The lead up to the tenth staging of the FIFA World Cup, 13 June – 7 July, 1974 West Germany
Twenty-four African countries entered the qualification process.
On 19 August 1973 Zaire beat Ghana with a 4-2 goal aggregate and qualified for the World Cup. President Mobutu sent the presidential plane to bring the team home, to accolade and song and houses and cars.
The first representation by a team from (and I quote) sub-Saharan Africa.
The Zaire squad:
Kazadi, Mwepu, Mukombo, Bwanga, Lobilo, Kilasu, Tshinabu, Mana, Kembo Kembo, Kidumu, Kabasu, Tubilandu, Nday, Mayanga Maku, Kibonge, Mwape, Ngoie, Mavuba, Mbungu, Ntumba, Kakoko, Kalambay, Coach: Zoran Vidinić (Yugoslavia), and (also) a cargo load of officials and managers most of whom had never encountered a football before, and another plane load of spiritual advisors and cultural technologists from every part of the Zaire, by decree of president (They would later be jailed for none delivery of promised results, and for not providing a valid reason for such failure.)
The nature of said failure
Leopards 2-0 loss to Scotland
Leopards 0-9 mauling by Yugoslavia
[Deus ex Machina: President Mobutu’s presidential guards dispatched to deliver a warning to the team: If you lose 4-0 to Brazil, do not come home. Do not think you will find your families intact either]
Leopards lose 0-3 to Brazil
The real reason (I am considering real as that idea which has persisted beyond the test of time and rumour-mongering):
Avaricious Cargo (managers and officials) who had allocated to themselves all the players’ allowances and benefits, fairly distributed among themselves and promised to Mobutu’s presidential guards. Nothing left for the players. Nothing. Any discussions about this matter deteriorated into insults and Leopard players made to understand they were mere dispensable cogs.
The consequence, a total loss of morale.
“We would have let twenty goals in.” Mwepu Ilunga, the striker is quoted as saying. Mwepu Ilunga is also the man who in the game with Brazil, tore out of the Leopards’ defensive wall and kicked away a free kick awarded to Brazil.
I am in the living room of a Congolese football legend, speaking to his son, who is trying to pull out memory strings to explain the things that baffle.
“He had been hoping to get a red car. His act was to protest the situation of the Leopards, and the feeling of helplessness. What else could this team that had worked so hard, dreamed so much for our nation do? What else? And when that crowd laughed, they mocked our fate.”
[There are interesting side-shows and sub-texts associated to Mwepu’s action: The immediate assumption of European commentators that this was a demonstration of sub-Saharan (read black) naiveté and amateurism, that the team on the field knew nothing of the game; the crowd assumed it to be African buffoonery. The refusal by those who should have known better for all their veneer of sophistication to see beyond the action and ask, what, why. What persists in far too many quarters to this day is the assumption that Ilunga Mwepu knew not what he was doing, acted out of ‘child-like’ ignorance.]
Former England assistant manager Lawrie McMenemy recalling his favourite World Cup moment. “I’ll always remember a player called Alunga Mwepu, from Zaire,” explains Lawrie. “He famously stood in the wall when Brazil were given a free-kick from 30 yards out. When the referee blew his whistle, Mwebu ran from the middle of the wall headlong towards the ball and, before the Brazilian [Rivelino] could take the kick, hoofed it as far as he could up the field. First of all everyone was baffled, then helpless with laughter. The ref only gave him a yellow card.”
The Guardian, James Dart, Wednesday 22 March 2006 02.00 GMT
Who should have been on the Leopards squad but could not because in a build up game for his club TP Mazembe, he fractured his leg so badly that his days as a football came to an end?
It takes twenty minutes to climb the obstacle course of stairs that lead you to the eighth floor apartment that is the home to Congolese football legend, Pierre Kalala. He is a mountain of a man, whose face in profile evokes the idea of the shape of the African continent. Clear-eyed, sculpted, beautiful, and gentle-voiced. Still athletic despite the things that life has tossed at him, still gracious, in spite of the shameful neglect that is the fate of the best of our men and women, the true heroes who serve for the love of an art and nation. We listen to him. He has a story teller’s pacing. We laugh and relieve the moments of football glories. We look through medals and certificates and Captain flags, the CAF book in which he is profiled as a hero of African football.
We listen and one of my Kinshasa colleague’s, Claus sighs. “The highlight and success of his life are the highlights and successes of our nation, of Africa as well…”
I imagine that there will be some more sustaining accolades, or that he lives as he does because he wants to be close to his grandchildren.
“Ah,” he smiles, “If it were not for the goodwill and the affection of those whose imaginations I seem to have touched, I would be destitute.”
A sobering moment.