With three African teams out of this year’s World Cup, and one in the last 16 it seems only fitting that we once more cast our minds back…way back to 1974 when Zaire made history by becoming the first Sub-Saharan African team to qualify for a World Cup.
In last week’s instalment we looked at the incredible success of the Leopards who won the African Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974 but who more importantly qualified for the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany. Confidence was high in Zaire in 1974. The State’s Dictator Mobutu was funding the team heavily and the players had all the best resources at their disposal. Oh yes, confidence was high. Would Zaire be drawn into an easy group or would they make their way into a ‘Group of Death?’ An African nation held its breath when the groups were being drawn. Fortune was not kind to the Leopards.
Brazil…Yugoslavia…Scotland. Three very strong teams, all with a high pedigree of players. Zaire were landed in a group with a strong Yugoslavian side, reigning World Cup Champions Brazil containing the likes of Rivelino, Jairzinho and Edu and a Scottish side boasting Bremner, Dalglish, Lorimer and Law.
Despite this, Zaire was optimistic, the rest of the world was not. Scotland manager Willie Ormond confidently stated that his side should “pack up and go home” if they couldn’t beat the Africans. Jack Rollins in the Radio Times World Cup Special stated in 1974,
“European football is almost a total mystery to the Leopards, and Vidinic (the Zairian Manager) knows that his big problem is to prepare his exuberant players to meet the sophisticated tactics they’ll face in the finals.”
Yet some had hope in the African Champions such as Jimmy Hill, then commentating for the BBC
“In my opinion, Zaire will prove to be the most talented of the three mystery ‘underdog’ teams (the other two being Haiti and Australia).”
Zaire were unknowns but everyone had an opinion on them. Would they crash out of the World Cup at the first hurdle or would they qualify for the knockout stages? Stranger things had happened in football and after all Zaire were African Cup of Nations champions!
Zaire would kick off their World Cup adventure against Ormond’s Scottish side, hoping to show the world what they were made of. Sadly Zaire lost the match 2-0. First half goals from Lorimer and Jordan had put the game beyond Zaire’s reach. But we must remember that it had been was expected that the Scots hammer Zaire. Instead the underdogs came out of the game with many plaudits, mainly for their attacking style and the goalkeeping performance of Robert Kazadi, who helped keep the score at 2-0.
Captain Mantantu Kidumu and fellow midfielder Mayanga Maku had both wasted great goal-scoring opportunities for the Africans, so the game was not one-sided. For the final ten minutes Scotland played possession football, slowing down the match for fear Zaire might make a late comeback. Scotland captain Billy Bremner was clear about this,
“I have no regrets about slowing down the game in the final ten minutes against the Africans. If the game was played again I’d do exactly the same thing. In the circumstances, it was the right decision, I’m sure. It was hot and sticky, which favoured Zaire, whose substitutes gave their team a kiss of life. If we had opened up any more, Zaire may have pinched a goal.”
So yes Zaire had lost their opening game, but had given a good showing of what they were capable. They seemed somewhat frail in defence but their attacking options were considered dangerous. Next up for the Leopards was Yugoslavia. Would Zaire notch up their first win?
On June 18th 1974, 20,000 fans packed the stadium in Gelsenkirchen to see Zaire face off against Yugoslavia. Hopes were high among Zaire’s supporters but all was not right in the Zaire dressing room. Before the match against Yugoslavia Zaire’s players were told that money they had been promised by Mobutu would not be forthcoming. The players were livid. Ilunga Mwepu later told the BBC that the players “refused to play.”
FIFA officials were panicked. A team couldn’t refuse to play at the World Cup! Eventually money was collected amongst FIFA delegates and the Zairian players were persuaded to play. Not ideal preparation by any many of means and this was reflected in the match.
After only 8 minutes Yugoslavia were 1-0 up thanks to Bajevic. Matters only got worse from there. After 20 minutes the Leopards were 3-0 down. Zaire’s manager, Vidinic, knew something had to be done and made a decision that has baffled many people since. He substituted the Leopard’s goalie following the third Yugoslavian goal. This was the same keeper who had been heralded a few days earlier for his performance against Scotland. Tubilandu, the substitute goalie, didn’t fare any better.
By halftime, Yugoslavia were up 6-0 and the Leopards were in trouble. Zaire rallied somewhat in the second half but still conceded 3 goals without reply. Yugoslavia ran out 9-0 winners in one of the biggest winning margins in World Cup history. Zairian pride was hurt and commentators were not kind to the Leopards. ITV match commentator, Gerald Sinstadt told viewers
“The cause of African football (has been) set back a great deal by tonight. Their case to have the number of African nations in the World Cup increased can hardly have been strengthened by this performance.”
To make matters worse, Zaire’s final game in the World Cup was against Brazil. If Yugoslavia beat Zaire 9-0, what would the reigning World Cup Champions do? Zaire’s Dictator Mobutu was also concerned. He sent henchmen into the Zairian camp informing players that if they lost the game against Brazil by more than 4 goals that life would be made very uncomfortable for them. Some players allege they were told they wouldn’t be allowed return home. Hence when the Leopards lined out against Brazil on June 22nd the atmosphere was tense.
The Leopards were not playing for pride but for their own safety. It showed in their performance. In contrast to the Yugoslavian game, Zaire defended superbly showing great determination and spectacular goal-line clearances which frustrated the Brazilians, who desperately needed a three-goal win to progress to the next stage. Brazil were 2-0 after 66 minutes and were probing for a third. The third goal eventually came after a terrible mistake by Kazadi. Don’t lose by 4 goals had been the message delivered by Mobutu. Could Zaire hold out?
With five minutes remaining, Brazil were awarded a free-kick twenty-five yards from the Zaire goal. Rivelino and Jairzinho stood over the ball. What happened next has gone down in World Cup folklore as a joke, but the reality is much more serious.
As Brazil lined up to take the free kick, Zaire’s defender Mwepu Ilunga ran toward the ball, and launched it into down the field. This clip is often packaged in football’s funniest moments montages such as below but the reality is much more serious.
Many choose to reinforce the myth that Zaire didn’t know the rules of football and this is why Ilunga did what he did. Let’s examine that for a moment. Yes the players were technically amateurs but they had won the African Cup of Nations twice in six years and many had been part of the side that had won the African Cup of Champions in 1973. So let’s put that myth to pasture right now.
Over the years Ilunga has given many different answers to why he did what he did. For many years he explained it as a protest regarding unpaid wages. At other points he has discussed the pressure Mobutu’s henchmen had placed on the team not to concede four goals. We may never know the answer. Sadly when many think of the 1974 Zaire Campaign, they only remember this free kick. Brazil ran out 3-0 winners and the Zairian players were allowed to return home.
Looking back at the Zaire experience doesn’t make for pleasant reading. 14 goals conceded and none scored. The players returned home in disgrace and Mobutu’s regime soon forgot about them. Some, like goalkeeper Kazadi, died prematurely in poverty, while centre forward Mulamba Ndaye, whose nine goals at the 1974 African Cup of Nations remain a record, turned up destitute and penniless in South Africa.
The team however is still revered by citizens in DR Congo and remembered fondly for their successes. That is the legacy of the Zairian football experiment. That is the legacy of the Leopards. Like Egypt and Morocco before them, the Zairian World Cup Experience may not have been wholly successful. But it was nevertheless a seminal moment in the history of African teams at the World Cup.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.