MWEPU ILUNGA, with an iconic and unexpected break from the Zaire defensive wall, blasted the ball as high up the Parkstadion pitch as he possibly could. A startled Rivellino had to take aversive action so as not to be hit by that wonderful Adidas Telstar ball. A bemused Marinho and Jairzinho looked on incredulously, while Nelinho, who a few seconds earlier had been trying to bully and unsettle the desperate Zaire defenders, protested wildly. Nicolae Rainea, the Romanian referee, strode with purpose to Ilunga and forcefully brandished his yellow card.
A watching world burst out laughing, at a joke that was that little bit more sinister than most people have ever been comfortable with or willing to admit. It is an event which has been regularly poked with a stick ever since.
It was in Gelsenkirchen, at the 1974 World Cup, where Ilunga wrote his name into footballing folklore. Ilunga and Zaire were forever embossed with the accusation of naivety. Ilunga and Zaire had, however, forever changed the landscape of African football in a much more positive way than they are ever given credit for.
Winners of the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations, their second title in just six years, Zaire were the first sub-Saharan nation to reach the finals of a World Cup. This was no accidental qualification for West Germany – Zaire were a team very much in the ascendancy. Rather than the embarrassment that they are painted as, Zaire are under-celebrated trailblazers. Without the endeavours of Zaire, the achievements of Cameroon and Senegal in 1990 and 2002 probably wouldn’t have happened when they did. It might well have taken a further generation.
The man behind the drive of Zaire through to West Germany in 1974, via Africa Cup of Nations glory in Egypt, was the former Yugoslavia international goalkeeper Blagoje Vidinić, a man who played in the 1960 European Championship final against the Soviet Union, and picked up silver and gold medals at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.
Zaire were guided by a head coach of immense purpose. Vidinić had also taken Morocco to the finals of Mexico 70 – making them the first African nation to contest the World Cup finals since Egypt in 1934 – where his side had frightened the mighty West Germany in Léon, leading them 1-0 going into the second half before succumbing to a late winning goal for a 2-1 defeat, eventually bowing out of the tournament with a credible draw against Bulgaria.
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For Vidinić, it was to be a proud moment to lead Zaire into the World Cup against his home nation, Yugoslavia. The draw, made in Frankfurt in early January, was unkind to the Leopards. Not only did they have to face Yugoslavia, but also a strong and emerging Scotland side and the reigning world champions, Brazil.
Fuelled by the financial assistance of Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire for over three decades, a controversial figure which Time magazine posthumously described in 2011 as the archetypal African dictator, much was expected by the Zairian hierarchy of their national football team in West Germany, despite the hugely difficult group into which they were drawn.
The Zaire side had enjoyed the trappings of an achieve-and-reward system, which had been introduced by Mobutu. Vidinić, after his success with Morocco, had been headhunted by Zaire, and for both coaching team and players, the bonuses for victory were very generous, both in terms of cash payment and land given. In West Germany, Mobutu’s expectations were high, unrealistic even. The Zaire players were of the mind that they would still be rewarded for the modest defeats which they thought they were capable of restricting their superior opponents to.
Zaire were, however, riding the crest of an incredible wave going into the finals. Mobutu felt his men were invincible after conquering Morocco during World Cup qualification and after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, with an added sense of style, just a short few months prior to setting off for West Germany.
In qualifying for the World Cup, Zaire had overcome the favourites, an organised and disciplined Morocco side, a side which had of course been empowered by Vidinić. It was, however, a Morocco side which had slipped up in a spectacular manner against Zambia, a result which left everything riding on their trip to face Zaire in Kinshasa. At the Stade Tate Raphael, in front of an official attendance of 8,000 – which is thought to have been closer to 20,000 – Zaire spent the first half in a frustrated stalemate against their well-drilled opponents, who knew a draw would set up a home encounter in Tétouan where a win would see them through instead of Zaire.
Despite wave upon wave of Zaire attacks, Morocco repelled all attempts on their goal, in an away performance which was ahead of its time for an African side. The second half was a different story, however, as Zaire ramped up the pressure on Morocco, by both fair and foul means. Uncompromising tackles were aplenty in a bid to make Morocco loosen their vice-like composure – and it worked. A goal-mouth scramble led to Zaire’s opener. As a result, Morocco were forced to be more expansive in pursuit of an equaliser which would keep them in the World Cup.
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This played into Zaire’s hands, and a second goal came just beyond the hour mark when Kembo struck again. This time, Morocco allowed their own frustrations to boil over, and Zaire’s goalscoring hero was soon kicked out of the remainder of the game by the crunching challenges of Morocco’s defenders. To rub salt into Moroccan wounds, Kembo’s replacement, Ekofa Mbungu, was the man who added Zaire’s third and final goal. Zaire had qualified for the World Cup with a game to spare.
