When a World Cup experience turned into a curse: The dark story of Zaire’s class of 1974

Zaire’s campaign at the 1974 World Cup in Germany can be seen as comic but for the players, it was a curse that they rued for years.

The central African country, today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, became the first team from sub-Sahara to qualify for the World Cup.

The qualification came at a time Zaire was enjoying their best time in football.

The Leopards had won the 1974 Afcon final just three months before their World Cup appearance, while Kinshasa-based AS Vita clinched the 1973 African Champions Cup (now called CAF Champions League).

The success was built around heavy investments by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who even rewarded each player with a car and a house for qualifying for the global showpiece.

The reigning African champions were drawn in a group with Scotland, Yugoslavia and defending World Cup champions Brazil.

Zaire gave a solid performance in their first ever match at the tournament but lost 2-0 to Scotland.

This was supposed to be a historic feat for Africa, but it marked the beginning of one of the saddest experience at the World Cup.

As things were seemingly going well, a government official that accompanied the team withheld and disappeared with the money meant to cover the bonuses and wages.

This led the Zairian players to revolt and refuse to play in the second match. Even though they were persuaded to show up against Yugoslavia, they were unmotivated and lost 0-9, one of the highest defeats in FIFA World Cup history.

The defeat angered President Mobutu, who had made heavy investments for the team, and he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players.

“After the match, he (the president) sent his presidential guards to threaten us,” fullback Mwepu Ilunga revealed 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 players were left with no option but to play the next game against Brazil despite having not received their bonuses and wages.

On the other hand, Brazil had to win by at least three goals to qualify for the next round.

Finding themselves between a rock and a hard place, Zaire resorted to time-wasting tactics and incredibly physical play to avoid conceding many goals.

Midway into the second half, the South Americans were already two up and the Leopards were doing their best to slow the momentum.

Brazil soon got a free kick some 25 yards out, and this put the Zairian players in panic mode.

Before free kick specialist Rivelino could take it, Ilunga darted out of the defending wall and kicked the ball away as hard as he could.

European media described Zaire as a ‘plucky African nation’ who didn’t understand the rules.

But the real motive behind this infamous incident was to waste time and suck the energy from the Brazilians.

Ilunga had also hoped to be sent off in an act of protest, but referee Nicolae Rainea only showed him a yellow card.

Zaire would still concede another goal later on but managed to keep it 3-0 at full-time.

After returning home, the players, rather than being received by luxurious coach as had been the case after their Africa Cup triumph, had an empty army truck waiting for them at the airport.

They were driven straight to the presidential palace, where Mobutu was waiting for them.

As punishment none of the players was allowed to leave the country again.

This scuppered any prospect of moves to abroad with the offers that came in after the World cup.

Mobutu lost interest in football, while a couple of players ended up poor.

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