The greatest upset of the last season’s CAF Champions League took place before the group stage even began. Ugandan Premier League champions, Vipers SC, snatched an unlikely victory in a penalty shootout against four-time CAF CL winners, TP Mazembe. Vipers became just the second Ugandan club to ever compete in the competition, the first since KCCA FC in 1997.
For Vipers, this marked the greatest continental club footballing achievement that they have perhaps ever made. By overcoming TP Mazembe, they arguably set new boundaries for, specifically Ugandan but more broadly for East African clubs in the CAF Champions League seeking to take on the leviathans of African club football.
TP Mazembe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s biggest club, have not only rewritten the playbook for success in East African club football but have also become a model admired across the continent. Their infamous owner, Moise Katumbi is renowned for his passion for the club’s development, investing huge amounts of money into the club, which propelled them to the zenith of the continent’s football.
As a beacon of success, it draws the vigilant gaze of competitors, who await its every move with anticipatory focus. With clubs clambering to be the next big powerhouse of African football, clubs like TP Mazembe, who have stalled in their evolution under the watchful eyes of others are suffering.
Katumbi’s Kinship with Congolese Establishment
Moise Katumbi acquired TP Mazembe in the early 2000s and has since transformed the club into an institution with his commitment to financial investment, advancement of managerial expertise and infrastructural development all playing a leading role in TP Mazembe’s remarkable rise.
Whilst his tenure is coloured with domestic and continental amelioration of the club’s fortunes, Katumbi’s ownership has also fallen subject to a degree of scrutiny. The criticism that Katumbi has faced ranges from the means in which his wealth was attained to the potential conflicts of interest he has due to his political involvement in DRC to the lack of financial transparency within the club.
In addition to his involvement in African club football at the elite level, Katumbi has a long-standing, intimate connection to the political establishment in DRC. The exact extent of his wealth and entrepreneurial endeavours continue to remain opaque but he is comfortably one of the very richest people in one of the world’s poorest countries.
The linchpin of DRC’s economy is, however, their extremely vast resources in cobalt and copper. Katumbi has had a large hand in the operation and development of this industry as his own companies have had long-standing contracts in the mineral-rich land of Katanga – the city Katumbi was also governor of between 2007-2015. These factors, when isolated, painted in bold colours the influence that Katumbi has over football and politics in DRC.
In essence, the criticisms surrounding Moise Katumbi’s ownership of TP Mazembe reflect a broader unease about the potential convergence of political influence, business interests, and sports success. As these worlds intertwine, the boundaries between noble intentions and ulterior motives become blurred, prompting questions about transparency, accountability, and the enduring integrity of both football and governance. This blurred transparency has underlined Katumbi’s ownership of TP Mazembe.
It’s important to note that while these criticisms have been raised, both Moise Katumbi and his legion of supporters and allies have defended his ownership of TP Mazembe, highlighting the club’s achievements, contributions to the local community, and investments in football development that has, strengthened DRC’s competitive standing in African club football.
“I want Vipers to be like TP Mazembe.”
This quote – affirmed brazenly by Vipers owner and chairman, Lawrence Mulindwa – is from over five years ago. Mulindwa is a long-time admirer of TP Mazembe and their club development practises. “They have been African champions and played at the FIFA Club World Cup. They own their own stadium and sell players to European markets.”
All of these feats are effectively gold mines for African clubs, in particular from East due to the infrastructural, competitive and historical factors that have severely limited the development of East African club sides. Just one year after this quote, Vipers became the first ever Ugandan club to open their own stadium to CAF (African Football Confederation) standard. And in 2022, all the work Vipers have done to catch up to the Congolese giants was allegorized and depicted beautifully in their CAF Champions League qualifying win over Les Corbeaux.
Crucially, Moise Katumbi and TP Mazembe have been redefining what was thought possible for East African clubs and that has formulated a blueprint for others to follow. What they have achieved is nothing short of remarkable, but the cracks have been beginning to appear for the club recently.
Subsequent to losing out on a place in the CAF CL at the hands of Vipers, TP Mazembe were the worst performing club at the CAF CC (CAF Confederations Cup) 2022/23. They were beaten at home and away by Young Africans and US Monastir of Tunisia and at Mali’s Real Bamako. For a club who have a number of CAF titles only bettered by Al Ahly, TP Mazembe has now gone six seasons without winning a single CAF trophy.
“I do not want to talk about the past of my club because the past is the past; I am a man of the future,” Moise Katumbi said after his side were knocked out of the CAF CC.
Lessons to be Learned
This defeat coincided with Katumbi’s declaration of candidacy as part of the 2023 presidential elections in DRC. This announcement chimed with the belief that Katumbi’s ownership is coloured by ulterior motives of one day being in high political power.
The dynamics between Katumbi’s political aspirations and the achievements of TP Mazembe have long spurred debates over whether the club’s victories might be leveraged to bolster his political standing. As his political ambitions are becoming more transparent and the idea of him becoming DRC President is becoming more realistic, many fans have pondered whether this has distracted Katumbi from the development of the club. This theory would obviously be supported by the clear decline in TP Mazembe’s capability to keep up with Africa’s elite clubs in CAF competitions in recent years.
One thing that connects Vipers SC and TP Mazembe is that they are clubs which are owned and controlled by rich, powerful and ambitious individuals. This is both a gift and a curse. For club owners like Lawrence Mulindwa, there is potential to learn from the rise of TP Mazembe but also from the current situation of competitive decline that the club is experiencing.
Moise Katumbi’s tenure as TP Mazembe owner has proved incredibly successful and has presented East African clubs with new boundaries than what was thought attainable just two decades previously. One could even argue that Katumbi has furthered the progression of the sport across the entire continent and diverted attention towards different areas of African football development in ways that weren’t as widely observed before.
Upon examining TP Mazembe’s recent history, however, one can level criticism at the clear diversion of Katumbi’s attention and focus away from the club. The club’s wealth is so intrinsically linked to the fluctuations of the DRC economy – because it is Katumbi’s wealth – and this has led to the club struggling to attract the players they were once able to, retain the players that they need to keep hold of and, crucially, to keep the pace with other African clubs like Esperance, Ahly, Zamalek, Mamelodi Sundowns etc.
Football in Africa is on the up. There are going to be more African nations at the next World Cup than ever, more African Women’s national teams reached the World Cup knockout stage than ever before and FIFA’s investment into African football has launched from $70 million (2016-19) to $500 million (2023-26). Clubs are lining up in their droves to be the next big club in Africa, not just Vipers SC.
But Lawrence Mulindwa and his club represent many other clubs in Africa, trying to navigate through the tricky terrain of competitive club football, attaining the wealth required to be successful yet still somehow maintaining some form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Against the backdrop of the looming African Super League’s emergence, bridging the divide to the elite clubs takes on heightened significance, underlining the urgency of this pursuit.
While TP Mazembe continue to be a symbol of success in African club football, their recent struggle presents an augury for clubs, like Vipers, seeking to follow in their footsteps.
By: Louis Young / @FrontPostPod
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Fethi Belaid / AFP