The self-confessed madness of one man has put TP Mazembe on the verge of making African football history tomorrow when they take on European Champions Inter Milan in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
Moise Katumbi is that 46-year-old madman, and he’ll be the proudest man at Abu Dhabi’s superb Zayed Sports City Stadium. The governor of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga province says himself: "People can call me mad but if they do, they are going to have to call plenty of people mad. Those who love cars spend millions on them, those who love women spend millions on them and holidays, while others are dazzled by gold, diamonds and the like.
"Football is my hobby so I try to budget all the money I make so I can put it into Mazembe - you have to love the game because you can't do this if you don't.
"Beating Brazil’s Internacional 2-0 in Tuesday's semi-final made me forget all the effort I've ever invested into the team. I've even got my little boy, who is 17 months old, singing Mazembe songs.”
The chairman isn’t the only madman in the ranks. In May this year, two of their key players, Trésor Mputu and Guy Lusadisu, were banned for months after a tournament in Rwanda saw the referee felled by a karate kick. Undaunted, they’ve gone further than any other African club this season.
Ironically, Inter Milan’s 3-0 win over Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma on Thursday night means Mazembe – the first club outside of Europe or South America to reach the final - will have to eclipse one of Africa’s greatest footballing sons, former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o, in tomorrow’s showdown.
Katumbi, whose squad boasts 12 players from the city of Lubumbashi in the mineral-rich Haut-Katanga province, says: "My vision when I joined this club was to make Mazembe one of Africa's strongest teams and that's why I've worked so hard to make it happen. I grew up in a big business family in the province, so learned the challenge of making something work early on."
A mining magnate who has diversified in to fishing, transport and television, Katumbi took over the club in 1995, when the Lubumbashi club could only cling on to dimly remembered Congo championships in 1967 and 1968. Since then, five League titles and the last two African Champions League finals have gone their way.
Even when they were 5-0 up after the first leg of this year’s ACL final agains Tunisia’s Esperance, Katumbi insisted on taking his team to Europe to prepare for the second leg. And he insisted they would do better in Abu Dhabi this year than they did in last year’s Club World Cup, when they were beaten by South Korea’s Pohang Steelers and Auckland City from New Zealand. He was right.
But that kind of money-is-no-object support doesn’t come cheap. This year, the Roman Abramovich of African football announced he would spent $10m on keeping his beloved team together – and on top of that he has paid for flights and hotels for the trumpet-blowing band of 150 fans who have followed their Crows to Abu Dhabi.
And under his control, Mazembe have flourished, winning five league titles in the last decade as well as the last two editions of the African Champions League.
While we know all about Italian giants Internazionale and their multinational galaxy of European conquering stars, the Crows look to now-unbanned captain Tresor Mputu Mabi, lethal strikers Mulota Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyituka plus inspirational goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba in their historic quest. And they’ve got this far despite their title-winning boss, Argentine Diego Garzitto, leaving abruptly in September. Former Senegal national coach Lamine Ndiaye has taken over and the side continues to produce a cunning blend of skill and dogged determination.
Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez, who took over the Inter hotseat from Jose Mourinho at the start of the season, is a worried man. He said: “It is the first time an African team is reaching a Club World Cup final, and so for Mazembe, it is very important and I think it will be a very tough opponent, if you weigh the level of their determination.”
And as Inter’s Argentine captain Javier Zanetti points out: “The standard of football is levelling out around the world and if a Brazilian club can crash out to an African side, why not a European one?"