A fairly compelling case can made that international club football in Africa, or at least in black Africa, started in Katanga. The men who organised it may not have been from very likeable institutions, but even bad regimes occasionally come up with good ideas.

This one came into the heads of a pair of civil servants, not long after the Second World War. One was a representative of what was then called the Non-European Affairs Department in Johannesburg, the other a military commandant based in Élisabethville, then the second city of Belgian Congo, who had a special interest in sport. “How about we arrange a series of matches?” suggested the South African, a privileged white employee of a government putting into legislature a ghastly new policy called apartheid. “How about,” added the Belgian, “we call it a decider for the International Football Championship of South of the Sahara?” They concluded it was a grand notion and might well be helpful in keeping the oppressed mineworkers from both their regions distracted for a while.

After some difficulties in getting the divided football community of Johannesburg to commit — many would not — a team from the city duly set off north in 1950, players travelling second-class, white administrators in the more comfortable section of the train. The journey had been arduous. The match would be even more so: Katanga 8 Johannesburg 0. So much for the grandiose “Football Championship South of the Sahara”. You’ll have to come up with something better than that, thought the footballers of Élisabethville.

By the time 14 years had passed, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had done so. Its Champions Cup would quickly find a rather wider reach than simply the great mining centres of the central and southern regions. The continent had transformed, of course, since the mid-1950s. Belgian Congo had become Zaire, Élisabethville was Lubumbashi, or just ‘L’shi’ to its cooler citizens. Katanga had been through some secessionist efforts and failures before being corralled into line by Mobutu Sese Seko, a cunning and increasingly authoritarian Zairois head of state. He soon began to appreciate the high quality of footballer produced in Katanga and how far their successes might resound across independent Africa. 

Eighteen clubs initially entered the third Champions Cup, in 1967, though there would be five withdrawals before the quarter-final stage. Lubumbashi’s Tout-Puissant Englebert, who took the last part of their name from a tyre manufacturer, had actually been quite fortunate to reach the last eight. Though the away-goals rule, had it existed, would have squeezed them past Abeilles of neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville after a 3-3 aggregate score in the first round, they progressed by the drawing of lots. The withdrawal of Al Ittihad then spared them a long trip to Libya for the quarters, so it was really not until the semi-finals, and a 4-3 aggregate win over Saint George of Ethiopia, that Tout-Puissant, ‘All Powerful’, got to show off what they had.

What they had was the spine of what would become a dominant Zaire national team. In goal, Mawamba Kazadi, celebrated for his suppleness and serenity; in defence, Pierre Katumba, provoker of wild whooping from the crowd for his athletic volleyed clearances; up front, Martin ‘Brinch’ Tshinabu, a showy but effective dribbler and, above all, the striker Mukendi Kalala, alias ‘Bombadier’. By late 1967, this group were embarking on a run that would sweep through all major international trophies available in Africa and in some cases would take them all the way to a World Cup finals.

What Tout-Puissant also acquired during their glory years was an intimidating aura. The club’s logo, with the distinctive crocodile, open mouthed as its jaws clench around a football, suggests a little of that. The welcome they granted visitors, from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, gained notoriety. For their big Champions Cup matches, they would relocate to the capital Kinshasa, and the big 20 May Stadium, there to represent not just Katanga but all Zaire and to inflict the full martial entourage on visitors.

Mastering that fervour would become a long-term project for Ghana’s Asante Kotoko, whose duel with Tout-Puissant was to define African club football and significantly shape the upper hierarchy of the Africa Cup of Nations over the period. TP Englebert contested two of their four successive finals, 1967 to 1970, against Asante Kotoko, and Zaire followed up the first with victory over Ghana in the final of the 1968 Nations Cup. The rivalry would be stimulating, but very edgy. It could hardly help being so, after the deeply frustrating way in which the first summit meeting was resolved.

Like Lubumbashi, Kumasi, home of Asante Kotoko, is its country’s second city. Independence, post-colonialism, had also nourished in the Asante kingdom some ideas of regional autonomy. As with Katanga’s separatist urges, they were resisted from the capital. Kwame Nkrumah, first president of sovereign Ghana, had a firm One-Nation philosophy and at one stage specifically looked to rearrange the hierarchies of club football to galvanise it. He encouraged the setting-up of a superclub, Real Republicans, with a view to fostering national unity and eliminating the traditional Hearts of Oak — the main Accra club — versus Asante Kotoko rivalry. Nkrumah would see the Real Republicans project fail to capture supporters’ imaginations, though it would not turn him away from the sport. The African Champions Cup, after all, was a competition whose prize was a piece of silverware known as the Kwame Nkrumah trophy, although by the first time a Ghanaian club, Kotoko, were in its final, he had been deposed and would be listening out for the result from his exile in Guinea.

