Le Roy's historic triumph with Togo latest in series of wins on the continent
Togo national team manager Claude Le Roy could not celebrate his team's legendary 5-0 victory over Djibouti in African Nations Cup qualifying at the weekend. His ankle was too sore. He had been kicked, inadvertently, by one of the opposing players as both scrambled for a loose ball that had run into touch.
But if he had been able, the affable Frenchman would surely have danced a little jig. He had taken his new team Togo from a virtually impossible qualifying position to snatching the last available place in next January's AFCON finals in Gabon. It is a wonderful achievement against the backdrop of a dysfunctional federation, poor relations with demotivated players and perennial confusion over Emmanuel Adebayor's commitment.
Togo have qualified for a World Cup (2006), but they are a minor force in African football with a small population (7.5 million) and limited domestic infrastructure. And yet they find themselves at an African Nations Cup for the eighth time, having snatched one of the two berths that are reserved for the best runners-up among the 13 qualifying groups.
This will be Le Roy's ninth finals appearance stretching his already phenomenal record that much more. The Frenchman with the hippie round spectacles is a veritable African legend with an immense passion for the game on the continent and a proven track record.
Less than two years ago, he took the equally unfashionable Congo to the finals. It was the first time they had qualified in 15 years and not much was expected, but the 68-year-old manager has something of a Midas touch and the nation reached the quarterfinals in a performance that went beyond their ambitions.
Le Roy also missed out on post-match celebration at the 2015 finals in Equatorial Guinea, where he guided Congo to a group win and advancing past the opening phase for the first time since 1992. He had lost his voice and so presented his apologies to the assembled press, all eager to hear some pithy quotes after yet another success. French president Francois Hollande, who like Le Roy came from FC Rouen, sent the manager a congratulatory text message.
The coach left Congo in November after helping them reach the group phase of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and in April he took over at Togo.
Le Roy has worked previously with Cameroon, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana. He has taken charge of a total of 35 matches at the finals since his first in 1986. Only once in those eight previous tournaments has he failed to take his side past the first round and into the knockout phase. That was in 2013, when the Democratic Republic of Congo finished third in their group and were knocked out of the tournament. Before that, he led his team to the last eight every time he coached at the Nations Cup, including winning with Cameroon in 1988.
The coach who comes closest to Le Roy is former Poland international Henryk Kasperczak, who will also take part in Gabon at the helm for Tunisia. It will be his seventh tournament.
Le Roy has an immensely successful personal touch. His affection for African footballers is obviously, his training sessions punctuated by mirth and delight and his advice and counsel dispensed in the manner of genial uncle rather than angry manager. His connections with the commitment are deeply genuine. His daughter married a Senegalese and his grandchildren are African. Getting Adebayor to make a firm commitment to play again for the Togo team, instead of just picking and choosing when he would make himself available, is symptomatic of his persuasive strength.
But hanging over his head is a demand by French prosecutors for a two-year prison sentence for his alleged part in fraudulent transfers during his stint at Racing Strasbourg, when he served as general manager in the late `1990s.
The allegations concern false invoices that were issued to allow club bosses and various intermediaries to earn commission on the transfer of players to the detriment of the club's accounts. It is a case that has run for the last 10 years and will resume again next week.
Togo's ambitions will now be to match -- or even go one better -- than their quarterfinal achievement in South Africa in 2013 when they lost in extra time to Burkina Faso in the last eight. After their miraculous qualifying achievement, and with Le Roy at the helm, it is a dream with some substance.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.