x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A seismic shift in continents

The underdogs from Africa read the script that said Inter Milan v Internacional final and promptly ripped it up to write a new one.

Muteba Kidiaba, the TP Mazembe goalkeeper, doing his trademark celebration after his side qualified for the Club World Cup final.
Muteba Kidiaba, the TP Mazembe goalkeeper, doing his trademark celebration after his side qualified for the Club World Cup final.

As the noted South American philosopher Shakira might say: This time for Africa. Oh, you bet it is.

This time for smarts, ambition and verve, so bring all the way to Saturday night that unforeseeable dance where an imaginative Congolese goalkeeper bounces along the grass using only his rear end and his heels. Bring clear to the final that scheme in which the TP Mazembe Englebert club from Lubumbashi lines up along the goal line on their knees before each half, arms linked.

More than that, though, bring along to the Club World Cup final the thoughtful Congolese side, that has yet to concede in the competition, in wreaking a little tectonic shift in the football continents.

On a Friday night and then a Tuesday night in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, they have left perfectly capable North and South American strewn about with blank expressions after final whistles.

First they left the Pachuca players from North America goalless and flustered and staring into space last Friday night, looking so motionless that you thought some might just go ahead and sleep the night on the pitch or in Al Jazira's hotel.

Then last stirring night, TP Mazembe left a Brazilian side defeated for the first time in any Club World Cup, and a South American side defeated for the first time before a final, left its players pulling their shirts over their faces or hands-on-hips befuddled before exiting abruptly.

Beyond the pitch, TP Mazembe left a giant blob of red-clad and din-producing Internacional fans in gathering silence and even in tears as clearly they had not come across an ocean and some continents dreaming of the third-place game. And in their majority midst, they left the droplet of white-clad Mazembe fans dancing and swaying, arms around each other's shoulders.

"During two hours, things change," Amia Ekanga, the TP Mazembe captain, said.

Do they ever. The final everyone spends the week envisioning - Inter Milan v Internacional - gets gutted and blunted out of shape, only in some way it also improves, incorporating the freshness of an African team that came to this event majoring in savvy, determination, patience and the representation of a continent. Where Inter Milan v Internacional would have stoked a certain curiosity, now TP Mazembe in the final fuels a different kind of curiosity.

How will they respond on an even bigger stage? Well, for two Club World Cup matches thus far, they have steeled themselves during the moments when their mission seemed uphill, and have havestruck cleverly in the moments when the match asked for such.

Their play has reflected almost uncannily the craving of Lamine N'Diaye, the Senegalese manager, who preached improvement over the appearance last year during which TP Mazembe mismanaged leads in each of their two losses. Carefully, he thought his way to the moment that came last night, and you could read his resolve in his jubilation upon the 53rd-minute goal from Mulota Kabangu that changed the tenor of the match.

"It's the second time they are in this competition, and they really deserve it," said Celso Roth, the Internacional coach. "They won the first game. They won the second game. They defended very well. They took the chances that they had. And football is like that. If you dominate a game and you don't make goals, so Mazembe, congratulations for that."

Yet through translation, the verb "dominate" seemed at least somewhat overwrought. Certainly Internacional proved the more picturesque side with their gifted, organised possessions, but all the forethought and teamwork seemed to churn out fewer real chances than they should have, due mostly to TP Mazembe's waves of energy and want.

Rafael Sobis's header in the 65th minute looked hopeful but cruised over the bar. Other times, when events seemed primed to unleash the captivating loudness of the Brazilian fans, the goalkeeper Kidiaba intervened.

"Don't forget that the goalkeeper was excellent as well. He exerted an excellent work and he was like a magician," said N'Diaye.

His magic extended to that original dance, something you almost never see in the 21st century. The team's togetherness went clear to the post-win conga line they formed in front of their supporters, their steps flawlessly calibrated.

So bring all of that to the final, and bring the peerless brass band in the stands, and bring the captain Ekanga's sentiment when he mentioned "the African continent which we represent today," and even that bit when he said, "from this time you journalists will start respecting us."

All of the above would flatter any final.