Zaire’s 1974 World Cup experience can be seen as comic but, as Jonathan Barker explains, reaching those finals was actually a high point in a country’s tragic history

If he were alive today, perhaps a chunk of former Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s dubiously acquired fortune would be invested in a Premier League club. Instead his claim to football infamy is the role his government played in the dramatic rise and fall of his country’s football team. The Leopards were African champions in 1968 and 1974, but have gone down in history as the fall guys of the 1974 World Cup.

One particular incident, in the game against Brazil, when defender Ilunga Mwepu desperately charged out of a wall and hoofed the ball down the field before a free-kick had actually been taken, has come to define their ill-fated campaign in West Germany.

When Lieutenant-General Mobutu took power in a CIA-backed coup in late 1965, few expected him to last long. An enormous territory containing enormous natural wealth, Congo had been riven by ethnic and regional conflict since independence from Belgium in 1960. For Mobutu, football would be the means of uniting a disparate population as he looked to the example of Ghana, whose African Nations Cup victories in 1963 and 1965 had boosted the prestige of President Kwame Nkrumah.

However, Congo’s national team, composed entirely of domestic league players, were weak, and had just failed at the recent Nations Cup in Tunisia. When Ghana’s Black Stars came to Kinshasa and thrashed “his” team, an apparently incandescent Mobutu took the defeat as a personal insult and the decision was taken to repatriate the so-called Belgicains, players who had moved to the Belgian league since the end of the 1950s. These professionals, along with the best young local players, would form the basis of a new national squad.

If the 1968 Nations Cup triumph in Ethiopia – achieved with a 1-0 win over Ghana – had been a surprise, by the beginning of 1974 the newly renamed Zaire were widely recognised as the strongest team in Africa. The ­government’s provision of technical and financial support was increasingly being seen as a model of development for African football, while at home Mobutu presented the team’s successes as a symbol of how he had stabilised a country seemingly on the edge of disintegration.

In the 18 months before the finals, the Leopards successfully negotiated the qualifying rounds of both the African Nations Cup and the World Cup. Furthermore AS Vita, from the capital, Kinshasa, had won the 1973 African Champions Cup. However, if few were surprised by Zaire’s 2-0 victory over Zambia in Cairo in a replayed Nations Cup final in March 1974, doubts remained about the team’s World Cup prospects.

Failings that would be exposed so cruelly in West Germany were already apparent. Some unconvincing performances in the group games in Egypt had highlighted an apparent lack of organisation in defence and midfield, with the normally taciturn Scotland manager Willie Ormond moved to comment: “If we lose to Zaire I will send the team home from the World Cup.” Even after the Nations Cup final, many observers struggled to discern any coherent tactical pattern, often using the vague term “hybrid” to describe the team’s style of play.

In building a team strong enough to dominate African football, the regime effectively isolated the players from the rest of the world game. Several of the squad had already attracted the attention of European clubs, but foreign transfers had been forbidden under the government policy known as “authenticity”, which was Mobutu’s own Cultural Revolution, aimed at promoting a traditional African identity. Footballers were redefined as “national treasures”, their export abroad unthinkable: “Zaire must not become the cradle in Africa for Europe’s mercenaries” was Mobutu’s slogan.

As a consequence, most of the squad had never played in Europe before a series of friendlies against Swiss and Italian clubs less than six weeks before their first game in West Germany. Although he had access to the players for 20 weeks before the finals, Yugoslav coach Blagoje Vidinic – who had been charge of Morocco’s 1970 team in Mexico – had decided against a more intensive warm-up programme, citing the demands that had already been placed on his essentially amateur players over the past year.

The friendlies were clearly too little, too late, and a series of unsatisfactory performances left Vidinic bemoaning his players’ tactical “naivety”, a word that would continue to be associated with African teams even after it ceased to have any relevance.

Still, in their first game, against Scotland, the Leopards were a pleasant surprise, their rapid one-touch passing and unpredictable movement at times evoking memories of past Brazilian teams. Despite a 2-0 defeat, the Leopards felt they had silenced those who had doubted their right to play in the World Cup. They had been, as one Belgian newspaper put it, “a breath of fresh air”.

From then on things went rapidly downhill, as the squad fell victim to the other kind of official “attention” that was such a feature of Mobutu’s rule. On the day of the game against Yugoslavia, the players learned that the bonuses they expected had been stolen by government officials. Initially refusing to play, the squad relented at the last minute, though pre-match footage of the row of glum faces in Zaire’s ­concrete ­dugout indicates they were in no mood to play the best team they had ever faced. After the Yugoslavs’ third goal, goalkeeper Mwamba Kazadi was substituted, a puzzling decision given that he was hardly to blame for any of the goals. When questioned after the game, Vidinic said the reasons for the switch would remain a “state secret”, but it was rumoured that reserve keeper Dimbi Tubilandu was a favourite of one of Mobutu’s close advisors, who had been pressing for his inclusion in the team.

If anything, the 9-0 score flattered the Leopards, whose problems had been compounded by an obvious physical inferiority and Vidinic not countering Yugoslavia’s inclusion of an extra attacking player in Dusan Bajevic, who scored a hat-trick.

Before the final game, against Brazil, Mobutu’s security staff apparently warned the players that a defeat by more than three goals would have dire consequences. When the Brazilians were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out five minutes from time with the score at 3-0, one can imagine what went through Mwepu’s mind.

Many Congolese still remember the 1974 team fondly, not merely for their victories, but also as a reminder of a relatively stable and prosperous time in the country’s history. That year would be a watershed in both sporting and economic terms. A sharp decline in the price of copper, Zaire’s main export, combined with the effects of Mobutu’s disastrous economic “reforms” and unparalleled looting of the country’s wealth signalled the onset of a social and economic collapse. Although he was to cling on to power until 1997 – after which Zaire reverted to its former name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Mobutu would never realise his ambition of becoming a renowned international figure. Instead, his main contribution to political discourse would be the coining of the term “kleptocracy”, to describe his and his cronies’ unbridled corruption.

The Leopards’ fall from grace would be even more rapid than their rise, failing to qualify for the Montreal Olympics, being eliminated in the first round of the 1976 Nations Cup and then withdrawing from the qualifiers of the 1978 World Cup as the regime lost interest in the team’s fortunes.

In another era, several of the squad would have pursued lucrative careers in Europe, as many of their compatriots have done since (winger Etepe Kakoko was the only 1974 player to play outside Africa, in the lower leagues in West Germany). For many players, however, 1974 marked the beginning of decades of hardship along with the rest of the population, as Zaire’s social fabric gradually disintegrated. Some, like goalkeeper Kazadi, died prematurely in poverty, while centre-forward Mulamba Ndaye, whose nine goals at the 1974 Nations Cup remain a record, turned up destitute and penniless in South Africa, but only after his passing had been mistakenly announced at the 1998 Nations Cup. Which is worth bearing in mind the next time you hear a D-list celebrity sniggering over footage of Mwepu’s indiscretion.

From WSC 252 February 2008

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