With a brand new 18,000-seater stadium - already too small to cope with their growing army of fans - an academy systematically nurturing talented youngsters, as well as owning their own private jet, Tout Puissant Mazembe (“All-Powerful Crows”) is sending out crystal clear signals – it’s determined to remain a permanent force in the continental and world club game.
The team from Lubumbashi, located in DR Congo’s Katanga Province, made history as the first club from outside Europe and South America to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Championship in 2010. They stunned pundits as they beat Brazil’s Internationale of Porto Alegre in the semi-final.
But Mazembe has had to make a long, hard climb back to the top of the game’s totem pole.
Originally formed in 1939 in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi’s old colonial name), by Catholic monks that ran the Saint Boniface Institute, Mazembe established itself as one of the aristocrats on the continental football scene in the 1960s.
Winning the African Cup of Champions Clubs back-to-back between 1967 and 1968 – the only club in the continent to have done so during this format - they also reached the final of the competition in the two years that followed.
But a lack of focus saw Mazembe lose its direction for over a decade, before it rediscovered, very briefly, its winning elixir and won a third African trophy, the African Cup Winners’ Cup, in 1980.
That victory was, however, a false dawn of revival, as it slipped into oblivion once again, until Moise Katumbi Chapwe, the incumbent governor of Katanga Province, who made his fortune in mining, took over the club.
“I have been a passionate supporter of Mazembe since I was nine years old, when my elder brother was the chairman of the club,” he tells African Football, during an exclusive interview in his Lubumbashi mansion.
“I used to sneak out of the house and climb the top of the tree, at the old Stadium, to watch Mazembe, whenever my elder brother banned me from attending matches, because I was naughty.”
“I was initially asked to become the club’s chairman in 1991, while I was living in Zambia. But I refused.”
“When I came back to Lubumbashi, in 1993, I watched a game between Mazembe and [St Eloi] Lupopo and I wondered where all the passion and support for Mazembe had gone, as there were just 3,000 people at the old stadium.”
“I was originally invited to become the vice-chairman, which I accepted to become, with a promise to bring funds in to help the club. But the condition was that a holding company had to be formed, so that Mazembe could be run like a proper business.”
“Unfortunately, my proposal was rejected, so I refused to join the board at that time, even though I remained a passionate supporter of the club.”
“But in 1997, we had a club election and I became president of Mazembe, even though I never filled the nomination form. It was done on my behalf.”
With the club rebuilding its structures from scratch, with much needed financial and organisational support, Mazembe returned to winning ways at the turn of the 21st century, clinching its first national championship in 13 years.
It was the first of six Congolese championships Mazembe has won, under Katumbi’s leadership, over the last twelve seasons (2000, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011).
But Mazembe’s return to the top of the African summit, in 2009, when they won their first CAF Champions League title, was the real watershed.
They defeated Nigeria’s Heartland FC in the two-legged final, after five previous attempts in the continent’s top club competition.
And by winning the Champions League for a second successive time in 2010, with an emphatic 6-1 aggregate over Tunisia’s Esperance, Mazembe became only one of two clubs in the continent (Enyimba of Nigeria being the other, in 2003 and 2004) to successfully defend the CAF Champions League title.
That victory gave Mazembe the platform, as Africa’s representative, to blaze the trail for the continent at the 2010 FIFA Club World Championship in Abu Dhabi, where they gallantly lost to Inter Milan in the final.
“The example of Mazembe has shown that it is possible for an African club to do well on the global stage,” FIFA President Joseph Blatter told African Football in a recent interview.
Besides beating Internationale, Mazembe also vanquished Mexico’s Pachuca, the CONCACAF Champions, along the way.
“Mr Katumbi does not want the 2010 performance to be a one-off. Hea wants to have continued success,” said Jerome Champagne, FIFA’s former Director for International Affairs, who now acts as an adviser to the club.
“He has a vision to make the club stronger and more sustainable. He wants the club to have agreements with other clubs in Europe and South America, in order to benefit from the experience of these clubs.”
“Our vision is to have greater worldwide exposure.”
But the quest of ‘Les Corbeaux’ (the Ravens), as Mazembe is fondly known – (even though the crocodile is an integral part of their club crest), for an unprecedented African Champions league treble in 2011 was cut short by a controversial CAF ban.
Simba SC of Tanzania’s protest over the eligibility of defender Janvier Besala Bokungu, who returned to Mazembe from Tunisia’s Esperance, was upheld by CAF, which led to Mazembe’s expulsion from the competition.
Reminiscing, Katumbi admitted that the ban brought him very close to quitting the game completely.
“We had carried out the transfer of Bokungu according to laid down FIFA regulations, so the ban was a very painful one. I was so upset at the time, that I felt like giving up football.”
But Katumbi says they have weathered the storm and are determined to build a club that will set the benchmark in the African game.
“The objective is for Mazembe to become the Barcelona or Real Madrid of Africa,” he boldly says.
“We want our club to have the financial ability to keep its players, so they do not have to run to clubs outside of Africa. We can only develop African club football by keeping our best talent within.”
A restructuring of the club’s management will also involve the recruitment of an experienced General Manager, whom Katumbi says will take full charge of the club. But he admits taking a backseat will be very tough indeed.
“I know I will have big fights with him at the beginning, because I need to be sure he is doing a good job.”
“It is like handing your daughter to a man. You want to be sure she is being properly taken care of first,” he laughs.
With an annual club spend of USD $15 million, largely coming out of Katumbi’s pocket, Mazembe’s biggest challenge is creating a revenue stream guaranteeing self-sustenance.
“I compare football to agriculture. In agriculture, when you start a farm, you lose money at first and you continue to invest, in the expectation that you’ll have good crops…”
“Our hope is that in five years, maximum, the club will no longer have to depend on me.”
“Considering the investment that we are making in our young players, as we develop the right commercial structures, we shall get to the point where the club’s future will be secure.”