Three defeats, 14 goals conceded and no goals scored: that is Congo DR’s unenviable record at FIFA World Cup™ finals. Under their previous name of Zaire, they suffered reverses at the hands of Brazil, Scotland and Yugoslavia at West Germany 1974 to crash out at the group stage. Yet despite those disappointing results, Congolese supporters still view those matches as the most important in the African nation’s history.
In fact, this team has been growing in stature for quite some time now. Between 2010 and 2016, they moved up from 139th to 49th position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The arrival of Florent Ibenge at the helm in 2014 helped to maintain this upward curve.
The longest-serving national coach in Africa, Ibenge, who also coaches AS Vita, has brought stability to a side reeling from the departure of legendary ex-skipper Robert Kidiaba. After an up-and-down relationship with the Congolese national team, Dieumerci Mbokani has come back into the fold alongside Zakuani, who inherited the captain’s armband.
“Florent Ibenge has been able to bring together and unite players of different styles and ages,” explained Zakuani. “He’s played a key role in our strong results. He’s very close to his players; he follows what we’re up to and stays in constant contact. Personally speaking, I was really touched when he made me captain. I’m proud but I also realise it’s a big responsibility. But I’ve got a lot of experience of being captain at club level, and a lot of experience with the national team, which I joined in 2005.”
Third tier to Russia 2018?
Indeed, the Kinshasa native has now been involved in the national set-up for 11 years. A veritable cornerstone of the Leopards’ defence, he experienced the disappointment of the qualifying campaigns for the 2008, 2010 and 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and for South Africa 2010, and then the joy of returning to a major tournament in 2013, which was followed by a remarkable third-place finish two years later at Equatorial Guinea 2015.
“I’ve had a taste of just about everything with the national team,” he said. “From Shabani Nonda and Yannick Bolasie to Lomana Lua-Lua and Dieumerci M’Bokani, I’ve also played alongside some top-quality players. But I’m convinced that the most gifted generation of players is the current one! As well as talent, they have enthusiasm and respect, and there’s a friendly atmosphere within the squad.”
The Congolese squad features players from a wide variety of clubs: while star forwards Bolasie and Cedric Bakumbu regularly pull on the jerseys of Everton and Villarreal respectively, skipper Zakuani turns out for Northampton Town in the English third tier. “I’m not worried about that aspect, and I don’t think my team-mates see it as a problem,” said the former Leyton Orient centre-half. “I’m just so happy to be with the national team and I’m enjoying the adventure we’re on at the moment.”
The 30-year-old, who arrived in England at the age of nine, after his father had found a job as a translator in London, added: “Overall, I don’t have a sense of frustration. I was able to get a good idea of what it was like to play for a Premier League club when I was at Fulham, between 2006 and 2009, even though I experienced most of it from the bench.
“Later, I had some fantastic moments with Stoke City, helping them get promotion to the top flight in 2008. I’m actually fully satisfied with my club career, and as for my international career, I obviously feel fulfilled by that too. It’s a huge honour to pull on my country’s jersey. And when we win while I’ve got the captain’s armband on, there’s even more pride and pleasure.”
That precise situation transpired in October, when Congo DR beat Libya 4-0 in their opening match of the third round of African qualifying for Russia 2018. “We couldn’t have wished for a better start,” said the imposing defender. “It was a real confidence boost to win at home by such a large margin and go top of the group – it was ideal! Of course, that match was just one step, and our upcoming match in Guinea is the next one. But one thing is certain: we’re heading in the right direction."