembe, were founded in the Katangese capital of Lubumbashi in 1939 and, within a few decades, were one of the finest teams on the continent. In 1966, the year after the civil war ended, the club won its first Congolese championship and soon began to make its presence felt far beyond their home province.

Les Corbeaux cut a swathe through Africa in the second half of the ’60s, reaching four Champions Cup (now known as the CAF Champions League) finals in a row, and winning two of them. According to Hawkey: “[That Mazembe generation] had the spine of what would become a dominant Zaire national team. In goal, Mawamba Kazadi, celebrated for his suppleness and serenity; in defence, Pierre Katumba, provoker of wild whooping from the crowd for his athletic volleyed clearances; up front, Martin ‘Brinch’ Tshinabu, a showy but effective dribbler and, above all, the striker Mukendi Kalala, alias ‘Bombadier’. By late 1967, this group were embarking on a run that would sweep through all major international trophies available in Africa and in some cases would take them all the way to a World Cup finals.”

Their struggle for continental supremacy with Asante Kotoko of Ghana became one of the competition’s most enduring enmities. TP and Asante were perhaps the strongest teams in Africa during this period, and their contests were often fiery affairs, particularly when the Ghanaians visited Katanga. Yet, as is so often the case, this was a rivalry representative of more than just football.

Pelé with President Mobutu when Santos toured Congo

“Like Lubumbashi, Kumasi, home of Asante Kotoko, is its country’s second city,” writes Hawkey. “Independence, post-colonialism, had also nourished in the Asante kingdom some ideas of regional autonomy. As with Katanga’s separatist urges, they were resisted from the capital. Kwame Nkrumah, first president of sovereign Ghana, had a firm One-Nation philosophy and at one stage specifically looked to rearrange the hierarchies of club football to galvanise it.”

Tasked with holding together a fragmented Ghana post-independence, Nkrumah had, says Hawkey in Feet of the Chameleon, “quickly identified sport as a vehicle for uniting the disparate peoples of a country whose boundaries had been drawn up with little regard for ethnic and religious difference.” The president created a superclub, Real Republicans, with the intent of establishing a team that would transcend the country’s historical divisions.

Ultimately, the Republicans experiment was a failure, with the club drawing only resentment from rival fans, but Nkrumah’s notions found more success in the Black Stars, the Ghanaian national team. The name was deliberately suggestive of the pan-African movement, recalling as it did Marcus Garvey’s famous shipping line. Nkrumah was keen to drive the development of a shared African identity and, by associating the state’s football team with an iconic element of pan-Africanism, made the sport a central part of his policy.

Like Ghana, Congo faced something of a personality crisis in the aftermath of independence from Belgium. It too was fractured along ethnic lines. Mobutu, more autocratic and far less altruistic than Nkrumah but with similar ideals, had observed with interest as the Ghanaian attempted to forge a specific identity through sport. The Congolese leader was swift in recognising football’s capacity to unite, and resolved to pursue a similar approach in his own country.

The first thing he did was set about ensuring Congo’s finest footballers would play their football in Congo. Several Belgian clubs had taken advantage of Congo’s instability, writes Paul Dietschy for the Soccer and Society journal: “By luring away the most talented elements of the ex-colony, who quickly earned the nickname of ‘Belgicains’.” With some paternalistic “encouragement” from Mobutu, many of these players returned to their homeland. Dietschy notes that, “When a number of ‘Belgicains’ returned in 1966, Mobutu personally presented them with their roadmap: ‘I have called you back’, he announced, ‘with the sole aim of forming a team befitting this great country. We must, each person in his own field, do the maximum to fittingly defend national prestige …”

With the dual aim of solidifying his own position and fostering a single Congolese identity, Mobutu sought to rouse both his players and his people into a nationalistic fervour: one nation united behind one omnipotent leader. Football was in the vanguard, and Mobutu was keen to make himself synonymous with the game.

Speaking about the return leg of the 1967 Champions Cup final in Kinshasa, Carlos Alberto Parreira, then a coach at Asante Kotoko, remembered that: “The stadium had been packed with what seemed liked 90,000 or 100,000 people for hours before the start. Then armoured cars would roll in and circle around the athletics track outside the pitch, with president Mobutu in the central one, waving to the crowd, with the guards pointing guns.”

Having repatriated the “Belgicains” and being further encouraged by TP’s success, Mobutu continued to spare no expense in his footballing evangelism. In June 1967, Pelé’s Santos jetted into Kinshasa as part of an African tour; a Congolese XI played two matches against the Brazilians, narrowly losing both. And the generalissimo’s lavish spending would soon pay dividends on the international scene, when in 1968 Congo became champions of Africa, beating the Black Stars 1-0 in the final.

