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The best Red Devil ever

Francois M’Pele is the best player ever to come out of the Republic of Congo. Appointed director of sport at the Congolese football association last year, the 61-year-old is now trying to help football to get back onto its feet in his home country.

Unite, Travail, Progres (Unity, Labour, Progress) is the national motto of the Republic of Congo. Values also espoused by M’Pele. Yet it was mainly talent, astuteness and pace that made him what he once was, and still is – the best player of central African country of 3.9 million people has ever produced.
The man who celebrates his 61st birthday on 13 July began his impressive career on the dusty streets of the capital, Brazzaville. When he signed for his first club at the age of 14, he was still playing barefoot. “We didn’t have enough money for boots at home,” says M’Pele, the son of police officer who fathered 16 children.
M’Pele was rich in football talent, though, talent that took him to several clubs within his home country before he made the switch to French first-division outfit Ajaccio on the island of Corsica in 1969. When he moved on four years later, Paris St. Germain were happy to pay a one million francs transfer fee for him, an astronomically high sum of money at the time.
By then, he had long since gained a reputation as one of the top players in the French league – and he was a national hero at home. In 1972 the Republic of Congo won the continent’s most prestigious competition, the African Cup of Nations. M’Pele was the victorious side’s best player and scored in the 3-2 win over Mali in the final. When the national heroes returned home from Cameroon, one million people are said to have been waiting for them at the airport in Brazzaville. The victory celebrations went on for days. “Our win had an absolutely amazing effect on the country. The whole of Congo was transformed into a giant overflowed with joy,” explains M’Pele.

Bakery destroyed
Thirty-five years have passed since those crazy days. In 1982, having made 416 appearances and scored 161 goals in the French top flight, M’Pele returned home to the anonymity of Congolese football, once considered the best in Africa. Today, the senior national team languishes in 79th place in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.
The Red Devils have disappointed their fans in recent years, as have Congolese club sides in the various continental competitions. “Between 1970 and 1980 our football did not advance at all,” says M’Pele, who runs a bakery in the coastal city of Pointe Noire and has never worked as a coach. He used to own a bakery in Brazzaville, too, but it was destroyed in the civil war in 1977, a loss for which he received no compensation. “I lost 200 million at the time,” he recalls. Two hundred million CFA francs is around 300,000 euros today.
M’Pele can be seen at the bakery every day. But since last year, kneading dough, applying icing, serving customers and dealing with staff contracts are not the only jobs he does. As director of sport at the Congolese football association, he is now battling the malaise of the domestic game. When asked about the situation in what is the country’s most popular sport by far, the gray-haired football legend has few positive words to say. The standard of play in the league, which is made up of 14 clubs from Pointe Noire and 16 from Brazzaville, is pitiful, he says. The coaching is poor, and the fact that not even the leading clubs are obliged to run a youth section is appalling.

Work, order, discipline
M’Pele wants Congolese coaches to receive better instruction and do part of their training with European clubs. He also aims to improve the country’s scouting and youth development network. He is fully aware how difficult this will be, especially as Congo’s footballers are without exception amateurs and the association and the clubs are dogged by financial problems.
“We simply have to improve,” says M’Pele. “Cameroon, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have managed to, after all. Hard work, application, discipline and order are essential requirements if we are to raise our standards so that we can one day dream of qualifying for the World Cup finals.”
The journey ahead is a long and arduous one. Nevertheless, Congo still possess a wealth of footballing potential, as their under-20 side demonstrated by winning the African Youth Championship on home soil at the beginning of the year. The whole of Congo celebrated this unexpected triumph. “It reminded me of the time when I was still playing,” says M’Pele. And his eyes light up.