With five spots guaranteed for CAF teams at the FIFA World Cup, it is hard to imagine football’s premier tournament without African representation. For the first 40 years of the competition’s history, this was the case as Egypt were the only team to participate with their sole appearance in 1934. However, as was the case in so many areas, not just related to football, the 1960s proved to be a time of great change and it was not long before African teams would become a staple of the World Cup.
1962 was the first World Cup that saw several African teams apply for the qualification process, but the interest was not enough for FIFA to give any guaranteed spots and so when Morocco came out on top they were drawn in an intercontinental playoff against Spain. The highly favoured Spain would win both games, meaning that once again there were no African teams in the competition. This created a sense of unrest among CAF members, which only heightened when FIFA still refused to allocate a guaranteed berth for 1966. As a result of this decision, every CAF member chose to boycott the competition until FIFA took notice, which proved to be a good move as they were granted their wish with a guaranteed spot in 1970.
While Morocco were the beneficiaries in 1970, it was four years later that Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to play in the FIFA World Cup in West Germany. After an increasingly tricky run in qualification of beating Togo, Cameroon 3-1 and Ghana 4-2, they were placed into a final group with Zambia and Morocco. This group proved to be relatively straightforward for Zaire, winning all four games including a 2-0 walkover win for their away game at Morocco.
Zaire went into the 1974 World Cup with a lot of confidence having won the Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year, beating Zambia in the final after a replay. Ndaye Mulamba was the star of that Zaire side, finishing as top scorer with 9 goals, including 6 across the three games in the semis and the final, which was forced into a replay. Mulamba was named as the player of the tournament as Zaire won their second Africa Cup of Nations title having won the 1968 tournament under the name Congo-Kinshasa.
The success of the national team on the pitch came as a great pleasure to Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko as it helped him to ‘sportswash’ the country’s image. Sportswashing is a tool that has been used in politics as far back as the Roman times when gladiator fights would be used to distract people from their impoverished lives, and in more recent times we have seen prominent nations with poor human rights records such as China, the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar focus on the success of their sports teams or host large scale events in order to improve their international image. Mobutu Sese Seko was a prominent advocate of this, and when Zaire qualified for the FIFA World Cup he awarded each of the players with a new house and car.
Outside of their rewards from Mobutu, each team that qualified for the 1974 World Cup was supposed to receive a bonus of half a million dollars. After their first game resulted in a 2-0 defeat against an albeit strong Scotland side that featured legendary players such as Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law, and Billy Bremner, the Zaire players were informed that all of the bonus money would be sent back to Zaire and they would not receive any of it. The squad had decided that they were willing to pull out of the tournament due to the corruption going on, but they eventually agreed to play against Yugoslavia after receiving an angry phone call from Mobutu himself.
From this point on, Zaire would play two matches that would go on to cement their place in World Cup lore. While they were willing to play against Yugoslavia, it was clear that their morale had gone and they would not be able to perform as well as they did against Scotland. After going 3-0 down 18 minutes into the game, Zaire subbed on Tubilandu Ndimbi – a 5’4” goalkeeper who was a good friend of a Zaire official in attendance – as he became the first goalkeeper to ever be subbed on in a World Cup game for a reason other than injury. To make things worse, their 1974 Africa Cup of Nations hero Ndaye Mulamba was sent off in the 22nd minute. This would prove to be a nail in the coffin for the Leopards, as they conceded another six goals to lose 9-0, making it the joint heaviest defeat in World Cup history along with Hungary’s 9-0 over South Korea in 1954 and their 10-1 win over El Salvador in 1982.
This was a red rag to a bull for Mobutu, who was possibly angrier than he would have been if they refused to play. The dictator left a very clear message for his players – if they lost by four or more goals then they would not be allowed to return to Zaire. Even if Zaire were playing at the best of their abilities this was a lot to ask as Brazil were the reigning world champions, albeit this time without Pele.
Zaire started the game reasonably well, as it was later revealed that they went into the game with the intention of ‘showing the world they could play’, and with 12 minutes remaining the score was at a respectable 2-0 to Brazil. Tensions on the pitch reached their peak when Brazil were awarded a free kick just outside the box with the moustachioed Rivelino standing over it. This would provide the setting for one of the most iconic moments in World Cup history, as Zaire defender Mwepu Ilunga dashed out of the defensive wall and cleared the ball as far as he could.
The initial response, famously voiced by John Motson, was that it was ‘a moment of African ignorance’ and it was widely seen as one of the ultimate comedy moments in football. The truth is far less funny, as Ilunga later revealed that he was fully aware of the rules but used the free kick as a chance to protest against the higher-ups. It is also possible that it was used as a chance to play down the clock when another two Brazil goals would have resulted in their exile from Zaire.
Despite the admirable performance, there was one underlying issue – some members of the Zaire camp had allegedly conspired with Brazil to ensure that they would win by three goals, in order to send them through ahead of Scotland on goal difference. Kazadi Mwamba, the Zaire goalkeeper, later confessed that he conceded the last two Brazil goals on purpose in order to secure Brazil’s progression.
Zaire and Brazil were both somewhat satisfied with the final result of 3-0, as Brazil went through the group stage and eventually finished in 4th place, losing a playoff to Poland before heading home. Zaire, on the other hand, knew that if nothing else they were able to return to their families even if it was in disgrace.
In contrast to the luxury coach that collected the team after winning the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations, the team had to travel in an army bus when they arrived at the airport before being transported to the presidential palace for a meeting with Mobutu. The captain, Raoul Kidumu, later said “There he gave us an ear full. He looked at us over the rim of his glasses, like an angry dad to his children: “So you thought you would rebel? I gave you all a house and a car!”. He was furious. Not one player dared to speak. It was deathly quiet. In the end I softly asked to have the word and I apologised for what happened. It’s the only thing I could have done. He finished with ‘Next time I’ll throw you all in jail!’”
The outcome of what should have been the highest point of their footballing history resulted in their lowest point. Some of the players received some offers to play for European teams, however Mobutu refused to let them leave the country upon their return from West Germany. Their 1974 Africa Cup of Nations hero, Ndaye Mulamba, ended up becoming homeless and was found begging on the streets of South Africa before sadly passing away last year. Ekofa Mbungu had better fortunes, becoming a taxi driver, as he was found by a television crew in 2010 using the same car that he was given by Mobutu back in 1974. Mwepu Ilunga, the face of the most infamous moment, decided to continue working in football and was part of the national team set up extending way into the country’s current status as DR Congo. Ilunga’s death in 2015 was mourned by several of their current players, namely Yannick Bolasie.
As for Mobutu, he stopped using football as a means of propaganda as the national team’s fortunes dwindled. He did, however, continue sportswashing, this time in the form of boxing where he hosted one of the most famous matches in history between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman with what became known as ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’. He would continue his tyrannical reign over the country until 1997 where he fled the country after being overthrown, before passing away later that year in Morocco.
The 1974 World Cup signalled an end to a golden era in Zairian football, as they have never qualified for the tournament again and they haven’t even progressed past the quarter finals of the Africa Cup of Nations.
While it was not a tournament to remember for any of the right reasons, Zaire’s 1974 campaign was a perfect storm of the sportswashing that was carried out by many dictatorships across the 20th century, as well as the corruption that has haunted many African teams at World Cups right up to this day. Even if they are remembered negatively, Zaire are undoubtedly one of the essential stories of World Cup history.