TP Mazembe Englebert’s exciting adventure at the FIFA Club World Cup 2010 finally came to an end on Saturday after succumbing to defeat in the final of the prestigious event in Abu Dhabi. Given the stature of opponents F.C. Internazionale Milano, it is fair to say that football logic was respected. The Congolese side can still hold their heads high, however, having defied predictions and statistics since the beginning of the tournament.

Prior to suffering the resounding 3-0 loss, the African champions had gone on a remarkable run which saw them dispose of both the CONCACAF Champions League winners, Club de Futbol Pachuca, and the Copa Libertadores holders, SC Internacional do Porto Alegre. “We’re heading home without the trophy, but we’re so proud of what we’ve managed to do here,” T.P. Mazembe striker Dioko Kaluyituka told after the final at Zayed Sports City. “It’s a real shame that we weren’t at our best in the final, but you’d also have to admit that we came up against a stronger team today. We shouldn’t let that overshadow the other great performances that we’ve put in already, though,” he added.

“We’ve come a long way,” pointed out the captain of Les Corbeaux, Kazembe Mihayo. “When we got here, our objective was just to win a match, so that we could improve on last year’s display.” Indeed, in the run-up to the competition, even the predictions of the most optimistic of TP Mazembe supporters would have been tempered by the results obtained by the club in their maiden appearance at the tournament in 2009. Two defeats in as many matches, resulting in a disappointing sixth-place finish, did not augur well. Another worrying sign for the Lubumbashi side was the year-long suspension of Tresor Mabi Mputu, one of their most potent attacking weapons.

Despite these low pre-tournament expectations, Lamine N’Diaye’s beaten finalists now find themselves wondering what might have been. To fully comprehend the scale of their achievement, it is essential to take into account that never before had a team from outside Europe or South America reached the competition’s finale. “I’m fortunate to have been at the club for many years and to have witnessed the progress we’ve made. I know we can do even better, but I’m already proud of what we’ve achieved,” continued Mihayo. “And what’s important is that we did it together, as a team.”

The goal would be for us to stick together as a group, so that next season we can improve even further, but it’s probably inevitable that one or two players will leave.

TP Mazembe captain Kazembe Mihayo

While the Congolese skipper is correct to emphasise the tremendous level of teamwork that has propelled his solid outfit to the next level, Les Corbeaux can also boast certain individual talents who have done their reputations no harm in Abu Dhabi. “The goal would be for us to stick together as a group, so that next season we can improve even further, but it’s probably inevitable that one or two players will leave,” said Mihayo with a regretful shrug of the shoulders. “We’ve shown the world what we’re capable of, but that’s a double-edged sword, because some of our players are now going to be in great demand.”

One of those star performers is flamboyant goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba. Impressive throughout the tournament and now known the world over for his unusual backside-bouncing celebration routine, the Congolese international knows that, at the ripe old age of 35, the bulk of his career is already behind him. However, his fine displays in the United Arab Emirates may well enable him to realise his dream of playing in Europe, despite his advancing years. The same could also be said of Kaluyituka, whose performances earned him the not insignificant consolation prize of the adidas Silver Ball.

“I’m delighted with how our team has done, but I’m also very happy with this personal award,” he explained with a smile, evidently proud to have come second to the mighty Samuel Eto’o. “When you do well against some of the best players on the planet, it’s clearly a sign that you’re heading in the right direction. I can only hope that we’ll keep making progress and keep proving that we belong in this competition,” he said.

And the CAF Champions League holders have every intention of making the FIFA Club World Cup a regular stop-off. “Every footballer wants to frequently test themselves against the very best. You can’t help but learn from competing against top-level teams – it shows you how far you need to go to improve,” said Kaluyituka. “We’re keen to qualify again in 2011 to show that we’ve learned some valuable lessons from this experience. We want to do better than this year. And of course that means actually winning the cup next time around,” he added. #

As far as this year is concerned, Les Corbeaux will not be travelling back to Congo DR clutching a gleaming trophy. But the welcome that awaits them in Lubumbashi is likely to outstrip that of any of the other teams that have taken part in the tournament. “We’ve made history, quite simply,” concluded Mihayo. "I hope there’ll be a warm welcome for us back home. We’ve certainly earned it."