Congo clubs built for continental play
If you're searching for a safe bet, put something on a North African side securing a spot in the semifinals of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League. A team from that region has appeared in the final four in 16 of the 17 years since the restructuring of the event's format in 1997. This year, Tunisia's CS Sfaxien and Algeria's ES Setif are the representatives from the Maghreb, and if you'd had money on that, you would have gotten some return.
What has been less predictable is who joins the region in the final four. Teams have come from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe and, as is the case this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The variety bodes well for the health of the continent's game and the opportunities it can provide for players.
TP Mazembe have been down this road before and won the title twice in succession in 2009 and 2010. As the most moneyed club on the continent, they are expected to register results like this. Another CAF Champions League semifinal spot for Mazembe, after they failed to make the group stages last year, will serve as further confirmation that the club and their investor are doing the right things.
The club is bankrolled by Moise Katumbi, the governor of the Katanga Province in which the club is located. Katumbi's money comes from his involvement in the copper-mining industry and has funded an academy, run by Regis Laguesse, who was also part of the famed institution in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which produced the likes of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and Gervinho.
In a World Soccer report published in February, Mazembe were said to have a wage bill of $5 million a year, which allows them to hold on to players who may otherwise seek riches in Europe. Zambia's Rainford Kalaba is an example. After stints at Nice and Braga, he accepted an offer at TP Mazembe, where his value was underlined once again when he scored the opening goal in their 3-1 win over Al-Hilal.
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Although Mazembe can count on Katumbi for cash, they are also expected to produce some of it themselves, which is why strong performances in the CAF Champions League are a must. The competition carries prize money of $1.5 million. For a team to even be in contention to win that cash, they must play at least seven home matches, which is also where Mazembe make their money. The club generates about $200,000 per match when they fill their stadium, which usually happens during a Champions League fixture.
TP Mazembe's formula is an enviable one: They have enough money to pay for the right players to challenge in events like the Champions League, and they make money by doing well in that competition. Their bank balance allows them to attract both the best homegrown players and talents from places like Zambia, Ghana, Mali and Tanzania -- and to provide them with the chance to shine on the continental stage.
AS Vita, the other Congolese club in the semis, have not quite enjoyed the same golden growth but have also had the means to field foreign players, albeit of a slightly lesser stature than their Mazembe counterparts. One of their most recent acquisitions is Uganda's teenage prodigy, Yunus Sentamu. The striker, who turns 20 on Wednesday, was acquired for an undisclosed amount in April after he scored all three Ugandan goals in the African Nations Championship earlier in the year. He netted the winner for Vita against Zamalek, which booked Vita a first appearance in the CAF Champions League semis since 1981, when they finished as finalists.
That the overseas-based players are putting in telling performances is testament to one of the things the CAF Champions League is all about. It's a platform for potential and promise to blossom, and if more clubs can provide that, more players from the continent will benefit.