Brits Abroad

Wadsworth's rumble in the jungle

February 10, 2012
By Mark Lomas

The unpredictable nature of African football and the transience of the continent's national team jobs are usually best manifested at the biennial Nations Cup. Equatorial Guinea provided a fine example this year when they hired Vasco de Gama academy coach Paulo Gilson as their boss just two weeks before the tournament after behind-the-scenes politics saw seasoned veteran Henri Michel twice resign. It should have been a disastrous appointment, but the co-hosts - the worst-ranked team at the tournament - defied expectations by beating both Libya and Senegal to earn a place in the quarter-finals.

Mick Wadsworth DR Congo
GettyImagesEx-Newcastle assistant Mick Wadsworth was surprisingly appointed DR Congo coach for the 2004 African Nations Cup

However, the African Nations Cup path does not always run so smoothly.

Just over eight years ago, English coach Mick Wadsworth decided it was time to broaden his football horizons. The furthest afield the Yorkshireman's managerial career had previously taken him was Colchester, though he was able to boast experience of working in Bobby Robson's England set-up and under the late, great boss as assistant manager at Newcastle United.

It was a link to the Magpies that would open up an unexpected door in November 2003, as a recommendation from Democratic Republic of Congo captain and Toon striker Lomana LuaLua saw Wadsworth appointed as coach of the troubled country's national team for the upcoming African Nations Cup in Tunisia. Despite being in the midst of a bloody civil war, DR Congo had made it to the quarter-finals of the continental showpiece two years earlier, and had qualified for the 2004 finals as group winners. Wadsworth took charge just a few months after a ceasefire was called, but his spell with the Leopards was to prove a turbulent one.

"I was out of work at the time and was asked if I was interested in a short-term contract to go to the African Nations Cup," Wadsworth tells ESPNsoccernet. "I'd had Lomana LuaLua in the team at Colchester before helping bring him to Newcastle, and he'd said that I might be keen. I spoke to Sir Bobby, who had been to the African Nations Cup on a scouting mission when he was at Barcelona, and he said it was a fantastic experience so I thought I'd like to try it - and one hell of an experience it was.

"I did a lot of background research; I've always been very interested in politics and foreign affairs so I was quite aware of what the Congo was and what it had been through. I was working for a country that had probably come through one of the biggest civil wars that's ever happened worldwide and there was not a good infrastructure - it didn't have a lot at that time really. They've got everything but have got nothing; the best resources in the world in terms of raw materials but sadly they don't control any of it. It was a country in turmoil.

"It certainly wasn't a financially motivated decision, it was all about the experience. And thank God it wasn't about the money, as it took ages for me to get paid. It was one of the toughest, most difficult things I've done in my entire career."

Wadsworth's first and only visit to DR Congo was an eye-opening experience, as he attempted to thrash out the logistics of ANC preparation with the sports minister of the embryonic Transitional Government. What greeted the former Carlisle and Scarborough boss, was a capital city ravaged by years of internal conflict.

"It was incredible. I'll never forget the car journey from the airport through Kinshasa," Wadsworth recalls. "It was one teeming mass of millions of people just trying to get by; a war-torn city with demolished buildings, people living in buildings that had been blown up. It was just a real change of environment for me. The people who were looking after me made me feel safe. I never felt in danger but I realised it wasn't the sort of place you wanted to go wandering around on your own at night. Security was ultra-tight at the hotel where we were staying; it was surrounded with high fences and had x-ray machines at the entrance.

"I met various officials and ex-militia who were running the country and the football federation at the time. It was colourful to say the least. Everything was a nod and a wink and from minute one it was clear that the money stream was dictated by a few people. The finances that were proffered by CAF (African football's governing body) was quite a healthy sum for preparation for the African Nations Cup but very little of it actually trickled down to me and the team."

Kinshasa child soldier
GettyImagesDR Congo had just emerged from a bloody civil war when Mick Wadsworth took charge

Organisation and co-operation were concepts critically absent from Wadsworth's DR Congo reign and the lack of support in the build-up to the 2004 African Nations Cup would ultimately cost his side when they were tested by the rigours of tournament football.

"We went to South Africa for a training camp and then on to Egypt for preparation for the finals in the new year, but it was absolutely disastrous. We were changing hotels - if you could call them that - and training grounds on a regular basis, we didn't have kit for weeks and weeks. I had to buy us some balls myself, that was the level I was working at.

"There was no database of the players, everything was by recommendation. Lads would turn up who were supposed to be 'big' players in Europe, yet when you examined them they were just jobbing players from third and fourth-rate teams. It was very difficult to get the truth. The only real top players I had were Lomana [LuaLua] and Hérita Ilunga, who has been at West Ham and was at St Etienne at the time.

