Lion-hearted Leroy leads the Simbas

“I don’t want to come across as a demagogue,” interrupts Claude Leroy, instantly proving he’s not your everyday football manager, “but can you hear that sound in the background? It’s wonderful! You hardly ever hear that in Asia and, sadly, it’s becoming increasingly rare in Europe.” The sound, or rather the sounds, are the unmistakable cheers, scuffs and whacks of youngsters playing football.

“That’s coming from right outside my house!” continues Leroy, who’s no youngster but, at 57, still gushes enthusiasm for a game that has propelled him on a unique odyssey around the footballing globe. “That’s what I love about the Congo. I can go for a walk anywhere in Kinshasa and I’ll see people of all ages playing football in the street.
They’re mad about it.”

Yes, the Congolese are mad about football. That’s easy to forget when the little you hear about the place concerns the horror of a war that has killed an estimated four million people over the past decade. Yet, when known as Zaire, the country won the African Nations Cup twice and, in 1974, became the first sub-Saharan African nation to qualify for the World Cup. Now the “Simbas” want to go to Germany 2006 — and Frenchman Leroy was personally chosen by the country’s president to guide them there. As a match made not quite in heaven but in a bright, bewitching and slightly baffling part of Earth, it’s certainly suitable.

“Claude Leroy is brilliantly aware of the fact that communication and information are not the same thing,” wrote French magazine L’Humanité before the 1998 World Cup, when Leroy was on his second stint in charge of Cameroon. “He knows that eloquence is the ideal G-string for people who want to hide embarrassing things about themselves.”

That may sound sinister, but all it actually means is that he’s a charismatic character who’s never shy to share his views on all kinds of topics (“I’m left-wing and that puts me at odds with 95% of people in the French footballing establishment”) and who, with an almost infectious blend of charm and bluster, milks credit for his many successes but tends to gloss over failures. A well-travelled Harry Redknapp you might say, with strong political views and a thesaurus. French football fans first became aware of Leroy when Canal+ astutely hired him as (it turned out) a very popular pundit in the late 1990s, but fans from outside Europe were familiar with him long before that.

A journeyman player with a string of mediocre French clubs, Leroy’s management career began amid absolutely no fanfare at Amiens, continued unremarkably in Grenoble and then started to get weird. In 1985, he became the latest obscure European coach to be given the chance to make a name for himself in Africa when he was appointed manager of Cameroon.

“I think you can either be what I call a ‘Club Med manager’ whereby you fly in three days before the match and leave again the day after,” he says, “or you can really invest yourself in the country, live with the people you’re supposed to be working with it, get a feel for what they’re about and try to genuinely build something.”

In Cameroon he chose the latter approach and quickly won admiration both for building teams around locally based players and for having the wherewithal to stand up to interfering politicians and officials. Soon, Leroy was proclaimed king.

In 1986, he took the Indomitable Lions to the African Nations Cup final, losing on penalties to hosts Egypt, and two years later he brought them one step further: Cameroon were crowned African champions for the first time in their history.

Then came a four-year spell in charge of Senegal, where he ultimately failed to achieve the objective of winning the 1992 African Nations Cup on home turf. Since then he has managed Al-Shabah in the United Arab Emirates, the Malaysian national team, Cameroon again, Strasbourg and Shanghai Cosco in the Chinese second division. He’s been a Fifa instructor and a Milan “observer”, and was also director of football at Paris Saint-German and, for a brief spell last season, at Cambridge United (“I was just helping out a friend [then-manager Hervé Renard], but we saved that club. With just eight games to go they were 23rd and we took them to 13th”).

And so, last May, he was invited by President Joseph Kabila to take charge of DR Congo, who had been pitted into a World Cup qualifying group featuring regional powerhouses South Africa and Ghana. He has since become something of a pest to many in the country’s administration, hassling them for training bibs, cones and, on the eve of his first competitive match in charge — away to Uganda — confirmation of the team’s flight details. For many this would be a stress-bomb, but Leroy, who chuckles as he says it took him 10 years to get his win bonus from Cameroon, has virtually made it a lifestyle. “It’s hard trying to wrangle money from all the various government departments, as I have to do here, but you’ll get nothing by being timid,” he says.

For his first three months in charge of DR Congo he worked without a contract as he haggled for the best possible salary (eventually settling for a rumoured £400 000 a year), all of which prompts a rather obvious question as to why he would take on such hassles when, he claims, he had offers to work in cushier surrounds for much more money. “Because of the potential here,” he chirps. “This country has 60-million people who are passionate about football. That means they could be bigger than Cameroon or Senegal and, like Nigeria, could become a real and regular power in world football.”

At the moment, that potential is being sapped by the ongoing violence and deprivations. “It’s heart-breaking,” he says, “the majority here survive on less than a dollar day. One dollar! Physiologically, the Congolese are a robust, tough people, but many have been weakened by the war. Disease and malnutrition have taken a grim toll. Under-16 teams now look like under-14 teams and under-14 teams look like under-12s.

“There’s a whole structure to be put in place, everything from medical and dietary regimes, to courses for local coaches and organisational facilities. This is not about Claude Leroy — football is peculiar and I could lose my job at any moment: what’s important is that whatever I start here continues after I’m gone.”

Leroy insists his words are more conviction than spin, but either way he sounds every bit like a one-man NGO banging the drum for sustainable development, particularly when he adds that imposing preconceived ideas is often counter-productive. And in fairness, you don’t get to globetrot quite as much as he has without being adaptable.

You also have to recognise incompatibilities. Leroy walked out of Shanghai Cosco due to the frustration of working through an interpreter, the lure of a lucrative return to punditry, and the eagerness of others to deploy unpalatable methods. “Footballers have to be disciplined, yes, but they also have to play with joy,” he says.

Joy is all most Congolese play for. In the midst of conflict, a new domestic league was launched in 1993, and Leroy has drawn much of his squad from its big four clubs, all of whom are sponsored by a local brewery which provides the players with the only payment they get: a $20 bonus if they win. Having been introduced to the international stage, the likes of Daring Club Motema Pembe midfielder Mbuta Mbala have caught the attention of foreign clubs, but many foreign managers would gladly avoid watching domestic games and instead concentrate on players based overseas.

Of course, Leroy knows local amateurs alone won’t get Congo to the World Cup and so has also scoured the world for other talent with Congolese roots. His ambition is to go into the last match — away to South Africa — with their destiny still in their own hands.

Since his contract expires in June 2006, chances are that if he doesn’t make it to next year’s German jamboree, this missionary-cum-mercenary will be looking to pitch his colourful tent elsewhere. England appeals to him. That would be quite a change, going from managing a country that the United Nations ranks 168th out of 177 in terms of human development to the opulence of English football, where even reserves can be millionaires. “Just because players are dripping in gold doesn’t mean you have to be lax with them,” he says. “Quite the contrary, in fact.”

“Besides,” he adds, “I’m used to dealing with extremes.” You can’t argue with that. — Â

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