Ever since enjoying a golden period of success during the late sixties Congolese football has struggled to become an established and consistent force on the international stage, the national side only ever having qualified for one World Cup – a humiliating experience in the country’s former guise as Zaire in 1974 – and producing little in the way of top-class talent.

Shabani Nonda

There has been the odd player that has forged a successful career in Europe, Shabani Nonda, Lomana Lua Lua and Herita Ilunga being the most recent examples, but football in the Democratic Republic of Congo has endured a general decline over the last twenty to thirty years.

However, over the last eighteen months the fortunes of Congolese football have rapidly and dramatically improved. Under the stewardship of their since-departed French coach Patrice Neveu, the national side were the surprise winners of the 2009 African Championship of Nations (a similar tournament to the Africa Cup of Nations but open only to players based in the domestic leagues of their home country), just the second international title in the DR Congo’s history. Then, just eight months later, TP Mazembe, by far and away the country’s most prestigious club, claimed it’s third CAF Champions League title, its first since 1968.

TP Mazembe’s triumph and subsequent appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi late last year put Congolese football firmly back on the map and has subsequently generated a great optimism regarding both the prospects of the national side and the wider development of the game in central Africa. An attractive attacking team built around the talented strike pairing of Dioko Kaluyituka and Tresor Mputu, TP Mazembe – who kick-off their Champions League campaign in Harare this afternoon – have recently returned from a training camp in Zambia ahead of the start of the 2010 Champions League and are optimistic about their chances of defending their title.

Diego Garzitto, the Lubumbashi team’s French manager, has recently been outwardly very confident when discussing his team’s prospects, clearly having great faith in his relatively young squad to deliver yet more silverware.

“TP Mazembe is a big and strong team and we are going to make sure that we win the Champions League once more. The outing to Zambia has been a success and the teams we have played against on the tour competitive. For me, I can say the team had a good outing.”

Can TP Mazembe defend their Champions League title?

Having been drawn in Group A, arguably the more straightforward of the two pools, alongside Dynamos of Zimbabwe, Setif of Algeria and Tunisian champions Esperance, TP Mazembe are widely expected to comfortably progress through to the semi-finals. Should Garzitto’s side reach the last four they will likely face a show-down with either Egypt’s Al-Ahly or Heartland of Nigeria, the team they defeated on away goals in last year’s two-legged final.

However, whether or not Les Corbeaux (The Crows) do win a second consecutive Champions League title is almost beside the point. The most significant thing that this team has achieved is to reignite a passion for football in a country that, until very recently, had struggled to build on past successes and achieve the kind of results that a place with such a large population (approximately 71m) and rich footballing heritage should be achieving.

After a period of underachievement, self-doubt and sometimes sheer bad luck, the beautiful game is alive and well once more in the DR Congo and, with TP Mazembe flying the flag across Africa, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Congolese football go from strength to strength in the years to come.