Zaire reaching the 1974 World Cup as the first sub-Saharan team should have been celebrated as a historic landmark. But it wasn’t. Here’s why.
There is one clip which makes every World Cup bloopers reel. You’ve seen it. You’ll know it.
During a game between Brazil and Zaire at the 1974 World Cup when the whistle blows for a Brazilian free-kick, Zairian right-back Mwepu Ilunga, charges forward to boot the ball back in Brazil’s half.
But there is much to Zaire’s story at the 1974 World Cup than being a mere few second laughing stock.
Zaire may have ended up being the whipping boys of the 1974 World Cup, dismissed at the time by European media as a ‘plucky African nation’ who didn’t understand the rules, but the truth is they knew the rules all too well.
This the incredible story of how a tyrannical regime in the heart of Congo, ultimately derailed the hopes of the Leopards on the world’s biggest stage.
Zaire, the nation
Zaire, today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, witnessed some of the worst atrocities committed during the colonialism of Africa by Belgium.
‘Belgium Congo’ was one of the many post-world war II colonial colonies who demanded their independence, and eventually got by 1960 after excessive rioting in the capital. Congo was in an incredibly complex crisis, which I can’t do justice in this article, but I recommend reading about it here.
Basically, after dabbling with corrupt democracy, former Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko gained and consolidated power through a bloodless coup on 24th November.
Throughout the 1960s, he secured his power by crushing uprisings such as the Stanleyville mutinies and performative political executions. After suppressing all threats to the regime and gaining financial support from the US, Mobutu did what any dictator who wanted political legitimacy would do; he turned to sport.
A dictator’s dream
The dream of taking newly formed Zaire to a World Cup saw Mobutu Sese Seko spend heavily on the national football team. While resulting in continental success, the true goal was to win the World Cup.
1974 World Cup Qualification was a tricky affair, with Zaire overcoming two losses to Cameroon and Ghana.
After a bitter Moroccan boycott in the final game, a dominant group stage meant Zaire had managed to become the first sub-Saharan team to reach the World Cup.
But instead of celebrating the landmark achievement, FIFA and the media were not too keen on Zaire’s appearance at the finals.
The politics of FIFA in the 1960s and 70s was just as muddled as it is now.
The first non-European FIFA president, Brazilian Joao Havelange, was elected through the aid of African votes in underdeveloped countries. This power shift gave European elitism in the football world an agenda against the growing expansion of World Cup Qualification. The Three Lions missed out on qualification, leaving the English press particularly disgruntled that teams like Zaire and Haiti were present. Before the tournament began, a newspaper press stated that ‘no one is taking them (Zaire) seriously, what with a witch doctor on the sidelines and three plane-loads of monkeys flown in to provide food.’
This attitude towards African football was a permanent perception throughout the 1970s. African teams, in fact, had boycotted the 1966 World Cup, demanding a permanent spot, finally granted in 1970, with Morocco being the beneficiaries.
Despite a decent showing from Morocco, African football was seen as entirely inferior to the European and South American level throughout the 70s.
Realistically, Europe’s loss of centrality on the world stage skewed sports commentators’ perceptions of these nations.
Instead of recognising the amazing 8-year rise of a country that was in utter turmoil, European press focused on the changing qualification supposedly devaluing the World Cup.
Considering the centuries of Europeans pillaging African resources, football wasn’t exactly the primary concern of most countries of the motherland. The focus should have been on the team being the first sub-Saharan nation to play on the world stage. Nevertheless, Zaire had made it to World Cup.
Before the tournament, the players were showered with gifts, including houses and jewellery. However, Mobutu had bullish thoughts in mind as instead of seeing the qualification as a success in itself; he believed that his investment had made Zaire a genuine competitor to win it all.
As unlikely as this was, it became seemingly impossible when they got placed in the group of death.
Drawn in a group with a great Scottish side (not a joke), a tough Yugoslavia team and reigning champions Brazil.
Despite this, Mobutu sent them away with high aspirations and the promise of big match bonuses.
While massive underdogs going into the group stages, Zaire had a lot of credibility in their own right.
N’daye Mulamba, nicknamed Mutumbula, meaning ‘assassin’, still holds the record for most goals scored in an African Cup of Nations tournament.
Yugoslavia born coach Blagoje Vidinić instilled an incredibly physical game plan that made them tough to beat.
A slightly arrogant Scottish side would be their first game, with Willie Ormond stating, ‘if we cannot beat Zaire, then we should pack up our bags and go home.’
Zaire gave a rugged performance but they still saw Scotland prevail 2-0. A score-line which Scotland would soon regret. While the players felt they had put in an admirable performance, the feeling wasn’t mutual with party officials who accompanied their arrival.
£45000 bonuses promised to each player got withheld by a government official who left Germany.
This caused a dressing room revolt, with captain N’daye Mulamba saying, “We decided not to play” in their second group game against Yugoslavia.
FIFA, being FIFA, did not care that the Zaire players had been betrayed by their ruthless dictator and demanded that Zaire played Yugoslavia.
This led to the biggest World Cup defeat in history, only eclipsed eight years later by Hungary over El Salvador. A 9-0 thrashing, in which some of the goals conceded are laughable.
The goalkeeper Kazadi Mwamba, who played fantastic against Scotland, was substituted after 21 minutes for 5ft 4 Tubilandu Ndimbi, which believe it or not only exacerbated the problem.
The response back in Zaire was one of disgust from Mobutu. Accounts from the players suggest party officials told them that if they lose by more than three goals, they wouldn’t be allowed back in Zaire and have their passports revoked. Footage of the game with this knowledge in mind makes for a much darker viewing.
Facing reigning world champions Brazil, they resorted to time-wasting tactics and incredibly physical play with their citizenship on the line, hence booting a static ball.
John Motson is quoted saying, ‘it was a bizarre moment of African naivety.’
The racial media bias towards these players playing for their livelihood is rather disturbing looking back. The focus on their World Cup place being undeserved, rather than the incredible rise of post-colonial Zaire, highlights the racist ideology still in Europe in the 1970s.
In reality, a cut-throat dictator rose from the bloodshed Belgium had left in Congo, and that hostile climate forced players to play for their livelihood on the world’s biggest stage.
Instead of digging a little deeper for the truth behind this bizarre moment, the time-consuming clearance only served as justification for the bias towards African participation at tournaments.
While desperately fighting, the European media snarled at the prospect of underdeveloped countries – that they were responsible for stifling – rightfully playing at the World Cup.
The truth is, the two-time African Cup of Nations champions deserved to be at that tournament and deserved to live their dream without fearing for their family’s safety.