DR Congo’s Florent Ibenge is the only local coach remaining at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. He has proven than when the right coaches are given a chance, they can achieve wonders - with a little bit of pizzazz and just a pinch of luck. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Of the three African coaches who began at the Africa Cup of Nations, Florent Ibenge is the only one remaining. Although he grew up in France, Ibenge is the closest to local you will find in the coaching ranks of the semi-finalists at this year’s tournament. Yet he has arguably had the toughest run with his charges to get to this point.
After the departure of Claude LeRoy last year, Ibenge took up the post prior to the qualifying campaign. He had just three weeks to get to grips with the team and had to combine his role as national team coach with that of his club coaching role at AS Vita.
In August last year, it would have been unthinkable that the Democratic Republic of Congo would be in the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, but here they are. They will play Ivory Coast on Wednesday – a match which has all the makings of being one to remember. Ivory Coast have been the nearly men for so long, and during last year’s qualifiers, DRC beat them 3-4 in Abidjan. The Elephants seemed to have hit form at precisely the right time, but DRC, too, have been steadily improving.
Despite not winning a single match in the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, DRC qualified for the quarterfinals. That set up a match against neighbouring Congo and, as far as derbies go, that was as big as it would get in this year’s tournament.
It was a match underscored by politics that were impossible to ignore on such a great stage.
“It is always a very difficult match when it comes around, but there has always been a lot of friendship between us. We do not play each other often [the last time was a friendly in 2007] but our club teams often meet in the African Champions League and all is fine. We go there, they come to us, and everyone is amicable. But this time, with the national teams playing and a bit of politics going on too, it is a bit more complicated,” Ibenge said in an interview with ESPNFC before the match.
Despite political distractions aplenty, though, Ibenge’s men put all of that aside and came from behind to beat their neighbours 4-2, scoring four goals in just 26 minutes to seal their place in the next round. The coach put the performance down to belief.
“We never lost hope and confidence that we could still win the match. We changed tactics and formation after we went 2-0 down because I noticed the Congo defence was getting tired. It was very emotional to play against a country like Congo but we wanted to go through because it is not every time you get such an opportunity,” he said after the match.
In that match, he also came face to face with a man who helped build the foundations from which the current DRC side is benefiting. Claude LeRoy, a legendary African coach, is a good friend of Ibenge and the two call each other often, but there is no bad blood between them, even after the loss.
Instead, for Ibenge, this is another personal milestone and one that shows that trust in local coaches can pay its dividends. The club he coaches, AS Vita, has also benefited from his nous. He led them to 2014 African Champions League qualification and eventually to runners-up as his team lost on away goals to Algerian side ES Sétif.
The win over their neighbours has led them to their semi-final place at the tournament since 1998. It’s not quite a return to glory yet, but there are certainly sparks of light starting to shine through. Many will say that their toughest challenge has come and gone. Playing against their neighbours, in a match that carries as many distractions off the field as it does on it, is a far greater task than trying to triumph over the tournament’s perennial underachievers.
But in the greater scheme of things, the contest is an important one for Ibenge as a local coach. Just three of the coaches at this year’s tournament were locals, and now only Ibenge remains. In football, one bad result can see the end of a coach, and if that were the case for Ibenge, it would be a travesty. He will be pleased, then, that his old friend LeRoy has called for local coaches to be given more credit.
“There has to be respect for the local coaches. In some clubs in Africa, you could have as many as six, seven changes of the coach in a year.
“With me, you cannot interfere in my job, even to suggest the name of one player. The only person who decides is me. I take the final decision. But the local coaches come under huge pressure. The president could call them when they are on the bench and say he wants a player changed. That’s unacceptable,” lamented the 66-year-old LeRoy.
Ibenge can only hope that when the powers that be decide his future, they will take one of their former servants’ words to heart. DM
Photo: Democratic Republic of Congo’s head coach Florent Ibenge looks on during their quarter-final soccer match of the 2015 African Cup of Nations against Congo in Bata January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh