Wednesday, January 25, 2006
FEATURE-Soccer-Nations-LeRoy's passion for African game endures
By Mark Gleeson
CAIRO, Jan 26 - Claude LeRoy sinks into the sofa
in his hotel lobby, his eyes twinkling with enthusiasm as he
begins a discourse on African soccer, its highlights and foibles
in front of an eager audience.
After more than two decades, the Frenchman is one of the
elder statesmen of the African game.
LeRoy first took charge of a side at the tournament 20 years
ago when Cameroon finished runners-up the last time the event
was held in Egypt.
He won the title in 1988 with the Indomitable Lions and took
Senegal to the semi-finals in 1990 and the quarter-finals two
Now at the helm of the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is
his fifth tournament in charge of a team, a record for a coach
at the Nations Cup.
"I'm happy about that. I like these kind of statistics. They
are very interesting," LeRoy said.
"After 20 years I can still say soccer in Africa is my
passion. I have not changed. I have seen an exponential growth
in its development and a dramatic change from 20 years ago when
I first came to the cup in Egypt. We had just two stadiums then,
no TV coverage. Things were a lot different then."
LeRoy says he thinks the 2006 tournament will be won "by the
team with the best goalkeeper".
"The keeper that can neutralise the super offensive talents
will win it for his team. There are so many good strikers here
that the goalkeepers are key."
It is the cue for a story on his own goalkeeping woes and a
tale from his vast repertoire of African football tales which
make LeRoy a sought-after raconteur.
"I am the only coach in the world who has picked his side at
the airport," he suddenly pronounces.
"When we travelled to South Africa (for a World Cup
qualifier in Durban last October) I had a lot of problems with
my squad. Some players did not get tickets sent to them in
Europe, others did not have visas in time and I arrived with 13
"There was a big contingent of Congolese fans waiting to
meet us at the airport and I was talking about my problem when
they told me there were two good players in the crowd who had
also come to say hello."
One was the teenaged striker Blaise Mbele, a leading scorer
this season in the South African premier league, and the other
goalkeeper Francis Chansa, both from leading club Orlando
"I told them both to join us and while we flew to Durban,
they drove their cars down from Johannesburg (a five-hour
journey). They both looked quite good in training and I chose
them for the bench. Mbele even came on for a few minutes near
the end of the match."
Both also made the 23-man squad for the Nations Cup finals
in Egypt. "I bet no other coach has been able to do that," LeRoy
Then there is the case of Grimsby Town midfielder Jean-Paul
Kamudimba, who played at the Nations Cup in Tunisia in 2004 but
then drifted into obscurity because of a case of mistaken
"I learned that a player called Kamudimba Kalala had scored
the winning goal in a cup game against Tottenham Hotspur. I
thought that sounds like a Congolese name so I phoned the club
and they confirmed it.
"Of course, I knew Jean-Paul Kamudimba when he played at
Nice but the English are using his name the wrong way round, so
I had no idea. He's in my squad too."
The Congolese side are famed for their administrative and
LeRoy expresses his weariness over constant battles to
instil a sense of professionalism into the squad but also seems
to draw a perverse reserve of energy from the struggle to
overcome the endless obstacles.
"I am going to take a grand holiday after this and then
choose a big team to coach. Since we beat Togo in our first game
here I have had so many offers, it has been crazy. Such a good
feeling for me."