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Wednesday, January 25, 2006
FEATURE-Soccer-Nations-LeRoy's passion for African game endures

Reuters

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 years later.

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.

AIRPORT SELECTION

"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 players.

"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 Pirates.

"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 said.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

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 identity.

"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 financial problems.

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."