For those without a detailed geographical knowledge of Africa, it would be easy to confuse the Republic of the Congo (Congo) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo DR). Indeed, while they share a similar name, language, history, location and traditions, the two African nations are separated by the Congo River and the footballing rivalry between the pair has always been fierce, particularly in recent years.
Yet Congo’s remarkable run to the last eight of the AFCON under veteran coach Claude Le Roy was not the end of the story, with Les Diables Rouges also making it through to the final round (Round 3) of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, after Le Roy guided them to home and away wins over Ethiopia in Round 2. The experienced Frenchman then left his post to take over the Togo role, with Congo putting their faith in his compatriot Pierre Lechantre as they bid to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history.
Just like all the nations in Round 3, where 20 teams are divided into five groups of four with only group winners qualifying for Russia 2018, Congo know the identity of the obstacles in their path. With his squad drawn in a tough but well-balanced group alongside Ghana, Egypt and Uganda, coach Lechantre gave his view on the make-up of the section.
“With the four teams being more or less at the same level, anything could happen in our group,” he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I believe that despite a difference of around 30-60 per cent in terms of [individual] ability, as teams they’re all closely matched and we all have a chance of reaching Russia 2018.”
At first glance, casual observers would likely back Ghana and then, to a lesser degree, Egypt, as the strongest candidates for the World Cup berth. The history of football, however, is rife with surprises and nobody – whatever their pedigree – is guaranteed to make it through qualifying before the matches have been played.
“As everyone knows, there are no longer ‘small’ teams in Africa,” said Lechantre. “African football has developed a great deal over the past few years. Perhaps Congo and Uganda look the weakest on paper, but Egypt are no longer as strong as they used to be years back, while Ghana are going through a rebuilding process. So, it’s my belief that the teams in this group are very closely matched, with each of them having a chance to win the group.”
Strong start the target
Congo are fortunate enough to kick off their campaign with a home game, against Egypt in October, and taking all three points in the capital Brazzaville would no doubt lift the team’s spirits for the start of their qualifying journey. “The first and second rounds of games will be crucial for any team seeking to make it to Russia,” said Lechantre.
“So if we can pick up four points against Egypt and Uganda, we will open up a window of opportunity for ourselves. We would then look to continue to perform solidly and compete for the group’s one ticket for Russia. In World Cup qualifying in Africa, a powerful start is vital.”
My experience in Africa will undoubtedly be beneficial to Congo.
Pierre Lechantre, Congo coach.
Though Congo are not among those African teams that boast big-name performers and star players, the secret behind their success is team spirit and an overwhelming desire to represent their nation at continental and international competitions. “Regarding the players I call up, I do not differentiate between a domestic-based player or a foreign-based one,” said Lechantre, on his selection criteria and the qualities of his team.
“I give a chance to the ones who play with the most strength and enthusiasm and that give everything they’ve got out on the pitch. We do not have big stars like our rivals in the group, but we will rely on our collective spirit and tactical discipline. By focusing on such things, we can achieve our objectives.”
Though their World Cup qualifying hopes are still alive, Congo will not participate in the next AFCON, scheduled to take place in Gabon in early 2017. This opportunity was snatched away from them by Guinea-Bissau, who won Group E in one of the biggest surprises of the AFCON 2017 qualifiers so far.
The Congolese therefore can fully focus on their bid to reach Russia 2018. “After we were eliminated in AFCON qualifying, we are now able to play without any pressure or an inferiority complex, trying to build a powerful team for the future with a view to upcoming competitions,” said Lechantre. “We can now focus totally on World Cup qualification matches.”
Luck a major factor
Lechantre certainly knows his way around African football, having guided Cameroon to triumph at AFCON 2000 – sinking tournament co-hosts Nigeria on penalties in the final in Lagos. He also coached Mali and a number of the continent’s heavyweight clubs, such as MAS Fez (Morocco), Club Africain, CS Sfaxien (both Tunisia), and Libya’s Al Ittihad prior to taking the Congo reins. “My experience in Africa will undoubtedly be beneficial to Congo,” said the coach. “That said, I believe the success of a coach depends about 30 per cent on coaching ability and 70 per cent on luck.”
Come the end of the interview, the French strategist was happy to take a look at the other groups in Round 3 of African qualifying, giving his verdict on who might reach Russia 2018. On the group that brings together Tunisia, Libya, Congo DR and Guinea, Lechantre said “the Congolese will have a better chance to reach the finals if they can get their internal affairs in order and solve the problems the team is suffering from”.
As for the Algeria, Zambia, Cameroon and Nigeria section, his view was that “Nigeria could be in for a surprise”, while for a fiercely tough group containing Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Mali and Gabon, he highlighted that “Mali are strong and are being handled wonderfully by Alain Giresse”. Finally, for the last group containing Senegal, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde Islands, Lechantre backed Senegal to succeed: “They really have a fantastic generation of players: the names speak for themselves.”