African football has come a long, long way in the past few decades. Now, African players make a discernible impact across all of the world’s top leagues. The likes of Mo Salah, Yaya Touré, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sadio Mané are all household names (provided your household is made up of lovers of the beautiful game, that is). Few football fans could also deny the influence that the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba or George Weah made in their time too.
It’s not just in club football that Africa makes its presence felt. Every four years, the World Cup highlights reel usually features some rather special moments from nations such as Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. Stand-out memories include Senegal’s humbling of world champions France in the opening game back in 2002, Roger Milla’s seductive corner flag celebrations at Italia ‘90 and South Africa’s goal against Mexico while hosting Africa’s very first World Cup back in 2010.
Things haven’t always been quite so rosy for Mama Africa’s reputation on the global stage, though. For the longest time, the world’s footballing behemoths paid little notice and showed virtually no respect towards the continent. It took until 1974 before a black African nation even made it to a tournament, mostly due to years of rejected applications and qualification rules put in place by FIFA that seemingly discriminated against Sub-Saharan countries.
The country that finally made it to The Big One was Zaire. Now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zaire were no footballing mugs. The reigning African Cup of Nations holders, they were far and away the continent’s strongest outfit. Which made what happened at the tournament all the more strange. To those that don’t know the full story, anyway...
"If we can't beat Zaire then we should pack our bags and go home."
June 14th 1974. The ‘Leopards of Zaire’, led by their Yugoslavian coach Blagoje Vidinić took part in their first ever World Cup match. Played at the Westfalenstadion Stadium in Dortmund, it because quickly apparent that their opponents, a Scotland side boasting the likes of Denis Law, Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish, had seriously underestimated them.
Zaire burst out of the blocks and quickly set about thrilling everyone watching with their attacking approach and maverick playing style. Unfortunately for Vidinić’s men, Scotland weathered the storm and eventually wrestled the game from them, winning - somewhat undeservedly - by two goals to nil. It was no disgrace though, by any stretch. In fact, despite dismissive pre-game comments by Scotland manager Willie Ormond ("If we can't beat Zaire then we should pack our bags and go home."), Zaire had quietly impressed many and won some new fans with their buccaneering spirit and positivity.
Their next game was due to be played on June 18th but within the four days between the first and second games, the wheels began to fall off Zaire’s campaign. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. The wheels exploded.
Zaire President Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (let’s stick with ‘President Mobutu’ or just ‘Mobutu’, shall we?), it’s fair to say, got rather excited about sending a side out to represent his country. After sealing qualification, President Mobutu invited the squad to his personal residence to celebrate and bought them all houses and cars. He was invested.
For the World Cup, Mobutu set up a sizeable kitty for the players to dip into should they need or want to. He also sent over an enormous entourage of government and Zairean football federation officials to bolster the ranks and as something of a sign of strength. Here’s the rub, though - those suited-up hangers-on starting dipping into the fund and very soon had bled it completely dry. The players soon discovered this. At the same time they realised that the money wasn’t just for allowances, it was for their wages and bonuses. They’d basically been ripped off. They wouldn’t be getting paid.
For the World Cup, Mobutu set up a sizeable kitty for the players to dip into should they need or want to. He also sent over an enormous entourage of government and Zairean football federation officials to bolster the ranks and as something of a sign of strength. Here’s the rub, though - those suited-up hangers-on starting dipping into the fund and very soon had bled it completely dry. The players soon discovered this. At the same time, they realised that the money wasn’t just for allowances, it was for their wages and bonuses. They’d basically been ripped off. They wouldn’t be getting paid.
Understandably, there was outrage and mutiny in the camp. A good majority of the squad declared that they wouldn’t play on June 18th. FIFA, it’s said, stepped in and allegedly paid some 3,000 Deutsche Marks per player to take to the field and save the tournament's reputation.
Reluctantly, eleven players trudged out onto the pitch of the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen. But while they were there in body, they were not there in spirit. The game quickly turned into a farce. It could be argued that Zaire 'threw' the game in protest. It could be argued that the stress and off-field nonsense resulted in tired players that hadn't trained properly weren't properly focused and were severely lacking motivation. But what can't be argued is that the game was an embarrassment to everyone concerned.
The Fateful Match
In one of the oddest openings to any international match ever, Yugoslavia took a three-goal lead in 20 minutes. So Zaire’s man in the dugout Vidinić - a former Yugoslav international himself - decided to substitute his goalkeeper. Off came Kazadi Muamba on the 21-minute mark. On came Dimbi Tubilandu who was just 5'4" on tiptoes. Within a minute he'd conceded himself. He'd have to pick the ball out of his net a further five times that evening.
Yugoslavia had a decent - and ironically given later events, quite a unified team - back in the 1970's. Dusan Bajevic helped himself to a hat-trick. Legendary Red Star Belgrade winger Dragan Dzajic also popped up with a goal. As did Ivica Surjak, Vladislav Bogicevic, Branko Oblak, Josip Katalinski and Ilija Petkovic. It was a rout. Six-nil at halftime, it ended nine nil. It was one of the heaviest World Cup defeats ever. The mitigating circumstances were kept secret, though. So to the rest of the world Zaire - and African football as a whole - looked sloppy, poor and unprofessional.
Two games played. Two games lost. Eleven goals conceded. Zero goals scored. It was safe to say that Zaire’s first and only appearance at the World Cup was a disaster. It gets worse, though.
Four days after the 9-0 hammering, the Leopards, now out of the World Cup and completely humiliated, had one final game remaining. Against reigning world champions Brazil. It gets worse again, though. Much worse this time...
Zaire were now a full-on laughing stock. Yet President Mobutu, unsurprisingly, failed to see the funny side. Military dictators being a notoriously serious bunch and all. Indignant, ashamed, humiliated and outright furious, he decided to ‘intervene’.
"They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home."
"After the match, he sent his presidential guards to threaten us," fullback Mwepu Ilunga has since claimed in an interview given to the BBC. "They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home."
The pressure was on.
Midway into the second half and Brazil are two up. They get a free kick some 25 yards out. Concede again and the Leopards could soon be in serious trouble. Cue one of the most infamous incidents in World Cup history...
Ilunga seems to panic, runs up to the ball and boots it upfield. Why? Well, obviously it’s because he’s stupid and none of the team knows the basic rules of football! That’s been the rather incredible assumption since then. It was called ‘a bizarre moment of African ignorance’ by BBC commentator and sheepskin fetishist John Motson. But the truth was darker than that.
The move was driven by fear. It was a time-wasting tactic, one designed to confuse Brazil and put them off. Did it work? Perhaps. The Seleção would go on to score again, but the game ended three nil, meaning the players were allowed to return to their homeland. Shamed, broke and pretty much social pariahs, their careers - to a man - were almost instantly over. Mobutu cut funding to the national team and the game of football in Zaire was strangled to death.
Like we say, African football has come a long, long way in the past few decades. Then again, the only way was up.