Thursday December 16th, 2010

This was supposed to be the year of Africa in world soccer, and in one big way it has been: South Africa was a terrific host of the World Cup, the first one held on African soil. Truth be told, though, the actual performance of the six African teams was a disaster: All but Ghana flamed out in the group stage, and the Ghanaians botched a last-second penalty kick against Uruguay that would have made them the first African team ever to reach the World Cup semifinals.

One big lesson of World Cup 2010 was simple enough: African teams, which appeared 20 years ago to be on an inevitable rise to World Cup glory, had regressed on the field.

But now comes a surprise, one of the best out-of-nowhere stories we've seen in some time: TP Mazembe, the African club champion from Congo-Kinshasa, which has become the first team outside of Europe or South America to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup. On Saturday (noon ET, Fox Soccer Channel), the Cinderella outfit from inland Lubumbashi, Congo, will take on Inter Milan for the right to call itself the best club team in the world.

It's a shame the Club World Cup doesn't have more juice as a competition, or Mazembe's accomplishment would be even bigger news worldwide. Give this tournament some time, though. It only became an annual event in 2005, and Mazembe's run is exactly what it needs, an unpredictable storyline showing that these seven-team tournaments don't have to be two-team affairs.

How has Mazembe done it? The recipe on the field has been similar in both of its victories, a 1-0 triumph over Mexico's Pachuca in the quarterfinals and a 2-0 stunner over Brazil's Internacional in the semis. In both games Mazembe's goals have come against the run of play, but that isn't to say that it's playing defensive-minded soccer. Its players (in particular Mulota Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyitoka) have shown impressive poise in the box, and the defense has buckled down, pulling off clean sheets against the North and South American champions.

Indeed, defense is the big difference between Mazembe's 2010 Club World Cup performance and last year's, which featured unsightly losses to South Korea's Pohang Steelers and New Zealand's Auckland City. (Mazembe gave up five goals in the two defeats.) I love it when teams prove stereotypes wrong: Mazembe only started playing better defense this year after it dropped its Italian coach (Diego Garzito) and hired an African, Lamine Ndiaye of Senegal. So much for the old saws that Italians are defensive experts and Africans lack defensive discipline.

When Mazembe's back line has been pierced, goalkeeper Muteba Kibiaka has been a fortress, making numerous acrobatic saves and unveiling one of the best soccer celebrations we've seen in some time: A sort of reverse-Centipede dance on his rear end whenever the Crows score a goal.

TP Mazembe -- the TP stands for "Tout Puissant," or "All Powerful" in French -- also defies the old expectation that the best African club teams are located in the northern part of the continent. From 1981 to 2008, teams from North Africa dominated the African Champions League, winning 22 of the 28 crowns. But Mazembe thrashed Tunisia's Esperance by a 6-1 aggregate in this year's African final to become the continent's only repeat Champions League winner on more than one occasion (It also won in 1967 and '68 when the club was known as TP Englebert.)

Mazembe isn't located in one of Africa's financial or political hubs like Johannesburg or Cairo -- Lubumbashi, after all, is located in the southeastern corner of Congo-Kinshasa, near the Zambian border -- but it does have some money. The man most responsible for Mazembe's recent success is club president Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, a wealthy businessman and ally of Congo president Joseph Kabila who doubles as the governor of Katanga Province. (The province happens to be blessed with significant mineral wealth.)

Chapwe has pumped money into his team, making it richer than any other in the DRC. But let's keep things in perspective: Mazembe's team salary budget (said to be around $10 million) is still a tiny fraction of Inter Milan's. To use another example, Mazembe is outspent by MLS's New York Red Bulls, and it would be stunning if New York won the CONCACAF Champions League, much less found itself in the Club World Cup final.

Still, Chapwe's money has allowed Mazembe to hold onto its players a bit longer before they move to Europe, and it has enabled the team to build some depth. How much depth? Well, consider that Mazembe has reached the Club World Cup final without the services of two star players: Congolese international striker Trésor Mputu, the team captain, and Guy Lusadisu, who in September were suspended by FIFA for all competitions for one year (Mputu) and 11 months (Lusadisu) for their roles in an on-field melee at a tournament in Rwanda.

Even without those players, Mazembe is tantalizingly close to making soccer history on Saturday. I see no reason why the Crows won't be able to challenge Inter Milan, a team that looked good beating South Korea's Seongnam 3-0 on Wednesday but has struggled in Italy of late. If Mazembe can keep managing games the way it has against Pachuca and Internacional, this Congolese Cinderella will have a chance.

At the very least, with the African champion on one side and arguably Africa's best player (Samuel Eto'o) on the other, I can confidently say this: African soccer isn't in the same dire straits that we suspected just a few months ago.

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