JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - A karate-style lunge at a referee in Rwanda and a drubbing in Tunisia helped transform TP Mazembe from FIFA Club World Cup flops to finalists within one year.
The black and white-clad 'Crows' based in southern Democratic Republic of Congo mining hub Lubumbashi stunned Internacional of Brazil 2-0 in the world championship semi-finals and face Inter Milan of Italy on Saturday for the title.
Mazembe, the only club to twice successfully defend the African Champions League, are the first team outside of Europe or South America to make the climax of the 10-year tournament.
Reaching the final marks a spectacular u-turn for the Congolese as they finished sixth of seven challengers in their first appearance last year with only Al-Ahly from host nation United Arab Emirates faring worse.
But the Club World Cup in the multi-skyscraper UAE city of Abu Dhabi was far from the minds of the Congolese last May when a regional championship game against host club APR of Rwanda went horribly wrong.
'Guest' competitors Mazembe repeatedly complained to the referee about the over-physical approach of their opponents and when a penalty appeal was turned down, Mazembe talisman Mabi Mputu protested so intensely he was red carded.
Furious Mputu had to be pulled toward the touchline by his team-mates, but escaped their clutches, raced after the refereee only for team-mate Basisila Lusadisu to reach the official first and floor him with a karate kick.
Midfielder-cum-captain-cum leading scorer Mputu also struck the official at the Kigali National Stadium and was slapped with a one-year worldwide ban by FIFA while Lusadisu got 11 months.
Losing Mputu, a 25-year-old voted 2009 Africa-based Footballer of the Year by CAF, was considered a crippling blow to the African ambitions of Mazembe, but the team adjusted to life without him and retained the title in style.
They needed the away-goal rule to edge Heartland of Nigeria in the 2009 final, but last month crushed Esperance of Tunisia 6-1 on aggregate to equal the record winning margin for an African Champions League final.
Esperance played a significant part in their downfall by drubbing Mazembe 3-0 in the group phase last August that triggered a Congolese coaching shake-up with Senegalese Lamine N'Diaye replacing Franco-Italian Diego Garzitto.
The impact was immediate with the screws in a leaky defence tightened and Mazembe remained unbeaten for the rest of the competition and forced three draws in North Africa, the graveyard of many a sub-Saharan club.
"Mourinho ... Mourinho" chanted Mazembe supporters in the capacity 35,000 Municipal Stadium crowd after the five-goal, first-leg final demolition of Esperance.
While the 54-year-old Senegalese coach must have appreciated being compared to the 'Special One', the humble Mazembe handler is a man of few words and a simple philosophy.
Veteran goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba explained: "Our coach believes in hard work because without that talent is useless, and total concentration because without that hard work is pointless."
Moise Katumbi, a tall, elegantly dressed man in his mid-40s with close cropped hair, is the mastermind behind Mazembe, a club formed 71 years ago by Benedictine monks in the then Belgian-ruled country.
Born into a wealthy family, he is the results-driven governor of the Katanga province of which Lubumbashi is capital and has fishing, mining, television and transport interests.
"Mazembe carries the hopes of the Congolese people," says a man involved with the 'Crows' since he was seven, served as president for the last 13 years and owns 60 percent of the shares with another 30 percent in public hands.
"The reasons for our success are many. The most important ones are the discipline of the players and the support from our people and the president of the country (Joseph Kabila)."
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