Throwback Thursday: The Bizarre Tragedy of Zaire's World Cup Debut
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Throwback Thursday: The Bizarre Tragedy of Zaire's World Cup Debut

Zaire qualified for their first World Cup in 1974 and hopes were high for the Leopards. But, under the obsessive scrutiny of President Mobutu, the team's dream quickly became a nightmare.

41 years ago this week, on June 22nd 1974, one of the strangest moments in World Cup history took place at the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen. Reigning champions Brazil held a 2-0 lead over tournament first-timers Zaire in the final Group B match. That would be enough to send Brazil into the second round, while the African side had already been eliminated following defeats to Scotland and Yugoslavia.


10 minutes remained when Rivelino and Jairzinho stood over a free-kick. But, before they could take it, a Zaire defender broke from the wall, sprinted at the Brazilians and hoofed the ball up field. Mwepu Ilunga didn't know it, but he'd just achieved footballing immortality.

Today, the incident is a mainstay of the hastily assembled football clip shows, narrated by guffawing former Blue Peter presenters, that are rolled out before every World Cup. But Ilunga's clearance was not, as BBC commentator John Motson put it, "a bizarre moment of African ignorance." It was a time-wasting tactic by a team who feared for their lives if they lost heavily to the Brazilians.

Zaire arrived at World Cup '74 on a high. They had progressed through a gruelling qualifying phase that saw just one African side earn a place in West Germany, beating the much-fancied Morocco 3-0 in a decisive final group stage match. Victory at the 1974 African Cup of Nations followed, leading some pundits to tip the Leopards to impress.

But their view might have changed if they'd seen what was happening behind the scenes. A former Belgian colony, Zaire was known as Congo when it gained independence in 1960. Mobutu Sese Seko snatched the presidency following a coup in 1965, ruling unopposed and with devastating results for the next three decades. The Zaire name was adopted in 1971, while Western clothing was banned and Zaireans were ordered to drop their European names for traditional African ones. Mobutu even orchestrated the country's footballing policy, recalling players who had moved to Belgium, banning them from returning abroad and investing significant funds in the national game's development.


And it built a formidable squad, including Kazadi Mwamba, who is recognised as his country's greatest goalkeeper; midfield maestro Ricky Mavuba; and striker Mulamba Ndaye, who bagged nine goals at the '74 Cup of Nations — a record that still stands today.

World Cup qualification was the culmination of this project. Mobutu was thrilled, inviting the players to his luxury compound where they were treated like royalty; the soon-to-be-infamous Ilunga later recalled that the president had given each member of the team a house and a green Volkswagen car. Though he did not travel to West Germany himself, Mobutu sent a significant Zairean entourage that included government ministers, members of the armed forces and — allegedly — a number of witchdoctors.

Mobutu displaying his penchant for leopard-skin. The dictator was also famous for his thick-rimmed glasses

If the hangers on were a distraction the players did not let it show. Their opening game saw the Leopards take on Scotland, whose manager Willie Ormond had earlier declared: "If we cannot beat Zaire then we should pack up our bags and go home."

But, against a side that boasted the talents of Dalglish, Bremner and Law among others, Zaire held up remarkably well, displaying skill on the ball and a cohesive defensive strategy. That they eventually went down 2-0 was no great shame given their status as World Cup first-timers.

Unfortunately, that defeat would prove to be Zaire's high point at the tournament. Ahead of the second game, against a Yugoslavian side considered no better or worse than the Scots, arguments broke out over money. Match payments were not received, leaving players to suspect they had been stolen by the hangers-on.


This led to near mutiny, with several refusing to turn out against the Yugoslavs. One former player has alleged that the tournament's organisers eventually gave the team 3,000 Deutsche Marks a piece to convince them to participate, and avoid tarnishing the World Cup's image.

In the event it was Zaire's reputation that took a hammering. Exhausted and demotivated by days of arguing, the Leopards performance against Yugoslavia was among the worst in the tournament's history. With the European side already three up after 20 minutes, the Zaire coach Blagoje Vidinic (a former Yugoslav international) chose to replace goalkeeper Kazidi with his 5ft-4 understudy, Dimbi Tubilandu. Unsurprisingly it did nothing to improve the team's performance, and the eventual 9-0 scoreline flattered Zaire.

The two captains ahead of the fateful Yugoslavia game

At this stage things turned ugly. Furious with the international humiliation his nation had suffered, Mobutu sent presidential guards to threaten the team, informing them that if they lost by four or more goals to Brazil they would not be allowed to return home.

And it was that, claims Ilunga, that prompted him to send the ball up field before the Brazilians could take their free-kick; the defender was buying time, fearful that another goal could spell disaster. It is unlikely that an international player of his experience did not know the rules of a free-kick; Ilunga's assertion that it was an intentional act is believable given Mobutu's pre-match threats.


Brazil did grab a further goal, Valdomiro making it 3-0 on 79 minutes, but there would be no fourth. The Zaire team were allowed to return home, albeit as national pariahs.

Mobutu quickly cast football aside, cutting off funding for the sport and instead ploughing the nation's money into hosting the 'Rumble in the Jungle' boxing contest between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The country has not returned to the World Cup since.

The side of '74 were quickly forgotten, many sliding into poverty with the rest of Zaire. Goalkeeper Kazadi, a Cup of Nations winner in '68 and '74, died penniless in 1996, while Mavuba ended up living in France as a refugee where he died in 1997. Mobutu fled Zaire that same year having dragged the country into economic and social chaos. The former dictator died later in '97, though the havoc he wrought on the nation — now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is still visible today.

In 1998 a minute's silence was held at the African Cup of Nations following reports that Ndaye had died. In fact the top goalscorer of '74 was very much alive, though he was now living rough in South Africa after fleeing his homeland. Ndaye has since found work as a coach and lives in a township outside Cape Town.

Given his former team-mates' struggles, it is hardly surprising that when a film crew met him in 2010, Ekofa Mbungu was happy to be making a living as a taxi driver. More than 30 years on from the tournament, he was still driving the same green Volkswagen that Mobutu gave the team as a reward for World Cup qualification.