Morocco, so incensed by their perceived unfair treatment in Zaire, petitioned for a rematch, a request which was promptly rejected by the CAF. Morocco, in response, refused to play the now nullified final qualification return-match against Zaire. The Leopards were awarded a 2-0 victory. There would be no resumption of hostilities at the Africa Cup of Nations between Zaire and Morocco, with Morocco opting out of the qualifying campaign to instead focus on their attempts to reach the World Cup. Zambia, however, the nation who did Zaire such a huge favour in qualifying, would be there.
In a tournament of fine football, Zaire scored 14 goals en route to glory, nine of them netted by Ndaye Mulamba. It took a replay for Zaire to see off the challenge of Zambia. As far as Mobutu was concerned, it was the perfect way to prepare for the World Cup, when arguably a reality-check might have been the best thing all-round.
Zaire began their World Cup campaign in Dortmund with a resilient display against Scotland, where they restricted Willie Ormond’s talented side to a 2-0 victory. This was, in essence, a result to be proud of. It was also a result which would be largely responsible for Scotland going home from the tournament as the only unbeaten side.
A hard-working side, Vidinić’s Zaire wasn’t only blessed by the presence of Kembo and Mulamba, but also that of Bwanga Tshimen, a player that French journalists had nicknamed the ‘Black Beckenbauer’, such was his calm and authority on the ball. At the centre of the side was a skilful, deep-lying playmaker, Mavuba Mafuila. Drawn into a kinder group, Zaire might have prospered.
Five days later, in Gelsenkirchen against Yugoslavia, it was a very different Zaire which showed up. With rumblings of discontent over the non-appearance of promised bonuses, Yugoslavia ran riot, securing a 9-0 victory. Already 3-0 down within 20 minutes, Vidinić, stung by the on-pitch protest his players seemed to be making – against his home nation no less – substituted his goalkeeper, Kazadi Muamba, in a tactical move. It remains, to this day, a unique occurrence in the history of the World Cup.
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Matters failed to improve. Muamba’s replacement, Tubilandu Ndimbi, found his first touch of the ball was to pick it out of his own net, while they spent three-quarters of the game down to 10 men. It was an outcome and result which caused massive reverberations within the governmental offices of Mobutu. In no uncertain terms, the Zaire squad was told that if they had any designs upon returning home safely, then they would lose to the mighty Brazil by no more than three goals.
It was at 2-0 down that a desperate Ilunga wrote his name into World Cup folklore. It was in a self-confessed act of timewasting according to the man himself, rather than the bizarre moment of African ignorance it was sold as. A third goal was eventually conceded, but Zaire hung on to the potentially life-preserving 3-0 loss like a team possessed. They returned home safely, but were cast in the role of villains. Mobutu quickly dropping his elaborate funding of the national team.
While Vidinić went on to take control of the Colombia national team, many of Zaire’s once-adored footballers fell into destitution. Mafuila died in France – having arrived in 1984 as a refugee – at the age of 48, a year before his adopted nation hosted the 1998 World Cup.
At the tip of the iceberg, Zaire’s 1974 World Cup adventure is nothing but write off: three games, three defeats, no goals scored and 14 conceded. It comprised of the hard-working stubbornness of their display against Scotland, the rancour of their capitulation to Yugoslavia, and the surreal nature of their desperate yet heroic performance against Brazil.
Scratch below the surface, however, and there was a trailblazing nature to Zaire, an eye of the storm under Vidinić that took them to the semi-finals of the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations, winning it two years later. Sat between those two achievements is their qualification for the 1974 World Cup, ahead of the favourites Morocco.
Four decades on, the misunderstood footage of Mwepu Ilunga unfortunately continues to do the talking for the early-to-mid 1970s Zaire. Sadly, Ilunga cannot speak up for himself anymore, having died after a long illness in 2015. There was, however, so much more to Zaire and Ilunga, yet they remain a counterproductive image frozen in time. The Democratic Republic of Congo, as they are now, have never returned to the World Cup finals, so have not been able to dilute the images of 1974. Touchingly, Ilunga survived long enough to see his nation reach the semi-finals of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea.
Within the ever-increasing quality that African nations produce, DR Congo will need a herculean effort to return to the World Cup one day. When, or if they do, the cruelly ridiculed ghost of Mwepu Ilunga will be made to cast its shadow over that new generation, and it will be a concept born of lazy journalism and a lack of acknowledgement to a wonderful bigger picture.