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TP Mazembe – Standing up for Africa

Stunned. The expression on the Internacional ‘keeper’s face upon the moment of realisation of what had just occurred, as Dioko Kaluyituka wheeled away in celebration, following a sensational strike 4 minutes from time. He couldn’t quite believe it. Neither could the Congolese striker surely, perhaps unaware at the time that he had just secured the biggest shock in world football.

The win for the team from the Democratic Republic of Congo has ensured that their name will be whispered around the whole world this weekend. Ok, the win over Brazilian giants Internacional happened at the semi-final stage, they still have to overcome current Champions League holders, Inter Milan to be crowned the greatest club team in the world. But to quite simply understand the complexity of a win of such magnitude, you have to understand the continuum of the two sides. Internacional, winners of the 2010 Copa Libertadores (that’s the South American equivalent of the Champions League) and world heavyweight of football in general having won the World Club Cup in 2006 are at one end of the scale, while at the other end you have TP Mazembe.

Founded in 1939, ‘the crows’ as they are nicknamed were formed by Benedictine Monks, under the name of the Holy Georges. Further name changes to Holy Paul FC and Englebert (after a tyre sponsorship deal) followed, as did the exit of the missionaries that had founded the side. A treble achievement in 1966 sparked a brief golden era for the team who returned to Congo victorious twice with the CAF Champions League in their possession in ’67 and ’68. However, a stale period ensued until current chairman, Moise Katumbi Chapwe took control of a suffering club who had won little since those hey-days in the late 60s.

Katumbi – the African Abramovic

 Katumbi ploughed the capital into Mazembe and revitalised a stagnant sleeping giant. The 2009 Champions League heralded a new beginning for the Congolese side who had finally returned to the pinnacle of African football again after an away goals win over Heartland FC in the final. This win was largely thanks to Kaluyituka who notched 8 goals and fellow striker and captain, Tresor Mputu who grabbed 6, including that crucial away goal in the final.

The African champions travelled to Abu Dhabi later that year to compete in the 2009 World Club Cup alongside prestigious teams such as Estudiantes and FC Barcelona, aiming to cause a few upsets. Automatically qualifying for the quarter final against Pohang Steelers of South Korea, ‘the crows’ were in confident spirits and took a first half lead. However, the dream was not to be as the Asian champions advanced with two Denilson goals to send Mazembe back to Congo with a 6th place finish. Taking no sympathy whatsoever, Mazembe declared to Africa that they had let the continent down after the loss, vowing to come back stronger.

 A ‘disappointment’ according to Mazembe (in black and white)

 For Katumbi, unlike any owner we see in our top division in England, he took it upon himself to improve the team and back them instead of turning his back after a failed cup attempt. The highly ambitious businessman, a fan himself from childhood, is more than pleased to hand over sums of money to see improvements on the pitch for his beloved team. He describes his gesture to Mazembe as a hobby, comparing his spending to anything a normal male would finance such as cars or jewellery. The upturn in Mazembe’s fortunes is certainly thanks to him and the budgets he set the team: $10million has been stumped up by the Lubumbashi local. The sum, a huge amount for most sides in England let alone an African one surely defines his ambitions, and when you have dominated Africa, the world has to be the next step for Mazembe.

Such riches has helped the club lure in some of the finest talents in Congo; loony goalkeeper, Muteba Kidiaba is nearing 300 matches for the Congolese team and is an integral catalyst for Mazembe to succeed. His famous ‘bottom bouncing’ celebration when Mazembe win is iconic – imagine what he’d do if Inter were rolled over tomorrow night! Sent off in the 5th place play off match against Auckland City FC last year, Kidiaba has already ensured this years tournament has occurred much more smoothly. Two defenders who featured in the same tournament 12 months ago are both Congolese internationals, most of the Mazembe line up is to be honest as the lack of finance in Africa restricts such emigration. Miala Nkulukutu and Kilitcho Kasusula are mainstays in the back line for Mazembe, who carry out defensive duties with ease. Sadly fellow African, Samuel Eto’o should be aware of what he is up against. Milota Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyituka both scored against Internacional in the semi final and are sure to be supervised closely by Walter Samuel and co. Tresor Mputu however is banned following his crazy actions towards a group of referees in August, earning himself a ban of a year and missing out on the game of TP Mazembe’s history.

