A provincial club from conflict-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo is set to make history as the first African team to reach the finals of the FIFA Club World Cup.
Having scored a surprise 2-0 victory against Brazil’s Sport Club Internacional in the semi-final, Congo’s TP Mazembe Englebert faces European champion Inter Milan in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
The winners of the event, contested by champions of continental soccer confederations, receive $5m. Victory would also feed the continent’s dream of one day winning the World Cup.
The team from Lubumbashi, capital of Congo’s southern copperbelt, have come a long way since it was started by Benedictine monks in 1939.
Moise Katumbi, the 45-year-old multimillionaire governor of Katanga – Congo’s richest territory that will this year produce more than half the world’s cobalt and 5 per cent of its copper – has been chairman of the club since he was 17.
“We have talent and I always said we would get to the final, but now we are preparing very carefully because Inter is a very strong team,” said Mr Katumbi speaking from Abu Dhabi, convinced that “all the continent and all the Arab people are behind us”.
Among the country’s most popular politicians and regularly touted as a presidential contender – an accolade Mr Katumbi eschews – he has long supported the team. Mr Katumbi pays for bumper bonuses running to more than $10,000 in a country where more than 80 per cent survive on less than $2 a day. International coaches from Senegal, France and previously Italy have all been recruited as part of the club’s $10m budget.
Mr Katumbi, who says he will step down from politics next year to concentrate on mining, believes there is plenty of money to be made from football too. His billionaire elder brother Raphael, now based in Congo’s former colonial power Belgium, was chairman before him. Mr Katumbi has a 60 per cent share in the club. Local ticket sales are worth $150,000 a game and he is working on a $33m stadium funded by banks, prize money and South African retail chains.
“If they told me to choose between the governorship or to be chairman of my team, I’ll go to my team,” he said.
Katumbi knows his team, known as The Crows, boosts his popularity and underpins the hopes of his province, his poverty-struck country and the pride of a continent.
“Thank u 4 the joy uv brought 2 africa,they thot we wud neva do it,” posted Lindiwe Kachikoti on Katumbi’s facebook profile, alongside Serge Ilunga Baloji’s entreaty: “Why not you for the presidency in 2011?”
Local fans watched Mazembe beat Tunisia’s Esperance to win the African Champions League last month in makeshift bars in the pouring rain. They will prepare for celebration and lock-down, whether they win or lose.
Victory would mark a fillip for the country in which an estimated 5m people died in a 1998-2003 war that drew neighbouring countries into the conflict.
“People are saying Congo today is a country of war, that this conflict is because of the wealth of Congo – its copper, cobalt and diamonds, they think only of mining,” said Katumbi. ”But peace is coming back slowly ... and there is a lot more to discover here, like sport.”