Faouzi Mahjoub, of the Miroir du football, witnessed the match, and was quick to link the triumph to Mobutu’s patriotic pot-stirring. “On a psychological level,” he writes, “the Congolese penetrate the field highly convinced of their force and superiority, so heightened is the nationalist feeling among them. An unwavering faith, cultivated and encouraged by the thinking and grants of General Mobutu, supports and gives life to their efforts.”

But winning the African Cup of Nations was far from the limit of Mobutu’s aspirations for the team. After scraping through qualification, Congo, by then renamed Zaire as part of the president’s attempts to Africanise the country and its infrastructure (a process known as authenticité), won a place at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, much to Mobutu’s delight. He made the players national heroes, awarding them each the honour of Chancelier de l’Ordre National, and vowed to make them rich.

“In addition to a villa in the new district of Salongo in Kinshasa and a Volkswagen Passat,” writes Dietschy, “all paid for by a public works company and an automobile firm, Mobutu had in fact promised the players a collective bonus of 100,000 dollars when they qualified for the World Cup at the end of 1973.”

Zaïre went into the World Cup with an expectant nation and a demanding patron backing them at home and a giant retinue of dubious hangers-on accompanying them to Europe. But it didn’t go well. The story of Zaïre in West Germany has been widely told, and often with hilarity aforethought. They shipped 14 goals in three games and, through Mwepu Ilunga’s famous free-kick moment while 3-0 down against Brazil, afforded less cosmopolitan observers the opportunity to include loaded words like “naive” in their analyses of the team.

Congo’s current stars have reached AFCON 2017 and are outsiders for the tournament

Theories abound as to the reasoning behind Ilunga’s actions, but there is unquestionably no truth in the ridiculous and patronising idea that he was unaware of the rules. The exact motive is uncertain, but it was either a form of protest against the disappearance of bonus payments, or the actions of a man desperate to waste time in light of an apparent presidential threat should the team lose to Brazil by four or more goals.

What does seem certain, however, is that the players were indeed denied money owed to them. As remarked by Dietschy, “the [Zaïrean] Minister for Sports, Sampassa Kaweta, offered little response to enquiries about the bonus paid to the players by FIFA. The dignitary eventually disappeared with the money, which some believe eventually served to pay the enormous awards offered to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in October 1974.”

Without so much as a whimper, Zaire were eliminated from the World Cup in the first round and with them went any interest Mobutu had in football. As rapidly as it had risen to the summit of African sport, Zairean football found itself cast aside. A drastic decline in economic growth hastened the game’s slide into anonymity, to the extent that the chastened president withdrew the team from the 1978 World Cup qualification campaign. Mobutu, in many ways the creator of football in the country, had also turned out to be its destroyer. For the foreseeable future, football in Zaïre was left for dead.



It would not return to the wider national conscience with any degree of permanency until AFCON 1998, five months after Mobutu died in exile following the collapse of his regime. With 40-odd years of kleptocratic rule, Mobutu had crippled his country and, by mid-1997, his government forces were being overrun by revolutionaries advancing from the east. In May that year, four months before his subsequent death in Morocco, Mobutu would be replaced as head of state by a man who had fought for Katangese secession during the Crisis of the 1960s, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

A former Marxist and alleged brothel-owner, Kabila restored the name Congo and was hailed initially as a saviour of sorts, but soon began to display autocratic tendencies similar to his predecessor. Assassinated in 2001, Kabila was replaced by his son, Joseph, then 29, who remains in power – however tenuously – to this day.

In 2003, Kabila fils invited back from exile in Zambia a Congolese businessman named Moise Katumbi. The young president charged Katumbi, a Katangese with Greek-Jewish heritage, with stabilising and managing the mining industry in his home province. The two became close allies during the 2000s, and after campaigning for Kabila in the 2006 elections, Katumbi rose to the position of governor of Katanga in 2007.

Katumbi’s popularity rose meteorically in the succeeding years, with the governor developing a reputation as a progressive. “From fixing roads to repairing factories and schools, Katumbi has been leading a rebuilding program that he hopes will transform the mineral-rich province,” wrote Tom Hayes of CNN in 2011. “Those efforts have helped Katumbi earn what seems to be genuine affection from the people. It isn’t uncommon for him to be met by cheering crowds wherever he goes in Katanga. His popularity is also boosted by his ownership of TP Mazembe, the remarkably successful football team that comes from the area and which made history last year when it became the first African team to reach the FIFA Club World Cup final.”

