Granting an exclusive interview to FIFA.com, Le Roy, who was only 37 when he took up the Cameroon reins, reflected on his first taste of African football: “I was born into a family that loves Africa. My parents spoke to me a lot about the continent, and as soon as Cameroon made me an offer, I accepted it because I was itching to discover it for myself.”
An immediate success
A year after taking over, Le Roy steered his side to the final of the 1986 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, which they lost on penalties to Egypt. Two years later in Morocco, the Indomitable Lions were back in the final, where they beat Nigeria to claim their second continental title.
Playing down his impressive record, he said: “I’m not bothered about statistics and facts and figures. The important thing to my mind is the joy I can bring to my teams. I am very happy to have taken Congo back to the Cup of Nations after a 15-year absence and to have now steered them to the quarter-finals for the first time in 23 years.”
He added: “Everyone in Congo is talking about this team of warriors. This performance is the result of all the hard work put in by an entire nation. We knocked out Nigeria in the qualifiers, and in the group phase here we came out ahead of Burkina Faso, who reached the final last time round.”
Le Roy spent the first 20 years of his life in Africa, his parents having gone there to pursue their beliefs as independence activists. Discussing the close bonds that tie him to the continent, he said: “It’s a love story that has no end. My wife, children and I are all in love with Africa. I’ve found love, humility and simplicity here and I can’t see myself living anywhere else.”
Everyone in Congo is talking about this team of warriors. This performance is the result of all the hard work put in by an entire nation.
Congo coach Claude Le Roy on the impact his team is having back home
Le Roy has seen several generations of players come and go during his long career and helped bring through some of the leading lights of African football, among them players of the calibre of Andre Kana-Biyik, Samuel Eto’o, Joseph-Desire Job, Pierre Wome and Lomana LuaLua. Among his coaching protégés, meanwhile, is Côte d’Ivoire boss Herve Renard, who has previously expressed a debt of gratitude to The White Wizard.
Currently being held in Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations has reached the knockout stage, with Le Roy set to meet former charges Congo DR in the last eight on Saturday. Contemplating that tantalising prospect, he said: “I am thrilled to be taking them on. I still have a very good relationship with most of the players, the coaching staff and the officials.
“It won’t be an easy match because they have a lot of potential. TP Mazembe reached the final of the Club World Cup [in 2010] and have won a number of CAF Champions League titles. Congo DR have also stuck with the side that reached South Africa 2013. Yet even though they’ve got some talented players, we’ll be doing all we can to beat them.”
Though he knows his upcoming opponents well, Le Roy believes such knowledge can work both ways: “It’s a double-edged sword because the fact that they’re up against their old coach might motivate them even more.”
Turning his attention to the standard of African football in general, the wily tactician said: “The raw materials are here. Africa has changed a lot since I first came here in 1985, but it’s still a continent that exports its best players. There’s no country that can turn down talented African players.”
Le Roy has enjoyed many out-of-the-ordinary experiences in his beloved continent, as he went on to explain: “One day we trained in a public park and used stones for goalposts. Another time, we heard the sound of gunfire getting closer and closer. And I can never forget the Africa Cup of Nations win in 1988. The players were only young and we were welcomed home by a million people on the streets of Yaounde.”
Though he has had the satisfaction of winning the biggest prize in African football and successfully negotiating a number of World Cup qualifying campaigns, the 66-year-old Le Roy is hungry for more and has no intention of calling it a day just yet.
“Do you think I’m an old man?” he said when the question of retiring was put to him. “I can still do a lot of things. Claude Le Roy has never heard of the word ‘retirement’. I’ve had quite a few offers lately and I’ll make a decision on where I’m going next in the very near future. I’ve got the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in my sights and Russia 2018.”
Asked as to why he always dresses in black, he came up with this amusing reply: “I started putting weight on a few years ago and I wear black clothes to cover it up. It’s as simple as that. I think I wear them pretty well, don’t I?”
The inimitable Le Roy will no doubt be hoping to bring his “weight” to bear against Congo DR on Saturday and steer Congo into the last four of the competition for the first time in their history.