The misinterpreted tragedy of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup

Words by Matthew Crist Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 3, 2018
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The match between Brazil and Zaire at the 1974 World Cup produced one of the most memorable moments ever seen in the tournament; but as well as ensuring footballing immortality the actions of the Leopards also highlighted the sad reality of the country’s first and only visit to the championships.

With 10 minutes of this dead rubber group game remaining at the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen, Jairzinho and Rivelino prepared to take a free kick in a promising position but as the pair dithered Mwepu Ilunga broke from the wall and booted the ball the length of the field.

But this wasn’t, as is so often claimed on football bloopers DVDs, purely the behaviour of a naive footballing nation who had already been eliminated from the competition; it was a time wasting ploy by a team who feared what repercussions a heavy defeat could bring.

The country formerly known as the Congo, once a Belgian colony, had gained independence in 1960, and was now under the brutal rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, who had come to power following a coup in 1965.

Having been renamed Zaire in 1971 western names were banned in favour of more traditional African monikers, modern clothing was also frowned upon, while those who had moved to Europe to pursue their footballing careers were ordered to return and banned from travelling in a total overhaul of the nation’s sporting structure.

Initially, on the field at least, the results appeared to be favourable, with Zaire building one of the most formidable squads in African football at the time which featured the likes of goalkeeper Kazadi Mwamba, midfielder Ricky Mavuba and star striker Mulamba Ndaye; whose nine goals in the victorious 1974 African Cup of Nations campaigns remains a record.

Qualification for West Germany had been a gruelling process with only one African side to be represented at that year’s World Cup, as Zaire overcame Morocco to take their place at the tournament with many feeling they could be the side to watch. Nobody was more pleased than President Mobutu, who lavished his players with new cars and invited them all to his luxury home where he wined and dined them while informing them just how well he expected them to do at the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Zaire’s first game of the World Cup was against Scotland, a side which featured young and promising talent such as Kenny Dalglish and Gordon McQueen, as well as a few established stars like Denis Law and Jimmy Johnstone, a match they eventually lost 2-0 having given a decent account of themselves on the biggest stage imaginable.

But any positives earned in the game with Scotland were soon forgotten when the Leopards faced Yugoslavia in the second group game. On paper there appeared to be little between the two sides though a number of off-field goings-on would distract Zaire’s players; ultimately leading to one of the biggest humiliations ever seen in the competition.

With accusations that payments hadn’t been made, players and coaching staff became embroiled in arguments. Believing they had been the victims of theft, a number of stars threatening not to play in the next game; not just casting doubt over their participation in the tournament but also the credibility of the World Cup as a whole.

The mutiny would eventually take its toll when the two sides met on June 18, as Yugoslavia exploited the infighting and disharmony to race to an early three-goal lead, only for manager and former Yugoslavia international, Blagoje Vidinic, to make one of the most bizarre changes ever seen as he substituted his goalkeeper Kazadi Mwamba.

When questioned about the change after the game, Vidinic told reporters the reasons for the switch would remain a “state secret”, though the rumour was that reserve keeper Dimbi Tubilandu was a close friend and personal favourite of one of Mobutu’s advisors, who was keen to see him feature.

Whatever the reason the change proved to be catastrophic, as the understudy ‘keeper went about letting in a further six goals. They were eventually beaten 9-0 and were lucky it wasn’t more with their opponents running riot – particularly Dusan Bajevic, who scored a hat-trick.

The result meant utter humiliation, not just for the Zaire players but also for President Mobutu, who took the defeat particularly badly. Adamant that such an embarrassment would not happen again, he despatched a number of his personal guards to visit the team and deliver a particularly stark warning: a defeat by more than three goals to Brazil and they would not be allowed to return home.

So when Brazil were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Zaire penalty area late in the game which they were leading 2-0, it’s pretty clear what Mwepu’s intentions were as he hammered the ball the length of the field; he wasn’t, as is often suggested, blissfully unaware of the rules, this was a man who feared for his future, though he would later claim it was intended as a protest against his country’s authorities.

Brazil did score a third but a fourth never followed and Zaire were allowed to return home ,albeit in disgrace.

The years that followed would see a marked decline in the fortunes of the Zaire national side, no doubt brought about by Mobutu’s sudden lack of interest in the game. He withdrew any funding for the sport and instead concentrated his efforts on hosting the fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’

The Leopards’ fall from grace would be even more rapid than their rise, failing to qualify for the Olympics in 1980, being eliminated in the first round of the 1976 Nations Cup and then withdrawing completely from the 1978 World Cup qualification tournament. Mobutu would flee Zaire in 1997 having brought the country to its knees and would die the same year, though the havoc he wrought on the nation – later to be renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo – would continue to affect much of the population, not least the stars of ’74.

Many of the players who had been household names and had represented their nation at the highest level, who now would surely have secured lucrative contracts in England, Spain or Germany, became destitute in a shocking illustration of the impact of the Mobutu regime.

Goalkeeper Kazadi, who won the Nations Cup in 1968 and 1974, died young and in poverty, while centre-forward Mulamba Ndaye ended up living in South Africa where he begged on the streets. And when a television crew tracked down Ekofa Mbungu in 2010 he was earning a living driving a taxi, the very same car that he’d been given by President Mobutu for qualifying for the World Cup in West Germany.

As for Mwepu Ilunga, the man who provided us with possibly the most memorable images of that tournament – descrobed by John Motson as: “a bizarre moment of African ignorance,” – he remained in the game, coaching the national side until his premature death at just 66 in 2015.

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