Like Nkrumah and Mobutu, Katumbi appears to have recognised the rallying power of football. After taking over the Lubumbashi side around the turn of the millennium, Katumbi poured his money into the club. According to Steve Menary in World Soccer, Katumbi “revitalised a club that he grew up supporting as a young boy with his father on the terraces at the club’s old home, Stade Frederic Kibassa Maliba.

“Mazembe’s annual revenue is around USD15 million a year but the club is largely sustained by Katumbi. The stadium cost $35 million to build. Ticket prices start at $3 and go up to $12 in the main stand. There are also 15 air-conditioned VIP boxes and when the new stadium is full, that generates revenue of around $200,000 per match.”

Menary, visiting Lubumbashi in 2012, also witnessed first-hand the work of TP’s modern youth academy, financed of course by Katumbi’s cash. Or, at least, by cash that ended up being Katumbi’s.

“Between 2012 and 2014, mining giant Tenke Fangurume Mining provided statements to the extractive industries transparency initiative which say they paid nearly $2 million (£1.4 million) to TP Mazembe over three years,” wrote Maud Jullien of the BBC in 2016. “The payments are filed under ‘voluntary social payments’, which means that the company can deduct them from its income taxes. A spokesman for TP Mazembe did not give us a definitive answer about where the money went but said the funds were probably used to build a football academy.”

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Wherever Mazembe’s money was coming from, it funded a revival that rapidly returned them to the summit of African club football: 39 years after their previous appearance in the final of the competition, Katumbi’s side won the African Champions League by conquering Nigeria’s Heartland. Within a year, TP had made themselves known worldwide with their run to the 2010 Club World Cup final, during which they eliminated Mexico’s Pachuca and Brazil’s Internacional.

The Congolese football drought brought about in part by Mobutu’s post-1974 dismissal of the game was well and truly over. Yet Tout-Puissant’s successes echoed a Mobutu policy, that of keeping Congo’s best footballers within its borders, albeit for very different reasons.

“Most of Mazembe’s players are from Congo and the club has been successful in forestalling any mass exodus to European clubs because it pays well by African standards,” noted Jack Bell in the New York Times in 2010. “According to published reports, some players earn as much as $5,000 a week with Mazembe (an unheard of sum except for some players in Egypt) plus generous bonuses for winning.”

Where Mobutu actively repatriated the Belgicains and enacted laws keeping Congolese players at home, Katumbi achieved similar results by simply paying his employees large sums of money. In recent years, he has complemented the abilities of the best local footballers by hiring foreigners like Zambia’s Given Singuluma, Rainford Kalaba and Nathan Sinkala, as well as a host of Ghanaian and Ivorian players.

And the trophies have kept coming. Mazembe retained the Champions League in 2010 and won it for the fifth time – only Al Ahly have won more – in 2015. They enjoy a near monopoly on Linafoot, the Congolese domestic league. Katumbi has rejoiced in his team’s accomplishments and watched with satisfaction as their exploits won him widespread admiration in Congo, and particularly in Katanga.

Jullien, who interviewed Katumbi in March 2016, reported that: “After Mazembe’s victory at the African Super Cup when they defeated Tunisia’s Etoile, hundreds of supporters paraded in Lubumbashi on motorcycles and on top of cars. Many of them were shouting: ‘Moise, President’ in the city’s central square. At the moment, Mr Katumbi is seen as the only opposition politician in the country who has a tangible support base and could win an election.”

It is this kind of popularity, combined with an ever-expanding power-base in Katanga and beyond, which has encouraged Katumbi to seek higher office. After a long alliance and close working relationship with Joseph Kabila, Katumbi has turned against his president in recent years. And not without reason. In the grand tradition of many African leaders, Kabila seems determined to cling to power for as long as possible, even if it means circumventing constitutional or legal restrictions on doing so.

“In a mansion along the Congo River, with a collection of expensive watches, expensive motorcycles and a chimpanzee in a cage, [Kabila] should be packing up,” observed Jeffrey Gettleman for the New York Times in December 2016. “Instead, he is digging in. His second term is up in a few days, the Constitution forbids him to run for a third, millions of people are threatening to mobilise against him, and still Mr. Kabila shows no signs of leaving.”

“Chapwe”, as Katumbi is known to many, is one the few realistic candidates to replace Kabila, if indeed the president can be toppled. In a cruel twist of fate for Kabila, his centralised power in Congo is under threat from an influential Katangese, the very same role Kabila’s father had played during the 1960-65 Crisis.

