Claude Le Roy
Claude Le Roy

Claude Le Roy prides himself on being the opposite of what he calls “the Club Med coaches”. He has worked in Africa for over four decades, and for most of that time he has lived in Africa – as have his family. He laughs when European coaches talk about the pressure of their job.
“It is nothing,” said Le Roy. “They make me laugh. Let them try Africa.”
There are all the usual problems to deal with – players who need firm management and frequent encouragement, engaging with an often hostile local media, organising effective training camps, finding reliable and capable assistants, picking the right team and formation, building team spirit, earning respect.
But then there is so much more, such as the lack of resources, of professional administrators who can make things happen. There is political interference from government officials. There are long and often unsuccessful attempts to persuade players of dual nationality to choose Africa over Europe.
And, when it comes to tournament time, there is the Confederation of African Football.
“Look at this place,” said the Frenchman at the Hotel Carmen in Bata, where he has masterminded Congo’s remarkable achievement of winning Group A at the Cup of Nations. “Do you see any Caf officials here? They’ll be at the Hilton. People don’t like me for criticising, but that doesn’t stop me.”
The Carmen is a basic local hotel, up market by Bata standards but a two-star, at best, in Europe. Meanwhile Caf’s executive members – who like to call each other “your Excellency” – always have the most expensive five-star hotels.
Le Roy was furious with Caf after the first game of the tournament, a 1-1 draw with hosts Equatorial Guinea. Congo were given no police escort to the stadium and were stuck in traffic on a bus without air conditioning, in 90F heat, for more than an hour.
Congo started slowly but improved. They won their next two games, and play the Congolese derby on Saturday – Congo-Brazzaville against DR Congo – for a place in the semi-finals. Nobody expected them to qualify for the tournament, never mind for the knockout stages.
“Many people thought it inconceivable that Congo would qualify, with South Africa and the champions, Nigeria, in our group. But South Africa went, and now we have eliminated the team (Nigeria) beat in the final, Burkina Faso. I am so proud.”
Le Roy shouted so many instructions in the 2-1 win against Burkina Faso that he lost his voice. When he recovered he said, “We are the only team in the competition without even one player who has played in the Cup of Nations before. Congo hasn’t been in the tournament for 15 years.”
Among those who congratulated Le Roy on winning Group A was Francois Hollande, the French Premier – and a boyhood team-mate of Le Roy at Rouen.
“The people love him when he wins and hate him when he loses, like everywhere else in Africa,” said Camille Delourme, who follows the Congo team for a newspaper in Brazzaville. “But after this, when he returns home he will be the king.”
His first job in Africa was as coach of Cameroon – with Roger Milla in the side – in the mid-1980s. He led them to Cup of Nations glory in 1988.
He has been to the tournament as coach eight times, and has only once failed to reach the knockouts – when he was in charge of Saturday’s opponents, DR Congo, in 2004.
“The gap between Europe and Africa is smaller now than it was in the 1980s,” said Le Roy. “I see 2015 as a renaissance, when a new generation of players will come through. There is unbelievable potential in this continent.
“There is still a big problem with Europe taking players too young. They should stay longer in Africa. Look at the great names of African football – Milla, Weah, Okocha, Yaya Toure – they were all known in their national league before they went to Europe. It is better to develop here.
“There are 40 or 50 Congo players in Europe but I didn’t take them all – I have eight from the Congo league in my squad.”
The man who has arguably made the most difference is forward Thievy Bifouma, whose club career has had its ups and downs but who has fitted in well for Le Roy. It took a lot of persuasion, with two of his Congolese assistants trailing Bifouma around Spain, where he plays for Almeria on loan from Espanyol. Attempts to recruit two other players, midfielder Christopher Maboulou (Bastia) and the Marseille goalkeeper Brice Samba, failed.
Le Roy is a strict disciplinarian. Everyone in his delegation must wear the team uniform, and they have to be on time for meals and meetings. Even a minute late and they will be told off, as they will if they under-perform.
“I am not easy on them,” he said. “I tell them exactly what I feel – but I try to give them responsibility. I don’t try to act as their father. These players are intelligent, in a practical way. And they know I am the boss.”
His contract with Congo runs until the end of this year. He has already earned results way beyond expectations, with another target to come: the African Games in September, hosted by Congo. After that, who knows?
Le Roy will be 67 next week, and celebrates 50 years in football in June. But he shows no signs of quitting yet.