Logically, Asante Kotoko began the 1967 finals as favourites. Ghana had won both preceding Nations Cups, in 1963 and 1965, and the Kotoko players involved with the Black Stars had acquired a level of worldliness. They had been quarter-finalists, knocked out by the eventual winners Stade Abidjan, in the Champions Cup of 1966 and, although they had lost the mercurial winger Baba Yara to Real Republicans, they had plenty more in the way of attacking trickery from Osei Kofi and the young Ibrahim Sunday. Robert Mensah, six foot-and-something tall with his lucky cap on, was on his way to being celebrated as the best goalkeeper in Africa; ‘Yashin’ Mensah — nicknamed after the great Russian goalkeeper — also had a precise, powerful throw, a useful weapon for Kotoko’s quick breaks. Wilberforce Mfum could, reputedly, strike a ball as hard any man on the continent and when he and Ben Acheampong were in the same line-up there would usually be goals. Kotoko had put eight past Stade Abidjan over two legs in the 1967 semi-final to earn their first crack at the Nkrumah trophy.

The first leg, in Kumasi, finished 1-1. For the return, Kinshasa heaved. For a young outsider in the Asante Kotoko party, the atmosphere felt genuinely frightening. “The stadium had been packed with what seemed liked 90,000 or 100,000 people for hours before the start,” recalled Carlos Alberto Parreira, later a World Cup winning coach with Brazil, but at that stage working as an assistant coach with Kotoko and with Ghana’s Black Stars, on a placement through the Brazilian Ministry of Sport. “Then armoured cars would roll in and circle around the athletics track outside the pitch, with president Mobutu in the central one, waving to the crowd, with the guards pointing guns. It was scary, especially when they seemed to all start shouting ‘Mercenary! Mercenary!’ at me, who stood out as a foreigner.” 

Once the second leg was under way, Parreira’s respect for the group of Ghanaian players he had been sharing digs with for several months grew by the minute, for their poise, their courage. Kotoko had scored twice, Tout-Puissant once as the match entered its last moments. A Tout-Puissant ball into the Kotoko penalty area then hit a Ghanaian chest, or at least that was how it looked from the visiting bench. “The referee was under huge pressure,” Parreira said, “with the soldiers there, from the noise of the crowd. So the referee says ‘Handball’ and he gives a penalty.” Tout-Puissant scored. On away goals, they would have lost; under the rules as they then stood, there was extra-time.

But a problem emerged. What to do once the supplementary 30 minutes had not produced any further score? “At the end of extra-time,” Parreira said, “the referee told us the winner would be decided on the toss of a coin. But people were invading the pitch. Things were out of control.”

Either unbeknown to the referee, or as result of an ad hoc decision from the VIP seats, the Confederation announced there would be a play-off, a replay. They designated a neutral venue, Cameroon, and from here the story descends into farce. Somewhere between Kinshasa, Accra and Kumasi, the message that Asante Kotoko should ready themselves for a third meeting with Tout-Puissant, two days after Christmas, got lost. “No one told us,” insists Parreira. So the Zairois club won the Cup by walkover. 

If that felt like a rip-off on top of what the Ghanaians already regarded as refereeing robbery in the second leg, they were still obliged to acknowledge that, poor officiating or not, hostile ambience apart, Tout-Puissant were a formidable side. A month after the third Champions Cup had gone the way of the lads from L’shi, Zaire won the Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, deposing Ghana’s Black Stars as African champions. Kalala, spearheading a Leopards side that included his club colleagues Kazadi and Katumba, scored the only goal of the final in Addis Ababa. The defeated XI included the Kumasi crew of Ibrahim Sunday, Mfum and Osei Kofi.

By the end of that year, 1968, Tout-Puissant had retained their Champions Cup title, emerging on top after a final that had little of the taut balance of their clash with Kotoko. Togo’s Étoile Filante were the opposition this time and they wilted in the Kinshasa kiln, 5-0. Remarkably, the Togolese scored four goals in the Lomé return. TP Englebert still won 6-4 overall.