After months of speculation, the Mazembe owner finally made his intentions to run for office explicit a matter of days ago, as recorded by Natacha Görwitz of Jeune Afrique: “In a statement posted on Tuesday, January 3 on his Twitter account, the opponent Moses Katumbi says he will indeed be a candidate in the presidential election to be organized no later than the end of December 2017 …”

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Now a bonafide presidential candidate, Katumbi’s involvement with Mazembe is at risk of diminishing. Funding cuts seem likely, and the club may suffer in the short and medium term as a result. But it seems unlikely that Katumbi will forget the role the team has played in his rise.

Whether intentionally or not, TP Mazembe became a vehicle for Katumbi very much like AC Milan had been for Silvio Berlusconi. Both men forged a political cult of personality largely through their respective clubs, and the path from entrepreneur to football club owner to politician and (possibly, for Katumbi) head of state is clearly one walked by both men. The Congolese has always maintained he is a fan first and a politician second, that his love for the game – and more specifically his club – is his primary focus, but like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party (itself named after a football chant), Katumbi has not shied away from employing the language of football in his political campaigning.

“Fellow Congolese, whistle #Kabila to signal end of mandate! Red card to this illegitimate #DRC President,” he tweeted in December 2016. There seems little doubt that such rhetoric is calculated.

“Chapwe” is Congo’s second great football patron, albeit possessed of an infinitely greater sporting philanthropism – and genuine passion for the game – than the first, Mobutu. Mobutu’s interest in football was purely self-serving; Katumbi, on the other hand, appears to have merely recognised the wave of goodwill created by his involvement with Mazembe and capitalised upon it. Should he be elected to the highest political position in the DRC, it remains to be seen whether Katumbi approaches football governance with as much direct involvement as Mobutu.



The Léopards of the DRC kick off their 2017 AFCON campaign in Gabon against Morocco. They enter the tournament as outsiders but are far from also-rans. Having won third place in the previous competition, Congo are rediscovering their pedigree as one of Africa’s stronger national teams and should provide stiff opposition for any sides they meet – though progressing from a group also containing Ivory Coast and Togo may prove an insurmountable task.

The squad they bring to Gabon contains five players based in Congo – four from Mazembe, one from Kinshasa’s Vita Club, who were Champions League runners-up in 2014 – with the remainder mostly playing their football in European leagues. What is interesting about the current group is its liberal sprinkling of players drawn from the massive Congolese diaspora.

Several hundred thousand Congolese are said to have departed their country in the previous decades, with many settling in Belgium and France in particular. In another echo of the Belgicain repatriation, Florent Ibengé, the national team coach – who also coaches Vita Club – has been proactive in recruiting from this player-base.

Ibengé, according to Mark Gleeson of ESPN, “has made it his business to strengthen his side from the growing diaspora in Europe and last year spooked the Belgians with his overtures to players like Michy Batshuayi, Luis Pedro Cavanda, Christian Kabasele, Paul-José Mpoku and Youri Tielemans. His interest even led to an article suggesting he was pinching players away from the Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots. In the end, only Mpoku heeded Ibenge’s call.”

Ibengé’s policy is one common to many national setups worldwide. With the globalisation of society and greatly increased movement of people, perceptions of nationhood are changing and diasporas are increasingly incorporated into government policies. A new form of citizenship is emerging, which dictates that “nationality” is a concept transcending mere territorial borders. As a result, teams such as Serbia, Croatia and Ireland have been quick to take advantage of their diaspora, calling up a host of players whose footballing education took place outside the countries they now represent. Why should Congo be any different?

Eight of the chosen Congolese 23 for AFCON were born on European soil. Each of them has represented a European national side at underage level, with perhaps the most notable being Cédric Bakambu of Villarreal and Neeskens Kebano of Fulham, both of whom won French under-20 caps. Had other high-profile Europe-born players of Congolese descent, such as Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe and Everton’s Yannick Bolasie, been willing or able to answer the call, (Afobe recently declared for Congo but chose not to take part in AFCON, while Bolasie is out with a serious injury) the DRC may have been among the favourites for the tournament. As it is, they are likely to strengthen further in future as more players from the diaspora come on board but may find the 2017 iteration of the Cup of Nations a step too far too soon.

Congolese football is at a crossroads. From the Mobutu-sponsored golden age of post-independence, to the dark ages after 1974, to the rebirth of Mazembe and the Léopards, it has ended up at a point where it may go on to challenge the big boys of African football, but could also slip back into regression if investment is not maintained or the national team fails to perform. What happens may be dictated largely by the political situation in the country, and 2017 could be a significant year in that regard. Should Congo gain the stability it deserves, its potential is unlimited, and in time its football teams may come to reflect that 

By Luke Ginnell. Follow @HeavyFirstTouch

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