Is Ibenge the best football coach in Africa?
Harare- Frenchman Herve Renard might have taken his second African Cup of Nations (Afcon) gold medal in three years but a rising star, who only left Equatorial Guinea with a bronze, is positioning himself to becoming the best football coach on the continent.
Some seasoned African football analysts even believe that he has already earned his stripes as the best coach on the continent despite only picking up a bronze at the 2015 Nations Cup finals.
Congolese gaffer, Florent Ibenge, has forced the football world to take notice of his coaching talents after a very successful adventure on two fronts – in the 2014 CAF Champions League and in the 2015 Nations Cup – winning medals in both tournaments.
This time, last year, Ibenge was largely unknown in African football as he started a journey, with the Kinshasa-based AS Vita, in the preliminary rounds of the CAF Champions League, as the Democratic Republic of Congo club launched another fresh campaign to return to the Promised Land they reached in 1973.
Back then, during a golden period in Congolese football, when iconic stars like Ndaye Mulamba inspired AS Vita and the national team to glory, the Kinshasa-based side transformed themselves into champions of Africa in 1973 after beating Asante Kotoko of Ghana 5-4 on aggregate in the final.
Mulamba then went on to power his country to success, in the 1974 Nations Cup finals, scoring nine goals in Egypt, which remains a record, including the two that finally defeated a plucky Zambia in a replay of the final.
The legendary Congolese forward also played a big role, in guiding his country to the 1974 World Cup, coming as a substitute in the decisive qualifier against Morocco, and scoring the opening goal in a 3-0 win, which gave them a ticket to Germany for a dance with the best football nations on the globe.
Ibenge was just a six-year-old, back then, but in the past year, the man who was a boy when his country was dominating football, both on the club and national front, has led from the front as he guides both his team, and his country, back into the club of football heavyweights in Africa.
He was just one of three local coaches at the 2015 Nations Cup finals. Ibenge surpassed expectations as he guided the DRC into third place in the tournament, losing only one of the six matches that they played, the semi-final showdown against eventual winners Cote d’Ivoire.
It was the best performance by the Congolese side since they finished third at the 1998 Nations Cup finals in Burkina Faso after beating the hosts in a penalty shootout to win the third place play-off, something which Ibenge and his men matched in Equatorial Guinea by grabbing bronze after edging the hosts in another penalty shootout.
There was the added bonus, in Equatorial Guinea, of winning the derby against Congo Brazzaville, in the quarter-finals, with Ibenge’s men storming back from two goals down to thrash their neighbours 4-2 in one of the matches of the tournament.
Ibenge believes he is fighting a cause for the local coaches and he is charming a lot of them.
“He has done well for all of us, he is ensuring that we get the respect that we deserve and it felt good to see one of us doing so well at Afcon because, for a long time, we have been an underrated crop of professionals,” Zimbabwean football legend, Moses Chunga, who also a championship-winning coach in this country, said.
“We have always argued that we are also as good as the foreign coaches but we don’t get that respect because there is this syndrome that only those from Europe or other continents are better and can handle the national teams in a better way.
“The point is that a local coach usually doesn’t get as much support, from the FAs (football associations), as the foreign coach and that is why some fail and we have to start having confidence in our men because they know the game better.
“We just hope that there will be many like Ibenge in the next Afcon finals and it’s good that South Africa are sticking with their local coach, Shakes Mashaba, who has done wonders in reviving Bafana Bafana and, before we forget, the last Afcon before the one in Equatorial Guinea, was won by a local coach, Steve Keshi (Nigeria), a good colleague of mine.
“I feel Ibenge is the best coach because he has been successful on both fronts, the Champions League and Afcon, and that is not easy and I don’t think Renard, even though he has my respect, will be as successful if he was given the assignment to coach a team like AS Vita in the Champions League.”
Ibenge inspired AS Vita to the final of the 2014 CAF Champions League where they only lost the gold medal on away goals and, in 28 international games in charge of both his club and country, in the past year, he has won 13, drawn eight and lost only seven.
He famously led the DR Congo to a stunning 4-3 win over Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan in the qualifiers for the 2015 Nations Cup finals.
“He has been very impressive and has set the standard for all of us and that is why I believe that he is the best coach that we have in Africa today,” said Chunga.