Congo club on the brink of world fame

Tomorrow is a hugely momentous day for the Congo. TP Mazembe, a soccer team from Lubumbashi, will face off with Inter Milan in Abu Dhabi for the title of best soccer club in the world. It is hard to understate the importance of this event, not just because this is the first time any African team has been in the Club World Finals. After years of repression by their own and foreign governments, the Congolese finally have a chance to be proud of a homegrown, talented and successful institution. Congrats to the guys for getting this far.

From a political point of view, this will be important, as well. TP Mazembe’s chairman is Moise Katumbi, the governor of Katanga and reportedly one of the wealthiest men in the Congo. Katumbi is a controversial figure – he is hailed by many Congolese (and the movie “Katanga Business” as one of the few leaders who has been efficient and responsible), but he also is alleged to have been involved in corrupt dealings in Zambia, whose government at one point wanted to arrest him (they later dropped the charges). According to an article in the Financial Times (by Katrina Manson, who just moved to the FT from Reuters/Kinshasa), he offers up to $10,000 in bonuses to his players and helps the club have a $10 million budget.

Katumbi has been widely mentioned as an eventual rival to Joseph Kabila. He has waved aside these rumors, saying that he will retire in 2011 and return to business. Nonetheless, in a country where most of the chairmen of the top clubs have been involved in politics, a victory by TP Mazembe would boost his reputation even more.

As a reminder, the governor of Kinshasa, André Kimbuta, was the head of AS Vita Club, a Kinshasa rival of TP Mazembe, as was a 2006 presidential hopeful, Diomi Ndongala. General Gabriel Amisi, the embattled head of the army now accused of corrupt dealings in gold, built up Maniema Union from scratch, making it into one of the best clubs in the country. Claude Nyamugabo, the current Sports Minister, used to run OC Bukavu Dawa.