In December, Congo DR supporters were disappointed when their national association announced that Yannick Bolasie would miss the CAF Africa Cup of Nations through injury. They had, after all, been counting on the dynamic Everton winger driving the team forward at Gabon 2017.

However, they were not to know at that stage that fate had reserved a pleasant surprise for them in the shape of rising star Junior Kabananga, who scored three goals in as many group-stage matches, against Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, enabling him to top the tournament’s scoring charts.

Overall, the 27-year-old striker caused havoc in opposition defences, displaying intelligence and first-class positioning. His goals helped the Leopards to top Group C and qualify for the quarter-finals at the expense of then African champions Côte d’Ivoire. “I was very happy with how I played in Gabon, and even happier with how the team played as a whole,” he told FIFA.com. “I made a little bit of history by finishing as top scorer, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Congo DR were subsequently eliminated in the quarter-finals, but there was a general consensus among the fans and media representatives present in Oyem that the outsiders should have beaten Ghana that day. Kabananga still harbours some regrets about the closely contested encounter. “We didn’t get the rub of the green, but we weren’t clinical enough," he said. "We got knocked out and missed our chance of reaching the last four.”

Russian dream
However, Dieumerci Mbokani and Co have now put their Cup of Nations setback behind them in order to fully focus on the qualifying campaign for next year’s FIFA World Cup™. They have made a solid start, defeating Libya at home and Guinea in Conakry, and now find themselves on top of Group A, ahead of Tunisia on goal difference.

“Once the Cup of Nations was over for us, we decided to immediately concentrate on the challenges ahead,” said Kabananga. “We’re all motivated to earn a spot at the World Cup in Russia. It would be a historic achievement, as it would only be this country’s second appearance at that level.”

Congo DR’s fate will become clearer at the end of August and the start of September, when they face Tunisia twice within a week. In keeping with most observers of African football, the forward, who plays his club football for Astana in Kazakhstan, believes that this pair of encounters will be decisive in determining the winner of the pool. “Tunisia won’t make it easy for us,” he remarked. “It’ll likely come down to minor details. That’s why we’ll have to be totally focused from start to finish, so as to pick up the maximum number of points.”

The key to the Leopards’ success has been placing their trust in a Congolese coach and relying on players who ply their trade at home and abroad. The coach in question, Florent Ibenge, has found just the right recipe for success, seamlessly blending a knowledge of African football with European experience and conditioning. “The team’s progress comes down to our willingness to work together, as well as our ambitious coach,” said Kabananga. “And let’s not forget how committed we are out on the pitch.”

Kabananga and his team-mates are hungry for success and determined to turn the dream of over 80 million Congolese fans into a reality, but the Kinshasa-born attacker knows there is still a long way to go until Russia 2018, and that they will all have to continue battling for each other to beat the Tunisians, who have recorded two victories – also against Guinea and Libya – thus far.

“We haven’t achieved our objective yet. We’re aware that we’ll need to work even harder to book our place at the World Cup,” Kabananga concluded.