Can Nouzaret take DR Congo to the next level?

Those of you who read the blog with something approaching regularity might remember that I wrote a piece several weeks ago focussing on football in the Democratic Republic of Congo, assessing both the state of the national side and the expectations currently carried on the shoulders of TP Mazembe – the country’s most successful club – in the CAF Champions League.

Since that post was written the Fédération Congolaise de Football-Association (FECOFA) have moved to appoint a new national team manager after the position was left vacant following the departure of Patrice Neveu back in April. Neveu’s successor, Robert Nouzaret, is another French manager with an excellent knowledge of the world game as a result of a career that has seen him take up various coaching roles across the globe.

An ex-Lyon and Bordeaux midfielder, the 66 year-old Nouzaret first rose to prominence as a coach during three separate spells with Montpellier between 1976 and 1996, also spending time in charge of various other French clubs including Lyon and Toulouse during what has been a relatively itinerant career. Although his CV at club level (including a brief sojourn to Algeria with MC Alger) is quietly impressive, it is for Nouzaret’s work on the international stage with Guinea and the Ivory Coast for which he has become best known.

First appointed by Les Elephants in 1996, the Marseille-born manager successfully guided a limited Ivorian side through qualification for the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations and took his team through to the last eight of the competition before being eliminated on penalties at the hands of Egypt. Despite having overseen what was viewed as a moderately auspicious campaign, Nouzaret resigned from his position after the tournament and reverted to club management in his native France.

However, just four years later he returned to the post in the wake of his dismissal by Bastia and was given a brief to make the Ivory Coast realistic contenders for the 2004 Cup of Nations and then go on to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

But the Frenchman’s second experience with Les Elephants was not a particularly positive one, the lowest ebb being reached when Nouzaret having to flee the country in February 2003 during the anti-French riots which saw large numbers of French ex-pat families subjected to widespread violence and abuse. On his return to West Africa Nouzaret struggled to get the best out of a talented young squad, embarrassingly failing to qualify for CAN 2004 and finding himself duly dismissed as a result.

The nomadic manager’s only other international role came in 2006 when he became the head coach of the Guinean national team where he enjoyed a relatively fruitful time with one of the emerging forces of African football. At CAN 2008 in Ghana, the Frenchman oversaw Guinea’s unexpected march to the quarter-finals where they were eventually knocked-out, somewhat ironically, by a particularly strong Ivorian side. Just two years later, however, Nouzaret was sacked in the midst of an underwhelming World Cup qualifying campaign and replaced by former Liverpool player Titi Camara.

His successes in Africa may have been counterbalanced by a fair number of disappointments over the years, but FECOFA clearly believe that Nouzaret has the skills necessary to take their steadily improving national team on to the next level. After winning the 2009 African Championship of Nations with an exciting squad constituted entirely of players based in the country’s blossoming domestic league, DR Congo’s football administrators have raised their ambitions and are now set on the goal of reaching the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament which would be the country’s first appearance since 2006.

Indeed, FECOFA have not been naive enough to enter into a long and binding contract with their new manager, Nouzaret having been given a two-year deal with a clause in place that would immediately terminate the agreement should The Leopards not fulfil the heady expectations of the governing body.

Clearly, Nouzaret does not have an easy job on his hands despite a recent upturn in the fortunes of his new team, there is still much work to be done, while the ever-increasing pressure from FECOFA will likely prove something of a hindrance to him.

That said, the Frenchman will have some genuine talent at his fingertips as he goes about shaping his team – Shabani Nonda, Youssuf Mulumbu, Lomano Lua Lua and Hérita Ilunga all players capable of seeing DR Congo re-establish itself amongst the heavyweights of African football over the coming decade. Whether or not Nouzaret is the man to lead the regeneration remains to be seen, but the potential for significant and rapid improvement is most certainly there.