Zaire were eye-catching in 1974
It is one of the most memorable moments in football history. Labelled “a bizarre moment of African ignorance” by commentator John Motson, Mwepu Ilunga’s name was etched into the history books, for all the wrong reasons. As Brazil lined up to take a free-kick with star men Rivelino and Jairzinho over the ball, the defender broke free of the Zaire wall and booted the ball as far as he could, receiving a yellow card for his troubles.
Many, like John Motson watching on, brushed this off as simple ignorance from the nation not known for their footballing ability. However, to claim Zaire did not know the rules of football is hugely disrespectful to a decent side who fended off every other African nation to qualify and won the African Cup of Nations in the same year.
In fact, the truth about this act lies on the darker side of football history. Zaire was under the rule of fierce dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who was making big changes in the country. He had changed the name from Congo to Zaire in 1971 after seizing power after a coup in 1965, ordered locals to use their African names and banned all clothing from the western world.
He invested heavily in football in his homeland and aggressively went about building a dominant side. He recalled several players who had moved abroad – often against their will – and began planning to qualify for the World Cup in Germany. This was a trickier task than it sounds as at that time, just one African nation represented the continent at the biggest tournament in world football.
With the most talented side of a generation including Ricky Mavumba, Kazadi Mwamba and top scorer at the AFCON 74, Mulamba Ndaye – they did just that. They beat Morocco and Zambia home and away in the final group after a fierce knockout competition to book their place at their first ever World Cup.
Mobuto was understandably delighted at this news and heaped riches onto the players. They were each rewarded with a house and new Volkswagen car and he even went as far as inviting them into his luxury mansion – something that was incredibly rare during his reign. Things were looking good heading into the tournament and the nation were expected to perform well and were put under pressure to do so.
Mobuto did not travel to the World Cup but he made sure that there was a strong Zairian presence in West Germany at that time. High-ranking Government officials, members of the military and even witch doctors were sent over to give the team the best chance of success but things did not go to plan.
They performed admirably during their opening game against a confident Scotland side featuring Denis Law, Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish but fell to a 2-0 defeat. That was the high point of a tournament that would turn into a disaster for the side representing the whole of Africa.
A dispute about match payments broke out, with many players believing that the officials from their country had taken the money. Chaos broke out amongst the squad and they were eventually each given 3000 Deutsche Marks by FIFA which convinced them to play, and avoided spoiling the reputation and prestige of the World Cup.
The Yugoslavia team at that time were not thought to be any better than the Scots, who Zaire had lost to 2-0 to in their first game. However, the Leopards looked out of sorts and were 3-0 down in the first 20 minutes. Things then took a turn for the worse when first-choice goalkeeper Kazai Mwamba was replaced by Tubilandu Ndimbi, his 5ft 4in understudy, who was a friend of one of the Zaire officials, who was in attendance and keen to see him play. Midfielder Ndaye Mulamba was sent off a minute after that substitution and Zaire went on to lose 9-0, a World Cup record defeat.
This meant national humiliation for Zaire and Mobuto was furious. Such was his anger that he ordered several of his personal bodyguards to go over to Germany and threaten the national team. They did exactly that, telling the squad that if they lost by more than three goals to reigning world champions Brazil, they would not be allowed back into the country.
So, we come to the second half of the final group game. Zaire are 2-0 down and the players are starting to panic, fearing for their lives. With Brazil lining up the free-kick the ‘hilarious’ moment happened. Ilunga booted the ball as far as he could in an attempt to run down the clock and get the ball away from danger and, if you think about it, it worked.
Zaire lost the game 3-0 but were allowed to return home, albeit in disgrace. Several of them died in poverty, Mulamba Ndaye was forced to beg in South Africa and Ekofa Mbungu was working as a taxi driver in 2010, using the very same Volkswagen that he had been given way back in 1974.
Ilunga, the tragic hero of this piece, sadly died in 2015 at the age of 66 but stayed in football for the majority of his life. He was part of the national team set-up and even managed them for a period of time.
Ruthless military dictator Mobutu quickly lost interest in football and withdrew funding soon after leading to the collapse of the national sde. Instead, he focussed his attention and money on boxing and the dream of hosting the biggest bout in the world. That came to fruition in October of the same year as Zaire paid big money to host ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ between George Foreman and Mohamed Ali.
Ali won by knockout in the eighth round and Zaire had hosted one of the biggest sporting events in history, but the country was heading for more chaos. Mobutu fled the country in 1997 with Zaire in an economic crisis and died in the same year, before the country as renamed to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Signs of Mobutu’s reign of terror are still noticeable in DR Congo today and the story of Zaire at the 1974 World Cup was anything but funny.