Football in the DR Congo: Past and Present

Joel FCorrespondent IDecember 16, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is about four times the size of France and has a population that exceeds 63 million. Since 1997, it has been embroiled in a destructive, vicious civil war that has caused considerable division and involved neighbours and other African states.

According to the Lancet, approximately 3.9 million people died between 1997 and 2004 from a multitude of causes. A further study by the International Rescue Committee in 2008 estimated the total number to be 5.4 million, giving the conflict the grim status of being the deadliest since the Second World War.  

The accounts and reports published by various media have shocked and appalled, to the extent of incredulity, from starvation, disease, rape, massacres, and the murderous persecution of "Pygmy" ethnic groups such as the Mbuti.

An election overseen in 2006 by a combined UN/EU force of peacekeepers and monitors witnessed the endorsement of the incumbent President Joseph Kabila. But ethnic-related conflict continues unabated in the east—a partial legacy of the policies instituted by the Belgian Congo and its precursor, King Leopold's "Free State".

A war-ravaged society and impoverished populace (average GDP is just 610 dollars) has therefore logically relegated the improvement of the nation's prospects in international football to the extreme financial periphery. That contrasts with the undiminished passions of the national team's supporters.

Under its former name of Zaire, the Leopards (its nickname) qualified for the 1974 World Cup, 14 years after the attainment of independence from Belgium. During a brutal 32-year reign, dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko invested considerable resources in sport, convinced that it would, among other benefits, strengthen national identity and prestige.

The investment did yield two African Nations' titles in 1968 and 1974 respectively, success for domestic sides in pan-African tournaments, and endowed the national team with the Stade King Baudouin, constructed for the iconic Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

But corruption and mismanagement was rife under Mobutu's regime, and affected football as much as it did every facet of society.

In the 1974 World Cup, having become the first sub-Saharan nation to qualify for the tournament, Zaire was grouped with Brazil, Scotland, and Yugoslavia—the homeland of its manager Blagoje Vidinic.

As daunting as such a group would have been regardless of other concerns, off-field issues proved a constant distraction that condemned the team to an inevitable and farcical elimination.

In an interview with the BBC, retired international Mwepu Ilunga claimed that when the team learned they would not receive expected payments, and having apparently been dissuaded from an impromptu strike, the players refused to be competitive for their second match. 

Humiliating defeat to Yugoslavia followed (9-0), as did intimidation from accompanying security officials warning of severe consequences should the team lose to Brazil by more than four goals. Zaire ended its first and only World Cup participation ignominiously, conceding 14 without reply (but fortunately losing to Brazil by just three goals).

Today, despite its footballing heritage, the national team has yet to produce an equivalent to Roger Milla, George Weah, Samuel Eto'o, or Didier Drogba. The country's top scorers happen to be former Premier League strikers Lomana LuaLua and Burundi-born Shabani Nonda. Regrettably for the Leopards, Claude Makéléle and Jose Bosingwa emigrated to France and Portugal as young children.

The team almost qualified for the 2006 World Cup under the resourceful Claude Le Roy and have been managed by fellow Frenchman Patrice Neveu since March. Performances have been erratic—the team finished third in its 2010 World Cup qualifying group, and occupy 94th place as of the November FIFA rankings.

Still, under the conditions much of the country's populace endures, it is more than remarkable that the side galvanises national interest and attracts capacity attendances at the 80,000-seater Stade des Martyrs, as it did against Egypt in September.

The bowl-shaped stadium is situated near its predecessor, in Kinshasa, where evidence of conflict and poverty is tangibly inescapable. On occasion, the venue manages to accommodate more than 100,000 people to create an imposing atmosphere that can comfortably be the proverbial twelfth man.  

In 2004, the then manager Mick Wadsworth regaled a correspondent from the Observer with anecdotes that candidly highlighted the Congolese FA's all too serious financial and organisational struggles.

But despite being deprived of the infrastructure and support available to established footballing powers like Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, the DRC's size and the sport's popularity seems to ensure the prospect of a globally-recognisable talent emerging is more than feasible.

Clichés have become almost obligatory in football but it feels appropriate to imagine that the future stars of Congolese soccer may only require a football, if even that, to nurture their talent and love for the beautiful game that provides frustrating and joyous escapism.