LuaLua's chance to light up the land of the Pharaohs

Portsmouth striker tells Conrad Leach that he is looking to make amends for the last tournament when he was sent off and his country made an early exit
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The Independent Online

At the last African Nations' Cup, the Democratic Republic of Congo were given training pitches an hour away from their hotel, when they were having twice daily sessions. Whether they got to those sessions punctually was never certain either, given that their official bus frequently went missing. To make matters worse, their manager, the Englishman Mick Wadsworth, was not even allowed in to scout the hosts, Tunisia, in their opening game.

The reason? Two years ago the Democratic Republic of Congo were in the same group as the north African country, who were doing their utmost to disrupt life for Lomano LuaLua and his team-mates. So, in one respect at least this already promises to be a happier Nations' Cup for the Portsmouth striker. Egypt, the hosts of the tournament which starts today, are in a different group.

Not that the Democratic Republic of Congo management necessarily made life easy for their team as the players ended up sharing double beds. It all got too much for LuaLua, who was captaining the Simbas for the first time. They lost their opening game and he was sent off in the next match, a defeat that signalled the exit of Africa's second largest country from the continent's football showpiece.

It was two weeks and a dismissal he has found hard to forget but he sees this tournament as a chance to atone. Moreover, in a group with Cameroon and the surprise World Cup qualifiers Togo and Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo will need their best and, in the absence of Roma's Shabani Nonda, best-known player, to stay on the pitch.

"The memories from 2004 were not good ones," LuaLua admits. "The best thing was being captain of my country and that was it. In Tunisia I wanted to be recognised as a player in Africa by playing for Congo and I'm sure I did that in a way but I let myself down by getting a red card. For me it's about showing everyone again that red card was a mistake and I've got the talent. I just want everyone to recognise my talent. Hopefully, I can make up for it in this Nations' Cup.

"Back then a lot of things went on which weren't nice. Tunisia tried to manipulate us. But that's football - that's African football and you've just got to get on with it. We were in the same hotel as Mali and their training camp was 10 or 15 minutes from the hotel but we had to go an hour away and sitting on a coach for so long after training stiffens your legs up.

"Then back at the hotel we had to share double beds. It's not nice. It's OK sharing a room but not a bed. It was a shock for us. Sometimes the bus came late for us or didn't come at all and we had to chase it. There were just a few things that knock your confidence. There's a limit where you say 'I've had enough.' Hopefully that won't happen in this Cup."

When they were known as Zaire, his nation made history by becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to play in a World Cup, in 1974 in Germany. With that country hosting this summer's tournament, it brings to mind yet more regret for LuaLua. The qualification games for the African Nations' also served for the World Cup, with only the group winners reaching Germany. Congo finished second behind Ghana and LuaLua feels he and his team-mates were guilty of complacency.

Having thrashed Uganda 4-0 last June they felt their next game away to Burkina Faso would be a formality, only to lose 2-0 and see their chances virtually disappear. Yet inconsistency dogged the two-times winners of the Nations' Cup throughout those games, as they also drew away against Cape Verde and lost in Uganda.

"We let ourselves down in not qualifying for the World Cup," he says. "We thought the Burkina game would be easy. That was a bad way to think about it. If we had won that it would have been a different situation. That's why we didn't get to the World Cup although the teams that have qualified deserve it.

"It's a tough group this time around. African teams are improving and you can see that with the teams who've not gone to the World Cup," he says. "There's no Senegal, Nigeria or Cameroon. That tells you how football has really come up in Africa.

"We know it's going to be tough and our main concern is just getting through the group stage. We've got to work hard and anything is possible. There is the talent coming through. A lot of local players are coming and hopefully some of them will be given a chance in Egypt and they will show their talent. We've got to focus and try to get to the quarter-finals."

LuaLua, who joined Portsmouth for £1.7m from Newcastle in July 2004 after a loan spell on the South Coast, left on Sunday for a training camp in Tunis, making him the last African international out of England, only a week before his country's opening game against Togo.

That was not a decision that went down well with his country's management, but he had his reasons. "I stayed late because the Everton game was really important and meant a lot to Portsmouth. We need to stay up and this is the best league to play in. I spoke to the Congo manager [Claude LeRoy] and he was a bit reluctant. I understood what he wanted as I'm captain and he wanted me to encourage the team. I made him understand we need to stay up in the Premiership."

LuaLua also believes in Harry Redknapp. "I believe there are good times ahead for Pompey. He's [new co-owner Alexandre Gaydamak] investing money and one or two players are coming in and Harry's always trying to do something in the market. The new guy wasn't just talking."

Yet criticism of LuaLua for joining up late with his country does a disservice to his passion for his homeland. The former Colchester United player spends every summer in the capital Kinshasa, working with his eponymous foundation for street children.

"I have set up the Lua foundation out there to help orphans and get girls off the street who are prostitutes," he explains. "I want to give them a better place to stay and an education. Just to help them have a youth centre, somewhere for kids to drop in anytime for them to have fun."

The next LuaLua could even come from the sports complex he envisages building. As for the current one, he will continue to fight, and hope for, better times ahead for club and country.

The British contingent in Egypt

EGYPT: Mido (Tottenham Hotspur, striker)

MOROCCO: Noureddine Naybet (Tottenham Hotspur, defender) Talal El Karkouri (Charlton Athletic, defender)

Youssef Safri (Norwich City, midfielder)

IVORY COAST: Kolo Touré (Arsenal, defender) Emmanuel Eboue (Arsenal, defender) Didier Drogba (Chelsea, striker)

CAMEROON: Geremi (Chelsea, midfielder) Eric Djemba-Djemba (Aston Villa, midfielder)

DEM REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Jean-Paul Kamudimba (Grimsby Town, defender) Lomana LuaLua (Portsmth, striker)

TOGO: Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal, striker)

TUNISIA: Radhi Jaidi (Bolton, defender) Hamed Namouchi (Rangers, midfielder)

ZAMBIA: Collins Mbesuma (Portsmouth, striker)

GUINEA: Bobo Baldé (Celtic, defender) Mohamed Sylla (Leicester City, midfielder) Sambegou Bangoura (Stoke CIty, striker)

ZIMBABWE: Benjani Mwaruwari (Portsmouth, striker)

SENEGAL: Amdy Faye (Newcastle United, midfielder) Abdoulaye Faye (Bolton Wanderers, midfielder) Pape Bouba Diop (Fulham, midfielder) Diomansy Kamara (West Bromwich Albion, striker) El Hadji Diouf (Bolton Wanderers, striker) Henri Camara (Wigan, striker)

NIGERIA: Joseph Yobo (Everton, defender) Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton Wanderers, midfielder) Nwankwo Kanu (West Bromwich Albion, striker)

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