- Congo DR boast Cedric Bakambu, Yannick Bolasie and Arthur Masuaku
- They are above Côte d’Ivoire on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking
- Christian Nsengi-Biembe discusses his side’s Qatar 2022 qualification hopes
Africa’s first participation in a FIFA World Cup™ came at Italy 1934, with Egypt its pathfinders. Almost four decades would pass before the ‘Mother Continent’ enjoyed its second appearance, courtesy of Morocco at Mexico 1970. It was the turn of Congo DR – then known as Zaire – to play their first, and to date only, World Cup at Germany 1974.
The Leopards have had some impressive performances in recent years, with a competitive side featuring the likes of Cedric Bakambu and Yannick Bolasie. Indeed, they came close to returning to the global stage at Russia 2018, only to be denied by Tunisia. The task of realising that dream of a second World Cup rests with coach Christian Nsengi-Biembe, who, as a native Congolese, knows its football and history as well as anyone.
“Every time we start a qualification campaign, we aim to reach the World Cup,” he told FIFA.com. “That was the case before me, and it’ll be the same after me. We’re ranked among the top ten teams in Africa, so it’s only natural that we aspire to World Cup participation. Given our current squad, Qatar 2022 must be our goal.”
The Qatar 2022 draw put Congo DR in Group J alongside Benin, Madagascar and Tanzania. On paper, the Leopards could be considered favourites, but both Madagascar and Benin greatly impressed at last year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), where they reached the quarter-finals.
“We have some information and data on our opponents, particularly Benin and Tanzania,” said Nsengi-Biembe. “As for Madagascar, I assessed them at the AFCON finals when I was our technical manager.
“We’ll need to be at our best against our opponents, as they’ll be motivated by the fact that we’re among the top ten in Africa. There are no easy opponents anymore. We need to work hard to finish top of the group.”
Given that it was Madagascar who eliminated Congo DR from the AFCON 2019, will his side be out for revenge when they cross swords again in the qualifiers?
“We’ll respect all our opponents,” said Nsengi-Biembe. “It not won’t be a revenge exercise. Revenge isn’t what will motivate my team.
“What I remember about that game is that it ended 2-2 and we lost in a penalty shootout. We learned a lot more about them in that game, and they’re certainly a strong and disciplined side.”
Matchday 4 of CAF’s Group A qualifiers for Russia 2018 still haunts the people of Congo DR. A home win over Tunisia in Kinshasa would have put them level on points with their opponents and given them a real chance of qualifying with just two fixtures remaining. The Leopards looked on course to do just that after Chancel Mbemba and Paul Jose Mpoku put them two goals ahead, only for late replies from Ben Amor and Anice Badri to dash Congolese hopes.
“We’ll keep the Tunisia experience in mind as we work to qualify this time,” Nsengi-Biembe said. “In 2018, Tunisia qualified, but Congo DR were also a strong team that deserved to go through. These qualifiers will be a battle, but one we’ll be in high spirits to boost our qualification chances.”
Nsengi-Biembe is not a coach who likes to rely on big-name individuals, preferring instead to have a strong unit: “When we talk about stars, these are individuals affiliated with their own clubs. But I see the national team players as my sons.
“Throughout my coaching career, I’ve always used the phrase ‘It’s better to have 11 excellent players in the team than 11 stars. We might have a very good player who just doesn’t fit into my line-up.
“The best example is Herve Renard, who won the AFCON without stars. A star must be in the service of the squad, not the other way around.
“There’s also Djamel Belmadi, whom I see as an example to follow and whom I came up against when we played Algeria in a friendly. I’d followed his coaching career, philosophy and modus operandi with Algeria, and I liked all of it.
“That’s what we need in order to qualify: a strong group and a technical team of the required standard. We need everyone to have confidence in the team.
“I’ll try to build a strong group so that every player will be at the best standard for their position. I’ll also focus on the psychological, physical and mental aspects.
“I believe that each of the top 15 ranked African teams in the FIFA Ranking have a chance to reach Qatar 2022, although some of these teams are stronger candidates than others. Most certainly I hope that we can be among those who make it to the finals.”