Soccer dreams are often measured in terms of World Cups. From just participating in it to being one of the few special ones to win it, the life of everyone involved in the beautiful game is determined by this major event in one way or another. When Zaire qualified for the 1974 World Cup finals (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), little did the players know that their dreams of playing in the tournament would turn into a lifelong nightmare.
Politics Run Through Zaire 1974 World Cup
Just five years after gaining independence from its Belgian colonizers, the Congo nation was again plunged into turmoil following Joseph Mobutu’s coup to become president in 1965. The Belgians had ruled with an iron fist, so in an attempt to reclaim the nation’s African roots, Mobutu changed its name to Zaire and forced the populace to change their names.
Mobutu quickly realized that sports, especially soccer, allowed him to put Zaire’s name on the map. He ordered players who had emigrated to Belgium to return and invested substantial resources into the domestic development of the sport. His authoritarian measures bore fruit, as Zaire won the 1974 edition of the African Cup of Nations and became the first sub-Saharan African football team to qualify for the World Cup. The dream came true. Unfortunately, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Horror In West Germany
At the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, Zaire lost its opening group game to Kenny Dalglish’s Scotland. The African national team was led by Yugoslav head coach Blagoje Vidinić in their first-ever World Cup match. While playing at the Westfalenstadion Stadium for their opening game, it was immediately apparent that their opponents, the Scottish national football team, had underestimated them. With their attacking approach and maverick style of play, Zaire won everyone over immediately. Vidinić men were unlucky to lose to Scotland, who weathered the storm winning 2-0.
The Leopards would then receive a 9–0 hammering at the hands of Yugoslavia after arguments over a lack of pay arose before the match. It could be argued that the players threw the result of the game and the integrity of the tournament into shambles. According to reports, FIFA stepped in and paid 3,000 Deutsche Marks for each Zaire player to play in the match as most of the squad were not willing to play.
Embarrassed by such a shockingly poor showing and with little empathy for his underpaid compatriots, President Mobutu sent his presidential guards to threaten the Zaire players, allegedly telling the team that if they were to lose by a scoreline of 4–0 or higher to the reigning world champions Brazil, they would not be allowed to return home.
Brazil, of course, did not know about its opponent’s precarious situation, and the reigning world champions found themselves 2–0 up after Roberto Rivellino’s goal in the 66th minute. What soon followed was a moment that would go down in World Cup history.
The Seleção were awarded a free kick in a dangerous position. Before the Brazilian player could take the shot, Mwepu Ilunga left his defensive position in the wall to kick the ball up the soccer field, buying Zaire valuable time in the process. He received a yellow card for this memorable moment and wasted another couple of minutes of playing time. This bizarre moment worked, as Brazil only managed to score once more and win by a scoreline of 3–0.
Did The Zaire 1974 World Cup Team Return Home?
The team was allowed to return, but President Mobutu quickly discarded soccer and planned his next sports extravaganza. The end of Zaire’s World Cup dream was the beginning of the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle,” the boxing event that hosted Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman.
After its funding was cut, Zaire, now known as DR Congo, quickly lost its competitive edge. As a result, the 1974 World Cup was the nation’s first and, to this day, only appearance at the biggest tournament in the world.
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!