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War-ravaged D.R. Congo unites behind the Simbas

© Reuters 2002

SIKASSO, Mali, Jan 25 (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo has struggled to end its civil war since 1998 but when the national football team takes the field opposing factions forget their differences for 90 minutes. "Everybody talks about the Simbas, everybody talks about the national team of (DR) Congo," said coach Louise Watunda as his players prepare to face Togo in the African Nations Cup.

"If the team wins on Saturday, it is the whole of Congo that will celebrate, and everybody is united behind this team."

"When we played to qualify for this tournament, there was a war out there, people were fighting. Since the tournament has started it has united the country," he said. The vast central African country's northern and eastern provinces are occupied by Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebels. No players from those regions are in the squad.

D.R. Congo lost 1-0 to defending champions Cameroon in their opening match on Sunday, but a win against Togo will put them back on track for a quarter-final place.

That would at least equal their performance in Burkina Faso four years ago, when they finished third under Watunda. "We're trying to do something that will make people forget about the war, starvation and misery," he added.

Some have even suggested that a top three finish could help bring about a long-term solution to the conflict. Before the tournament began, Ngoyi Kapuka, a veteran sports journalist for Congo's national broadcaster RTNC, told Reuters a good result could galvanise the shattered nation.

Opposing sides in the conflict are due to hold peace talks in South Africa at the end of the month. "If we do reach the finals, it will uplift the country and be a good start to a year in which we really hope to improve our situation," said Kapuka.

"We may be divided, but sports and music keeps the Congolese people together." Watunda, however, was keen to point out that, at the end of the day, he saw his side as nothing more than a football team.

"We don't let the problems affect us," he said. "And I don't really like to talk about politics - just football."

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