"We had a really good training camp in South Africa with a hungry group of young players; we played some good teams, the likes of Supersport United and Orlando Pirates, and got some decent results. But then that group was dissipated to bring European-based players in as we went on to Cairo. From there on in, it was a hotchpotch and a disaster. It was nonsensical really, we no balls and not enough kit. The first place we stayed was a football stadium in Cairo that happened to have some beds in it - we had to keep moving around as obviously the football federation wasn't paying bills. Utter disorganisation.

"We played Egypt in Port Said and drew 2-2 which was a good result. But the players were arguing that they hadn't been paid their money, players who had played numerous matches without getting any match fees or their promised air fares - the problems that I had are too numerous to describe in one go.

"In one instance, I was told three hours prior to our flight that we were heading to Tunisia for the tournament but the short notice wasn't the worst of it. We piled into the plane and then not until I was sat in my seat and I looked at my ticket stub did I discover that we were flying to Paris! We had to fly there and then back to Tunis, by which point many of the players just wanted to go home - particularly the French-based ones, who at that stage were closer to their homes than the African Nations Cup. Lomana and I had to work hard to convince them to play."

DR Congo were ranked as the tenth best nation on the continent at the time, and were expected to progress to the quarter-finals from a group containing hosts Tunisia, Guinea and minnows Rwanda. In their previous guise as Zaire, the Leopards reached the 1974 World Cup and also won the African Nations Cup that same year. 1974 also saw their national football stadium host the legendary 'Rumble in the Jungle' heavyweight boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but 30 years later DR Congo were unable to deliver any sort of knockout blow on the pitch.

"When we got to Tunisia, the pantomime continued," Wadsworth explains. "Our training ground was one-and-a-half hours away by bus from the hotel we were put in and it was locked when we got there. Tunisia played Rwanda in the opening game and I was refused entry when I went along to watch even though I had a ticket - the whole thing was crazy. The night before our first game against Guinea, the players were up until four o'clock in the morning arguing with the sports minister and the president of the football federation (FECOFA) about the structure of their bonuses. They were good lads and they deserved better.

"I never had any pressure from the government or FECOFA when it came to picking the team - mainly because they didn't have a clue and didn't know the players. I tried to get big players to play - we looked at Jose Bosingwa when he was at Porto, we tried to get Shabani Nonda but he had injured his cruciate. I tried to get Nzelo Herve Lembi, a defender who was playing for Kaiserslautern in the Bundesliga. So many players didn't want to be involved because they knew what it was like.

"I remember when I was doing my team talk during one game, some random women, a priest and officials from the football federation came in at half-time and started lamenting the performance, crying and singing. I kicked them out and I don't think I was very popular. In the first game we lost 2-1 to Guinea having been 1-0 up and missed loads of chances. Then we played Tunisia in front of 60,000 fans. LuaLua was our biggest player and before the game, the Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre said he 'had plans for him'; they certainly had. They spat at him, tangled with him off the ball and gave him a horrible time - after ten minutes of it he got sent off and that was it. Lemerre was trying to console him as he came off the pitch, it was disgraceful.

"After the last game, which we lost 1-0 to Rwanda, I high-tailed it out of there because it got a little bit dangerous. I had an armed guard sat outside my bedroom and had one or two dodgy phone calls. I spoke to the football federation president who wasn't too happy, but I didn't argue with him as when I visited his house in Kinshasa there were people walking around the walls of his garden with Kaleshnikovs. A friend of mine booked a flight out the next morning."

Mick Wadsworth DR Congo
GettyImagesLomana LuaLua had to be restrained after being sent off in DR Congo's match against Tunisia

The chaotic Congolese experience could have been enough to put Wadsworth off football for life but after a period out of management he went on to have a short spell with Beira Mar in Portugal, before moving to Chester and then Hartlepool, who he parted company with in December 2011. There is no doubting, though, which managerial tenure will always stick out as his most memorable.

"I don't think my time with DR Congo really shaped me much technically or tactically, because it was more about trying to survive. However, I do think I learnt a lot about myself. It would have been easy to come back to the UK any day from the time I went to South Africa and then on to Cairo and even in Tunisia, but I showed some resilience in sticking it out and was proud of my efforts. There is no comparison between managing in England and what happened with DR Congo. It was edgy and dangerous in large measures, they lacked organisation and structure and it was a struggle in the face of immense corruption.

"I have no regrets whatsoever, though. I met some wonderful people and I met some threatening people too, some really dodgy bastards. But I'm glad I did it - it was bittersweet, an experience that most people won't get a chance to indulge in. It was harrowing, it was dangerous, it was funny. There are opportunities abroad and it can be valuable experience that helps shape you as a coach. It's a big world out there, and there is work everywhere if you're willing to look for it."