If you only know one thing about Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1974 World Cup in West Germany it will certainly be that Brazilian freekick. It is an act of one player’s desperation that became world famous. With five minutes to go, world champions Brazil were 3-0 up against the already eliminated Africans. As Jairzinho and Rivelino took their time over a free kick, the Zaire full back Illunga Mwepu charged towards the stationary ball and booted it downfield. He crowed jeered and Mwepu was booked for his trouble as the commentator John Motson decried it as “a bizarre moment of African ignorance”. It seems odd that such a condescending, perhaps even colonialist, viewpoint was not challenged at the time, though it clearly chimed with European prejudices. While Zaire had hardly set the tournament alight (going down 2-0 to Scotland and 9-0 to Yugoslavia in their previous group games) it was not as though these players had never set foot on a football pitch before. Zaire were the reigning African Cup of Nations champions (and had won the 1968 tournament too) and in any case, did people really believe they would have qualified for a tournament in a sport they did not understand? The truth of Mwepu’s reckless punt is much darker than it may appear at first glance, a tale not of frivolity, but fear.
To understand why, we first need to go back in time a few years, to the 1960s. At this time the country was known not as Zaire but as Congo, and the national team, The Leopards, were the pride and joy of the nation. President Joseph Mobutu, who had taken control in a CIA-approved military coup in 1960, understood that football could be the key to increasing his popularity. After all, it had worked for Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, whose popularity soared after Ghana’s African Cup of Nation wins of ’63 and ’65. To this end Mobutu set about “professionalising” the game. He allowed the players who had left to play professionally in Belgium back into the international fold (though by 1974 the entire squad was home grown, Mobutu forbidding any Zaire players from playing overseas) and brought in a foreign coach, Ferenc Csanadi, a Hungarian. It worked: they won the African Cup of Nations in 1968 (as Congo-Kinshasa) and while they did not enter qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup or retain their African Cup of Nations in ’72 (losing out in the semis to Mali) they did have their best ever year in 1974 when, as Zaire, they regained their African Cup of Nations crown and became the first sub-Saharan African nation to qualify for World Cup, under their second foreign coach, Yugoslav Blagoje Vidinic.
The successes of ’74 are all the more remarkable when you consider that the 1970s were a time of great upheaval in the country. Mobutu strengthened his grip on power but outlawing all political parties but his own and adopting a policy of “authenticity” which entailed changing the country’s name to the more traditional Zaire, compelling Zairians to adopt traditional African names (Mobutu himself became Mobutu Sese Seke) and dress. He forbade Zairian footballers from plying their trade outside of the country and forced European investors out (though apparently had no problem with a foreigner coaching the national football team), with the companies being taken over either by the Government or Mobutu’s friends and/or party loyalists. Unsurprisingly most of these companies failed due to a combination of mismanagement and corruption; the country’s economy began to tank…meanwhile Mobutu’s own personal fortune conveniently continued to grow and grow. He used part of this fortune to incentivise the nation’s footballers, knowing that sporting success could boost his flagging popularity. Players were offered huge bonuses, cars and houses, in exchange for qualifying for the ’74 World Cup and then, once they had, further rewards for any success in Europe (by the same token he also used his vast wealth to secure capital Kinshasa as the venue for the Ali vs. Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” bout later in 1974).
The Leopards had a tough draw for the World Cup, landing in the same group as a strong Yugoslavia; reigning world champions Brazil, the side of Rivelino, Jairzinho and Edu; and a Scotland side boasting the likes of Bremner, Dalglish, Lorimer, Jordan and Law. Despite this, the country was optimistic. No-one outside of Africa expected much from the reigning African Cup of Nations champions – indeed, Scotland manager Willie Ormond opined that his side should “pack up and go home” if they couldn’t beat the Africans, whose main hopes were pinned on the free-scoring front two of Adelard Mayanga and Mulamba Ndaye.
Zaire kicked off their World Cup campaign against the Scots, going down 2-0 to first half goals from Lorimer and Jordan. It was expected that the Scots would deliver a hammering, but 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. It was after the game that Zaire’s campaign woud begin to fall apart and, much like the disintegration of the country’s economy, blame could be laid at the door of Joseph Mobutu and his cronies. While the Zairian entourage did not contain the President himself, it was full of his trusted friends and Government ministers, all of whom used the money ring-fenced for the Zaire players as their own private purse. Before the second group game against Yugoslavia the players were told that the money they had been promised would not be forthcoming. Initially, according to an interview that Illunga Mwepu gave the BBC in 2002, the players “refused to play”. They were persuaded to change their mind but their fight and enthusiasm had gone.
As it turned out they barely turned up on the pitch and were duly on the receiving end of a 9-0 thrashing in Gelsenkirchen. The game took a turn for the strange after just twenty minutes. With The Leopards already 3-0 down, their coach Vidinic took off ‘keeper Kazadi (who had played so well against Scotland) and replaced him with second choice Dimi Tubilandu who was just 5 foot 4 and conceded a further six goals. The coach himself refused to explain the odd substitution, insisting his reasons would remain “a state secret”. There were whispers after the game that Vidinic had done this to help out his home country Yugoslavia, other rumours suggested that it had been done at the request of some friends in high places that Tubilandu had in the Zaire Government. Even without the bizarre goalkeeping change, Zaire were never likely to come out with anything from the game. “Frankly, we’d lost our morale,” admitted Mulamba Ndaye later, “the management had made off with our match bonuses, and we’d threatened not to play the game. We could easily have let in 20 goals”.
The thrashing from the Yugoslavs left Zaire with nothing but pride to play for against world champions Brazil in their final group game. Or at least, that’s how it seemed. In actual fact they were playing not only for pride but also for their own safety. Mwepu stated that “after the [Yugoslavia] match, he [President Mobutu] sent his presidential guards to threaten us. They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 4-0 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.” When that context is taken into account, Mwepu’s previously unexplainable decision to smash the ball away before Brazil had taken it makes sense. Zaire were 3-0 down with five minutes to go. Mwepu and his teammates were looking to hold on to this scoreline and waste time however they could. “I panicked and kicked the ball away before he [Rivelino] could take it,” admitted the full back. “I shouted ‘you bastards!’ at them [the Brazil players] because they didn’t understand the pressure we were under.” His reaction is understandable – the Zaire players did not know if they would be able to return home, or if they did, they did not know what horrors they (or their families) might face. After all, they had already been threatened by the lackeys of their country’s despotic ruler, a man who was known to have those who displeased him kidnapped, tortured or killed. Mwepu’s moment of panic was, in truth, not the hilarious blooper moment it has been made out to be but the actions of a desperate man whose team had become the plaything of a capricious despot.
In the end the team hung on for a 3-0 defeat and were spared any further repercussions. The exited their first ever World Cup campaign with laughter ringing in their ears but in the circumstances they performed quite well against better sides, especially against Scotland and Brazil. The squad, who left for Germany as heroes, returned home to Zaire and were almost entirely ignored and forgotten. Mobutu’s “authenticity” rule meant the players were banned from moving abroad to showcase their footballing talents and so they had to scratch out a living in poverty while the country’s ruler amassed a personal fortune at the expense of his people. Mwepu and his teammates may have been ignored and forgotten in their homeland but they have gone down in World Cup history for their extraordinary World Cup campaign. West Germany may have won the tournament, but the best story to come out of the 1974 World Cup belongs to Zaire.