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Zaire's World Cup Woes

Football 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 one way or another. When Zaire qualified for the 1974 World Cup, little did the players know that their dreams of playing in the tournament would turn into a lifelong nightmare.

Politics Run Through It

Just five years after gaining independence from its Belgian colonizers, the nation known as Congo was once 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 the country’s name to Zaire and forced the populace to also change their names.

Mobutu quickly realized that sports, especially football, gave him an opportunity 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 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 Leopards would then receive a 9–0 hammering at the hands of Yugoslavia, after arguments over a lack of pay arose prior to the match.

Embarrassed by such a shockingly poor showing and with little empathy for his underpaid compatriots, Mobutu sent his personal guards to threaten the players, allegedly telling the team that if they were to lose by a scoreline of 4–0 or higher to 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, but before the player could take the shot, Mwepu Ilunga left his defensive position in the wall to kick the ball up the field, buying Zaire valuable time in the process. It worked, as Brazil only managed to score once more and win by a scoreline of 3–0.

The team was allowed to return, but Mobutu quickly discarded football and started planning 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 vs. George Foreman.

After its funding was cut, Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, quickly lost its competitive edge. The 1974 World Cup was the nation’s first and, to this day, only appearance at a World Cup.


Illustration by @inakivector.

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