In 1969, another Ghana-Zaire duel seemed likely in the Champions Cup final. But Kotoko lost their semi-final to Ismaily of Egypt, who then escaped Kinshasa in the first leg of the final with a 2-2 draw. Tout-Puissant, missing the injured Kalala, lost the Cairo leg, 3-1. Their reign as African champions, the only team to retain that prize in the 20th century, had come to an end.

Come the next final, Tout-Puissant’s fourth on the trot, the Ghanaian grudge would at last be settled. Kotoko actually looked a little depleted that season, Mfum and Acheampong having left for careers in the USA. For Zairois footballers, by contrast, that sort of option was becoming harder, because president Mobutu decreed the country’s best players should stay in Zaire.

But Kotoko still had Ibrahim Sunday. And they had Mensah between the posts. In Kumasi and Kinshasa over the 180 minutes of the final, the long, pent-up rivalry between the two clubs, between Ghana and Zaire, seemed for periods to distil into a simple face-off between Kalala and Mensah. The Bombardier against Yashin. The more the striker peppered him, the sharper Mensah’s reflexes became. As in 1967, the teams drew 1-1 in Ghana. As in 1967, Kotoko would lead 2-1 in Kinshasa. Unlike three years earlier, they held on, Robert Mensah lionised for his efforts.

Tragically, only 10 months later — the 1970 final was actually played in January 1971 — Mensah was dead, the consequence of stab wounds apparently sustained during a fight outside a bar. He was only 32. Several of the tributes, of which there were many, focused on his role in delivering to Ghana, and Asante Kotoko, a first Champions Cup. “He handled a football with same contemptuous ease that Joe Louis treated the gloves,” wrote the Ghanaian newspaper The Daily Graphic.

An era had ended. Ibrahim Sunday was now being scouted by European clubs — he would move to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen — and although Asante Kotoko reached two more finals in the three years that followed, they would have to wait until 1983 for their next Champions Cup triumph. 

Zairois football’s pendulum was swinging, meanwhile, towards the capital, Kinshasa’s Vita Club the winners of the continent’s major club prize in 1973. Zaire won the Nations Cup a year later, and, as sub-Saharan Africa’s first ever representatives at a World Cup, travelled to West Germany that summer. Their squad, including seven Tout-Puissant players, would return with no points from expedition and to a fearful ticking-off from president Mobutu himself. For the goalkeeper, Kazadi, there had been one especially stinging humiliation at the World Cup. Despite an alert performance in Zaire’s opening match against Scotland, he found himself substituted after 21 minutes of the second, with the Leopards 3-0 behind against Yugoslavia. The change was tactical, but not fruitful. Zaire ended up losing 9-0.

Zaire declined both as a national team and in terms of its club football. Zaire, indeed, disappeared, the country renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. TP Englebert had also reverted to their more traditional title, TP Mazembe. Neither they, nor DR Congo’s Leopards, registered very often at the business end of major international competitions through the 1980s or 1990s.

For Tout-Puissant, however, that would change dramatically after the turn of the millennium. Under the chairmanship of the wealthy governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, they have become one of the continent’s best resourced clubs and in 2010 achieved a significant milestone for African club football’s principal tournament. As the representatives of the CAF Champions League in Fifa’s Club World Cup, they reached the final, where they lost to Internazionale. No African club had ever contested a Club World Cup final before.

TP Mazembe had retained the African Champions League that year. They are the only club to have twice won the trophy two years on the trot. They intend to their record books and seem to have the means to do so. Mazembe now pay the sort of salaries that, unusually in Africa, allow them to keep good players, even when clubs from European leagues bid for them. They have also made Lubumbashi something of an El Dorado for footballers from elsewhere in Africa, recruiting heavily in Zambia, and, lately, in Ghana.

Asante Kotoko, as it happens, have sold two players — Daniel Nii Adjei and Yaw Frimpong — to TP Mazembe in the last year. The Kumasi club would hesitate to say they now occupy a place so far down the food chain relative from their fierce rivals the late 1960s that they are at risk of becoming a feeder club to a voracious TP Mazembe, but Kotoko would certainly start as second favourites in a tie against the modern Tout-Puissant. The Katanga crocodile has some of the sharpest teeth in Africa, once again.