Interview: Gabriel Zakuani
The Peterborough and DR Congo full-back discusses how he found out they had qualified for AFCON, and life under Florent Ibenge
January 2015. By Salim Masoud Said
Hi Gabriel, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. What did you make of the qualifying campaign in general?
Firstly, our group was very tough. We had probably the toughest group, with Cameroon and Ivory Coast in the same group. We knew we had a battle on our hands. We managed to overcome Sierra Leone twice and then the big one was when we beat Ivory Coast in Abidjan.
That was the big one. I think if you do that then you definitely deserve to qualify as the best 3rd place team. We had to wait for other results but we were the best third placed team. We booked the last ticket to Equatorial Guinea and we’re happy with that.
As you say, you beat the Ivory Coast in Abidjan and in doing so inflicted their first home defeat in a competitive game for nine years. Describe the mood in the camp after the game.
In Congo we have this party atmosphere so when the national team wins a game it is always a party, but that one was extra special. We saw the footage back home. They were watching it in every area they can watch it. Every single person in the country was behind us. When we won that it was definitely the proudest moment in a very long time in my career.
Qualification wasn’t so straightforward. You had to wait for the Egypt v Tunisia and Nigeria v South, both of which were being played later. Being born in Africa myself, I know inter-continental communication can be hard at times. How did the news filter through to you that you had qualified?
For us, it was completely different because we had played. And all the players that were travelling back to Europe were on the plane…actually on the plane! On the plane back to Belgium so everyone could get their connecting flights back to the countries where they play.
It was incredible. Youssouf Mulumbu went to the front of the plane and asked the captain and stewardess to call the airport to find out the scores. It was crazy [laughs[. They found out the scores. They found out Nigeria failed to win and the other game [Egypt v Tunisia] was all in our favour. We were celebrating on the plane. We were having champagne on the plane as soon as we found out!
What are the differences between the team that went to South Africa two years ago and the one that is going to Equatorial Guinea?
It is a new generation now. We have a lot of young players coming through. The older players, your LuaLuas, they’ve all finished now. We have got new stars now. Now instead of LuaLua or Mputu, who’s not there this time, a lot of pressure is maybe on Yannick Bolasie, he is our main skillful guy up there to do things. I think it’s a transition, a new generation, a new captain, Mulumbu. It’s definitely a younger team and maybe we have more athleticism. A lot of young players want to run around and prove themselves to the world that you can handle it.
You have been part of the DR Congo set up for nearly a decade now. There are exciting talents like Firmin Ndombe Mubele and Chancel Mbemba and more established names like Dieumerci Mbokani and Youssouf Mlumbu. How would you rate this side amongst the DR Congo teams you’ve played in?
I’d see this one as the most exciting. Before you knew what to expect. You had LuaLua, who’s got all the tricks. You had Mputu, who does everything. You knew exactly what to expect. Whereas now, there are players like [Ndombe] Mubele, a lot of the players don’t really know too much what to expect.
I think we have that surprise package now. We have players coming from nowhere., players people don’t really know much about. With Ivory Coast we know exactly every single player and what they do. With DRC we have a few surprises now.
One of the differences between the 2013 Cup of Nations and now are the coaches. You had Claude Le Roy in 2013 and now you have Florent Ibenge, who has done a sterling job with AS Vita Club. How would you compare their approaches as coaches?
Claude Le Roy is a legend. He knows exactly what he wants from his team. Tactically, he is probably one of the best managers I have been with. He is more of the old sort of mentality – respect and everything has to be done correctly.
With Florent I have found that he lets the attackers have more freedom than Claude. He just lets them get on with it and do what they can do in the other half. Whereas with Claude everyone knew their exact job and tactically we all had to defend as a team and attack as a team. They are two totally different cultures, but both their styles work for the team.
Yannick Bolasie was in one of those unstoppable moods in both matches against Ivory Coast, his nutmeg Yaya Toure at one point to send the crowd absolutely wild. Does the expressive, over-elaborate attacking football under Ibenge suit you more as that’s what a Congolese crowd typically wants?
As you say, that’s what they want. They probably clap the skills more than good placement. When you give them players like Bolasie, Mubele with pace and Mabwati attacking defenders, they love that, they are on their feet all the time. They are loving the excitement, and the fact we have the excitement now and we are getting the right results is the best combination.
You have noted the excitement and surprise package in this team. Tell us a little bit about the players that the casual African football fan won’t know much about.
You have already named one – Mubele. He is very quick and has done very well in the African Champions League this year, scored a lot of goals. The ones they will know is obviously Bolasie, who is very tricky, and will probably be marked by maybe two people each time because of what he is doing in the English Premier League. And then you have Mabwati on the wing, who does a lot of tricks as well and is very direct and quick. The biggest surprise is probably [Jeremy] Bokila up front, who plays in Russia and scored 3 goals in the qualification. He’s done very well.
What do you make of being drawn against Cape Verde, Tunisia and Zambia – you must be confident?
Without disrespecting the others team, we are quite happy with that group. We look at it and it could have been a lot worse. There’s a group of death and we definitely not in that! I’m quite confident with this. We are looking to go one place further than last time., so at least to get to the knockouts and from there you never know what happens. At the moment, we are very happy with the group, definitely.