The influential Mputu will sadly be unavailable tomorrow

The success of Mazembe has come as a shock to everyone. Considering the footballing prowess of the Congolese national team, such glory defies belief. Ranked by FIFA at 130th in the world, DR Congo have only been to a single World Cup (as Zaire) – in West Germany in 1974. The team have won Africa’s continental prize twice though, but way back in 1968 and ’74 along with the success of Mazembe. Nothing much has occurred since. Lomana LuaLua came to public attention at Newcastle briefly but was probably more renowned for his goal celebrations than his ability on the ball. Political instability has hindered the fortunes of the football team as sport took a backwards step in times of crisis. Many government changes happened in the early 60s, mostly due to the instability of the country after their independence in 1960. Leaders of Congo changed as often as the Newcastle manager does these day but at least Chris Hughton left with his head firmly attached to his neck unlike most Presidents of Congo. Corruption, communism, human rights violations ensued thereafter in a dangerous and controversial land. Debt followed under the leadership of President Mobotu and he renamed the country Zaire, against the wishes of the inhabitants of Congo.

It wasn’t just Congo’s government who caused the problems, neighbouring Rwanda’s war against the Tutsis spilled over and a hunt began for Congolese Tutsis, sparking a mass civil war which took the lives of many military and tribal men. Following a presidential assassination, UN peacemakers settled everything down in the conflicting areas temporarily before subsequent fighting began again. Importantly, Congo is home to many natural resources such as zinc and copper, making the country potentially rich and worth battling for. The duels with the guns has since died down but Congo still remains politically unstable, as does its population.

Poverty stricken, Congo is the second poorest country in the world (Zimbabwe being first) with a critically low GDP per capita. It may be the 3rd largest country in Africa but rather like Abramovic’s wallet, it is extremely dense with nearly 71 million people inhabiting a land struggling to recover from a war with the biggest death toll since WWII (5.4 million). Today, some fighting still continues in the east of the country and women are regularly raped. How on Earth a football team has emerged with such glory as TP Mazembe is quite unreal, but also satisfying for the Congolese to be able to enjoy these victories in times of hardship.

But as Mazembe continue to rise nonetheless, African football in general follows the same path, as Ghana displayed this summer. They were inches away from deservedly becoming the first African team to reach a World Cup semi final in the same continent itself. South Africa hosted the month long event to prove to the world that Africa can join in too; the whole continent represented itself in shining lights which are bound to continue to gleam proudly in years to come. Ever since Cameroon defeated Argentina in 1990, we have been wary of the threat each team poses. More and more players emigrate to the promise lands of La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Premiership to ply their trade because now they fit into a team perfectly, offering their own diverse talents which teams can utilise. African football has come a great distance in the last 20 years with first countries broadcasting their abilities, then individuals. George Weah, Samuel Eto’o, Lucas Radebe and many more players have stepped up to the plate in recent years and now a club team has produced success, proving Sepp (insert swear word here) Blatter’s theory that football is truly the World’s game.

The strength of Africa is at an all-time high

 And upon TP Mazembe’s return to Congo this year, reminiscent of the memories from the previous year when they were unfairly ‘shamed’ in Abu Dhabi after their exit, will the same players still have those same thoughts in their minds, or will they be portraying opposite emotions with a great trophy under their arm? Don’t rule it out, Rafael Benitez is still the Inter coach and anything could happen. If it does then we can fully accept the fact that Africa are here to stay and to win, not just participate. The days of when Zaire booted the ball away from a Brazilian free kick are long gone. Could the boys from Lubumbashi do their chairman and fans proud? They sure have the support of underdog fans everywhere.

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