TP Mazembe’s empire crumbling – Congolese giants lose their way in African football
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – About a decade after billionaire businessman Moise Katumbi transformed TP Mazembe into one of the most powerful football clubs in Africa, winning the CAF Champions League three times and reaching the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, there are fears the empire which the Congolese politician built is starting to break apart.
With their wealthy benefactor in self-imposed exile, as he globetrots around the world after a spectacular fallout with the political leaders in Kinshasa, the five-time African champions are facing a tough time as they battle to find a way back into the limelight after two bleak years in which they have lost their way in the game.
Others say the club’s recent struggles mirror those of their owner, who, after daring to challenge for the Presidency of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has found himself facing a barrage of hurdles and charges from the political leadership in his home country, including a three-year jail term slapped in absentia, for allegedly selling a property illegally.
The wealthy businessman has been away from the DRC since leaving the country in May last year, a day after the authorities there issued an arrest warrant on him in a case which he claimed is politically motivated, with Katumbi first saying he was going to South Africa to seek medical treatment.
Since then, he has been around the world, appeared on leading European television news programmes battling for his cause and was in Zambia to watch part of the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup finals, which the hosts won.
He was scheduled to travel to Harare at the weekend, to watch his beloved TP Mazembe in a Champions League match for the first time in close to a year but, despite assurances from the officials that he would make the trip, including a statement on the club’s website, Katumbi remained holed up in South Africa.
But even in his absence, his presence in Harare was clearly visible.
TP Mazembe have become more than a football club and transformed into a protest vehicle, with its supporters and some of the players using its matches to promote the political interests of their leader, and on Sunday, some of the club’s fans wore T-shirts with images of Katumbi and the words “President of the DRC” emblazoned in big letters.
But, just like Katumbi’s political fortunes, these are tough times for TP Mazembe.
The Congolese giants crashed out of the CAF Champions League, a tournament they have prioritised in the past decade, at the first hurdle after falling at the hands of Zimbabwe champions CAPS United in a shock defeat that has stunned the continent.
TP Mazembe were first held to a 1-1 draw in their backyard in Lubumbashi by CAPS United in the first leg before the two clubs battled to a goalless draw at the National Sports Stadium in Harare which meant that the Congolese giants crashed out of the first round on the away goals rule.
Given that CAPS United were only playing in the CAF Champions League, for the first time since 2006, the Harare giants were not expected to beat Mazembe who were crowned champions of Africa in 2009, 2010 and 2015 to add to the two titles they won in 1968 and 1969 during a golden period for the club when they reached the final four years in a row.
But this Mazembe side does not look as powerful as the ones that started this new cycle of dominance in 2009 when the Congolese giants won the CAF Champions League on the away goals rule after beating Heartland of Nigeria in the final.
The following year, TP Mazembe showed their class as they destroyed Tunisian champions Esperance 6-1 on aggregate in the final before, a few weeks later, they made history by becoming the first African club to reach the final of the FIFA Club World finals only to be outclassed 0-3 by Italian giants Inter Milan.
But TP Mazembe have now twice failed to qualify for the group stages of the CAF Champions League in two successive years.
“CAPS United will beat Mazembe. The new coach is proving to be a problem and once Mazembe lose, he will be fired,” a respected African football analyst had told The Southern Times in the countdown to Sunday’s match in Harare.
“Mazembe loaned out four players to European clubs. Roger Assale is at Young Boys in Swaziland, Bope, Bolingi and Luyindama are at Standard Liege in Belgium.
“Mazembe goes through a rebuilding exercise every three to four years. After the 2009/2010 CAF victories, they built a team around the Zambian AFCON winning players like Kalaba, Sunzu and Sinkala.
“They climaxed in 2015 and 2016, they are now starting another rebuilding exercise targeting 2020 and 2021, even though they still want results.
“Moise will be furious and I fear for the coach because he left the likes of Sinkala and a few others behind in Lubumbashi,” said the analyst. For a team used to having their way, and dominating the continent in the past few years, TP Mazembe’s recent bleak spell has shaken the establishment and while sacking coaches is the way to respond to the crisis, there are others who feel that this giant – which is more than a football club to its fans and leaders who have political interests – could be in the eye of a huge storm.