World Cup 2022: DR Congo 'have come a long way since Zaire in 1974'

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Zaire (now known as DR Congo) at the 1974 World Cup finalsIn 1974 Zaire became the first team from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for the World Cup finals

Former DR Congo captain Gabriel Zakuani says his country has improved its football considerably since their last and only World Cup appearance, as Zaire, in 1974.

The current incarnation of the Leopards host Morocco in the first leg of their World Cup play-off on Friday in Kinshasa before the return leg in Casablanca next Tuesday.

In 1974, Zaire - which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo - made history when becoming the first country from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for a World Cup finals.

Unfortunately, the then African champions' moment of history is more remembered for a 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia and the unusual antics of Mwepu Ilunga who raced out of the defensive wall at a Brazil free-kick and kicked the ball down the pitch.

"I think the country has come a long way," Zakuani, who retired from international duty in 2018, told BBC Sport Africa.

"We're looking to get with the times now. The players are in Europe, they're involved in big games and it's just a different feel now.

"Now we've got players challenging in the top divisions around the world, so it's not the same as just the local players who were playing their hearts out.

"There are now players that can actually compete at that kind of level."

The closest DR Congo has come to reaching a World Cup since 1974 was in qualifying for the last tournament in Russia, where the two-time African champions finished just a point behind Tunisia.

That failure was compounded by also missing out on this year's delayed 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but Zakuani believes that is not a problem.

"Obviously everyone's devastated - we all want to be at the Africa Cup of Nations," he explained.

"It could be a blessing in disguise though as we can have more hunger now, because of the disappointment, and can use that - watching other nations compete at the Nations Cup - as fuel now to get into the World Cup.

"We got criticised a lot in back in DR Congo. To get into the World Cup, it doesn't come much bigger."

Cuper influence

Argentine football coach Hector CuperArgentine football coach Hector Cuper has had stints in charge of Italian side Inter Milan as well as the Egyptian national team

Zakuani also feels that appointing Argentine Hector Cuper in May 2021 to replace local coach Florent Ibenge is helping the team move forward to be able to challenge at the highest level.

"We had to go down the route of Florent because we needed to merge the local players with the European players and those playing all across the world," he explained.

"I think Florent did enough in terms of when we came third in the African Cup of Nations in 2015.

"We needed to go down another route. We've tried that before with Claude Le Roy, who's a well known coach around the world, and in African football, especially.

"With Hector, we've got new ideas even if he's struggling with the language at the moment, but he's got a translator to get his ideas across.

"The training is more technical and it's a matter of just taking the extra little steps. We've got the will to win, it's just the tactical side of things - that little bit more knowhow, how to see out games and get those results and that's what he's brought into the team.

"Everyone's keen to learn from him, because we've obviously got good players, but we just always struggle to get those important, vital results to get us into these major tournaments."

Home advantage

DR Congo football fansThe Leopards will enjoy vociferous support at home in Kinshasa when they host Morocco

Another factor that Zakuani believes can help the Leopards gain an advantage on Friday is the home crowd at the Stade de Martyrs in the capital Kinshasa.

DR Congo have not played at the stadium, which also hosted the legendary 'Rumble in the Jungle boxing bout when Muhammad Ali stunned George Foreman in 1974, since 2019.

"[The atmosphere] is indescribable - it's a festival feeling," he added.

"Everyone's been waiting for this day for a very, very long time. Everything's put to one side. All the political issues, anything like that, this time everyone comes as one.

"It'll be literally the noisiest place you can find on the planet that day. It will be really hard for the Moroccans to really concentrate. Our supporters will make it very intimidating for them and I'm pretty sure the Moroccans will be happy with a draw."

Zakuani is under no illusion about the size of the task facing the Leopards.

"It is a very strong team. You know what you get from the Moroccans. They are always organised, they know their style of play," he pointed out.

"When they need to manage the game, they manage it very well. So it's always going to be very, very tough. I just feel the squad that we have, we've got the legs on them. The first game is very important to set our stall out, because you don't want to leave the result relying on having to win in Morocco.

"Speaking to the boys, everyone is so prepared for this, and I feel very pumped for this. And I'll be heading every ball as that's flying across that pitch."

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