How did Tout Puissant Mazembe–based in Lubumbashi, the 2nd largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo–become the first club from outside of Europe and South America to reach the finals of a Club World Cup?
Most immediately, by upsetting the Brazilian side Internacionale 2-0 earlier this week in the semis. (And thus preventing an Inter v Inter final. Inter Milan defeated South Korean club Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 3-0 in the other semifinal; Internazionale will play Mazembe in the finals this Saturday).
The highlights show a couple nice finishes by the Congolese (and some relatively lax defending by the Brazilians):
For a more detailed account of how TP Mazembe reached the final, see this Guardian blog entry: “TP Mazembe continue journey from karate kids to the top of the world“; the “karate kids” reference alludes to a shameful showing in a club tournament in Kigali in May, against Rwandan army club APR FC:
Opponents of APR complain that the army club benefits from generous refereeing when playing at home and Mazembe felt they were being kicked with impunity. When the referee denied the visitors a penalty, the perceived injustice got a bit too much for some Mazembe players. Their captain and prolific striker, Trésor Mputu, protested so furiously that he was sent off and he did not, alas, go quietly.
Instead he and several team-mates chased the referee around the pitch; the midfielder Guy Lusadisu was the first to catch up with the official … and laid him out with a flying karate kick. Oh dear. The match and then the whole tournament were abandoned and Fifa banned Mputu and Lusadisu for a year. Mazembe’s hopes of retaining the African Champions League seemed doomed. The loss of Mputu, who last year was voted the best player playing his club football in Africa, was considered especially debilitating.
Here is the video of the flying karate kick in Kigali:
Given the usual pattern of African footballing talent, it’s natural to ask why Mazembe’s talent hasn’t been signed away by a European side–if not big clubs in western Europe, then at least lesser sides in eastern Europe. Witness, for example, the likes of young Ivorian striker Lacina Traoré playing in Romania (and in the Champions League) for CFR Cluj–or see Chapter 6 of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, about an irrational exuberance for Nigerian players among Ukrainian oligarch club owners (“How Soccer Explains the Black Carpathians“).
Indeed, the Guadian blogger notes that Mbutu has garnered interest from seveal European clubs, including a trial with Arsenal a couple years ago (apparently Claude Le Roy, former manager of Cameroon and Congo–and Senegal and Ghana!–called him the next Samuel Eto’o at one point). Like the owners of Chelsea and Man City, TP Mazembe’s owner, Moise Katumbi, has deep pockets (a fortiori: like his better-known Russian and Arab counterparts, Katambi’s pockets were made deep primarily from the extraction of natural resources out of the ground). But what makes TP Mazembe different is that Katumbi “has generally not used his wealth to recruit players from abroad but rather to keep top talent at home.”
The strength of Mazembe’s squad reflects the depth of their chairman’s pocket. The club is based in the city of Lubumbashi in the mineral-rich Haut-Katanga province and the chairman, Moise Katumbi, made his fortune in mining before branching out into an array of other activities, including fishing, transport and television.
Now a powerful politician as well as a businessman – he is the governor of Katanga – he has funded the renaissance of the local team, which until his involvement had endured three decades of decline since its golden age in the 1960s (they were African champions in 1967 and ’68 and had added the prefix Tout-Puissant, meaning ‘almighty’, to the club’s name after going unbeaten for the entire 1966 season on their way to the domestic title).
The difference between Mazembe and, say, Chelsea or Manchester City is that, although they have signed a smattering of players from elsewhere in Africa, Katumbi has generally not used his wealth to recruit players from abroad but rather to keep top talent at home. Mputu has been courted by several European clubs and had trials with Arsenal in 2007 but, used to picking up players from Africa for the sort of pittance that would not tempt Mazembe, none has been prepared to pay the lavish fee it would take to prise him away.
Indeed, a look at TP Mazembe’s current squad is 100% African, with the only 4 non-Congolese players (2 each from Cameroon and Zambia):
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Not only are their players African, but so is their manager–and contrary to Eurocentric stereotyping, it was the African manager, brought in to replace a European, that instilled defensive discipline (at least according to the Guardian guy’s narrative):
Mazembe’s conquest of Africa was emphatic. They may have struggled through their group, their campaign having been disrupted not only by the fallout from events in Rwanda but also by increasing frailty in defence, but they got back on track after changing managers in September. The Frenchman Diego Garzitto was replaced by the former Senegal international Lamine N’Diaye.
The new manager restored defensive rigour as well as introducing a tempo and audacity that, when allied to the attacking flair that the team always had, has taken many opponents by surprise. Espérance de Tunis finished ahead of Mazembe in this season’s Champions League group stages but, when they met again in the first leg of the final seven weeks after N’Diaye’s arrival, the Congolese destroyed them 5-0, and then showed commendable solidity in the second leg to cap a 6-1 aggregate triumph.
Actually, this is Mazembe’s 2nd straight year winning the African Champions League and competing in the Club World Cup:
In last year’s Club World Cup Mazembe arrived with high hopes but shoddy defending let them down, leading to humiliating defeats by Auckland City and Pohang Steelers. This week, by contrast, they have kept clean sheets against Pachuca of Mexico and the South American champions Internacional, though the Brazilians did manage to pick their way past Mazembe’s defenders several times, only to be thwarted by the inspired goalkeeper, Muteba Kidiaba.
Internacional’s defence, on the other hand, could not cope with the skill and speed of Mazembe on the break, as evidenced by the excellent goals by Mulota Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyituka.
Whether Mazembe win or lose in Saturday’s final, against either Internazionale or the Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, they have demonstrated that there is playing, organisational and managerial talent beyond the familiar leagues of Europe and South America.