In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), many had fallen out of the habit of using expatriate coaches.
Since the Leopards’ double triumph at the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) in 1968 and 1974, only local coaches had managed to produce results, winning bronze medals in 1998 and 2015.
The days of expatriate technicians (most of them French), affectionately referred to by some as “white wizards”, were almost over.
But at the Afcon in Côte d’Ivoire, the Leopards’ French coach Sébastien Desabre has worked wonders.
The Congolese team has qualified for the semi-finals and face hosts Cote d’Ivoire on Wednesday.
The home team, which qualified in extremis thanks to Morocco’s victory over Zambia in the first round of Afcon, has had to summon up all its energy since its incredible 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea in order to step forward and force fate when the scenario seemed to be opening the door for its opponents to qualify.
All of which is to say that the meeting between the Leopards and the Elephants will be a tough one.
In 2015, when the Leopards qualified for the semi-finals, it was the Elephants who stopped them in their tracks by beating them 3-1. That year, the team-mates of Yaya Toure and Gervais Kouassi (Gervinho) won the cup.
In the DRC, fans are now dreaming of revenge, while in Côte d’Ivoire, some fans are already promising to beat the Congolese once again. However, between 2015 and 2024, the Leopards seem to have undergone a moult, a fundamental change that makes them a new team with a different mentality.
“The team that takes on the Leopards will have their work cut out,” warned Claude Le Roy, former coach of the DRC, Cameroon and many other teams. In the wake of the Leopards’ quarter-final victory over Guinea’s Syli National, a number of sports analysts were full of praise for the Congolese giants.
“They have acquired a great deal of maturity,” noted Claude Le Roy.
The Leopards are now showing the kind of mental strength that has enabled them to come back from three goals down in three different matches at this Afcon.
They even seem to be regaining their bite and a certain pugnacity.
Along with Nigeria, the DRC is the team that has yet to be beaten in the ongoing Afcon, out of the four still in the running.
Sébastien Desabre is at the helm of this profound transformation. The Leopards French coach, who took over the national team in June 2022, has managed to impose rigour on the team. However, the Congo team has come a long way.
They failed to qualify for the last Afcon which was played in Cameroon in 2021.
And they got off to a very poor start in the qualifiers for the Côte d’Ivoire 2023 Afcon, losing their first two matches against Gabon (0-1) in Kinshasa and Sudan, and then against Sudan (1-2).
These two defeats in a row sounded the death knell for Hector Cuper at the helm of the Congolese national team. The Argentinian, then coach of the DRC, was sacked in 2022.
Under Desabre, Congo have turned things around.
The first to recognise this profound change are the players themselves.
“The coach is asking us to remain calm and in control, not to panic because a match lasts 90 minutes,” said defender Chancel Mbemba after the win over the Guineans.
“Coach (Desabre) has put in place a work habit where everyone is giving it their all,” added mediator Samuel Moutousamy. Even President Félix Tshisekedi is admiring. He told Sébastien Desabre: “You are the best coach in the world.”
‘Afcon of work’
The French-born coach on the other hand is taking things in his stride, never triumphing. While everyone likes to describe the current Affcon as the “Afcon of surprises”, Desabre calls it the “Afcon of work”.
When he joined the Leopards in August 2022, Desabre had annulled his contract with French club of Niort.
Desabre is particularly fond of new challenges. He was already familiar with Africa, having previously coached the Uganda national team.
Among the clubs in Africa Desabre has coached are Wydad of Casablanca in Morocco, the Tunisian team Espérance de Tunis, Coton Sport of Garoua in Cameroon and Asec Mimosa of Côte d’Ivoire. A wealth of experience that will be an asset for Desabre.
With the Leopards, this coach has renewed the squad.
He has brought in players with dual nationality, in a country where nationality is unique and exclusive. Players born in France, Belgium, Switzerland and England.
These athletes wore the jerseys of France, Belgium and England when they were young, but chose to defend the colours of their native country. They swear they want to give it their all. “The coach asks us to go the extra mile and work our socks off,” they admit.
This is the new mentality instilled by the French coach. He has not hesitated to dismiss some of the Leopards’ former leaders, such as defender Marcel Tisserand, who was captain of the national team when Desabre arrived in the DRC.
The coach wanted new blood and new energy. In his squad of 24 players, only three have ever played in an Afcon tournament.