x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

TP Mazembe: the $10 milllion men from Congo

To understand why TP Mazembe are the "all powerful" masters of African football and return challengers for the Club World Cup, it is instructive to examine the influence of the club president.

The black and white colours of TP Mazembe were a popular sight in Abu Dhabi last year. 
Louafi Larbi / Reuters
The black and white colours of TP Mazembe were a popular sight in Abu Dhabi last year. Louafi Larbi / Reuters

To understand why TP Mazembe are the "all powerful" masters of African football and return challengers for the Club World Cup, it is instructive to examine the influence of the club president.

Moise Katumbi has led the side for 13 years, and it is his strategising and spending - and perhaps even his half-time exhortations - that have propelled Mazembe to consecutive Champions League titles, duplicating their 1967/68 achievement, back when Katumbi, now 45, was a young fan.

Mazembe hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a sprawling, war-torn, shockingly impoverished (but resource-rich) nation in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. The country is considered the poorest on the planet, aside perhaps from Zimbabwe, with an annual per-capita income of around Dh730, according to the World Bank.

Enter, in 1964, into this country of desperate poverty one Moise Soriano, son of a Sephardic Jew from Greece and a Congolese mother. During the long reign of the infamous Mobutu Sese Seko, who strove to eliminate all Western influences in the country, including names, young Moise said he took the surname of one of his mother's progenitors.

The hagiography that has grown up around Katumbi, who in 2007 was elected governor of the Congolese province of Katanga, has him entering the business world at the age of 13, when he sold a basket of fish for US$40 (Dh 147), and continues with his making a fortune in the mineral-rich south east of the country.

A man who has described himself as "football mad", Katumbi took control of Mazembe in 1997 and steered them back to dominance, in part because of his commitment to spend on his players, to the tune of $10 million (Dh36.7m) this year.

That sum is a figure of mind-boggling proportions in the Congo. He told cafonline.com that he once spent 90 per cent of his time on football, but now that number is more like 35 per cent because of his commitments to governance.

The website cafonline.com last year reported Katumbi as saying: "Bit by bit, we are making our march towards the land of the greats." He added: "Our income is meagre, but for the image of the club, for the image of the country and to give an opportunity for our youth, we decided to stay on because it is not the politician who is speaking, but a man with unrivalled passion for the game."

The "TP" in Mazembe's name stands for "Tout Puissant", the French for "all powerful", and the club have been on their own continent for two years. Katumbi has hoarded Congolese talent and augmented it with several players from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, while raising the wage bill, he told cafonline.com, from $3.6m in 2008 to $5m last year and now $10m.

The team that will face Mexicans Pachuca in the capital on December 10 are back in Abu Dhabi despite losing their captain and striker Tresor Mputu, honoured as the 2009 Best African Player on the Continent, to a one-year Fifa ban for trying to attack a referee during a tournament in Rwanda in April.

Mputu reportedly was being paid $10,000 per week, the highest salary among footballers in Africa.

The side bear a strong resemblance to the team that lost 2-1 to the Pohang Steelers and, shockingly, 3-2 to Auckland City during the 2009 Club World Cup. Eight of the first XI from Mazembe's match with Esperance on November 13 were in the team when they kicked off against the Steelers a year ago.

Among them were two of the three men who scored in Abu Dhabi last December, the defender Kiritsho Kasusula and the midfielder Bedi Mbenza, as well as the forward Alain Kaluyituka, a finalist for the 2010 Best African Player on the Continent award. The prolific Zambian forward Given Singuluma has done much to mitigate the loss of Mputu and the midfielder Guy Lusadisu, also serving a Fifa ban from the incident in Rwanda.

Lamine Ndiaye, the Senegalese coach appointed in October, has retained the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, the Frenchman Diego Garzito, who led Mazembe in Abu Dhabi last year.

Katumbi, the owner and governor, has been known to intervene personally at key moments; he entered the changing room to give his squad a tongue-lashing after a sloppy first half during the 2010 Champions League.

Frederic Kitingie, the Mazembe team manager, said during a visit to Abu Dhabi last month that Katembi will to travel to the UAE.

Said Kitingie: "Why would he not?" Said a reporter: "Perhaps because he has a province to govern?"

Said Kitingie: "He will be here."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

Information

Home: Lubumbashi, DR Congo
How qualified: Won African Champions League
Founded: 1939
Coach: Lamine Ndiaye, Senegal
Domestic championships: 10
Key victory: Trounced Esperance of Tunisia 5-0 in Lumbabashi en route to a 6-1 win on aggregate in ACL final