By 90Min
April 07, 2018

Few football teams, perhaps none, at either international or club level are so defined by one moment as Zaire - particularly when that moment isn't even a goal, a save, or a tackle, but a yellow card.

We all know the scene that is synonymous with Zaire's footballing legacy, even those of us who weren't alive to witness it first hand. 

It's group game three of the World Cup 1974 in Gelsenkirchen. 2-0 to the good with around ten minutes to run on the clock, Brazilian superstars Rivelino and Jairzinho stand over a free kick 25 yards from goal, as the reigning champions coast to victory over the first-time participants.

Referee Nicolae Ainea blows his whistle and - as the two Brazilians hesitate for a moment - out of the defending wall charges Zaire's Mwepu Ilunga, who boots the stationary ball down field immediately earning himself a yellow card, and a spot on every football bloopers reel, VHS, DVD and YouTube compilation ever made.

John Motson, who was commentating on his first tournament for the BBC, is quoted as calling it "a bizarre moment of African ignorance.”

The incident was even voted the 17th greatest World Cup moment in a Channel 4 poll, while the BBC ranks it at 96th - notably one place above Senegal beating France at the 2002 tournament.

The moment sparked bemusement, outrage and mirth. The World Cup is the pinnacle of excellence in football, the showcase of the finest players from around the totality of the globe and here was someone who apparently didn't even know the rules of the game. Or at least, that's how it seemed to many western viewers at the time.

However this was not a joke. The Zaire team were not 'ignorant', nor were they a pity entry into the World Cup. They may have been only the third-ever African entrant in the finals' history (and the first from Sub-Saharan Africa) but they had earned their place in West Germany fair and square. They were nobody's fools.

The truth behind the moment of dissent from Ilunga - one of the 100 greatest ever World Cup moments - along with the rest of Zaire's doomed World Cup campaign is actually the very public culmination of a much darker story.

Zaire arrived in West Germany with high hopes, after winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt just three months prior under the stewardship of chain-smoking Yugoslavian coach Blagoje Vidinic - and Olympic Gold medal winner, who had also led Morocco to their first World Cup four years prior in 1970.

Over the preceding decade, the Leopards had grown to become the first Sub-Saharan powerhouses of African football with a talented team. This included Ndaye Mulamba, whose nine goals in the Africa Cup of Nations remains the tournament record. Speedy and powerful, Mulamba earned a variety of nicknames throughout his career including Mustang, Mutumbula (a deadly nocturnal spirit) and - less popularly - 'Hitler' (for his destructive powers).

Also in the squad were goalkeeper Kazadi Mwamba - the player of the tournament at the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations - striker Adelard 'the Brazilian' Mayanga and defender Illunga - a two-time African Champions League winner.

While not well known beyond their own borders, the Leopards had a formidable squad at continental level, despite the fact that football remained amateur in Zaire. Players were also banned from playing abroad, while those already at teams in former colonial master Belgium were expensively repatriated under the dictatorship of leopard skin wearing dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko.

However, despite limiting the opportunities of the stars, Mobutu - a man whose kleptocracy presided over a hellish four decades for what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo - saw the potential of football - despite it's colonialist origins - as a nation-building and personal RP tool. As well as 'Africanising' club names, he also put an image of Kinshasa stadium on banknotes, changed the team nickname from the 'Lions' to the 'Leopards' and even shelled out for an expensive friendly between Zaire and Pele's Santos.

Mobutu's overarching presence was even felt in Germany during the World Cup, as he paid for advertising hoardings around the pitch promoting Zaire's potential as a tourist destination.

The initial investment in football from Mobutu, who seized power in a 1965 coup, reaped early dividends with two Africa Cup of Nations triumphs (in 1968 and 1974) and most importantly World Cup qualification.

During their moment in the sun, prior to leaving for Germany and the World Cup, the Zaire players were, as reported by national newspaper Salongo, each given a car, use of the presidential plane and the promise of riches including villas and holidays. Mobutu even levied a 'soccer tax' from his citizens in order, supposedly, to help fund the team. However, the fact that the majority of these promises seemed to remain ephemeral and unfulfilled ultimately led the way for the ensuing chaos ahead.

In Group 2 at the World Cup, Zaire always faced an uphill struggle alongside Scotland, Yugoslavia and Brazil, but the disaster that followed is hardly indicative of the team's quality. Few before the tournament tipped Vidinic's side as dark horses, but team captain Mantantu Kidumu, in an interview with SHOOT, insisted the Leopards were ready to 'spring a surprise'.

The first match against the Scots, whose manager Willie Ormond declared before the game

"If we cannot beat Zaire then we should pack up our bags and go home," ended in defeat for the Leopards - albeit a creditable one.

Zaire fell to two first half strikes but were, by all accounts, not embarrassed against a team featuring Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and Billy Bremner. However, humiliation was soon to follow.

In the days between the Scotland match and the second (now crucial) second group fixture against Yugoslavia, in-fighting broke out with the consequences over Mobutu's unfulfilled promises over bonuses coming home to roost and some players threatened to go on strike, with rumours FIFA had to step in to persuade the mutinous not to walk out.

While Mobutu himself had not travelled to Germany, a massive entourage had, and players suspected what bonuses had actually been put up by the president (their only income as amateurs) had been siphoned away by opportunists and hangers-on.

After a bizarre pre-match team talk from an emissary of Mobutu, a hugely disillusioned Zaire team eventually took to the field to face Yugoslavia. However, a boycott may have been less embarrassing, as they fell to a 9-0 defeat in what has come to be considered one of the worst performances ever at a World Cup. Along with Hungary 9-0 South Korea (1954) and Hungary 10-1 El Salvador (1982), the scoreline stands as the biggest margin of victory in the tournament's history. 

The Yugoslavs - the nation with which Zaire coach Vidinic had won Olympic gold - romped to victory and were six goals up at half-time in part due to the fact that the Leopards had switched out regular starting keeper Mwamba for the 5ft 4in backup option Dimbi Tubilandu after 21 minutes.

When questioned on the decision post match, Vidinic claimed the matter was 'state secret', adding yet another bizarre layer to the story. While some took this as proof of a conspiracy by Vidinic to help boost his home country's goal difference and secure qualification to the next round, several Zaire players refuted the theory and much later the coach himself claimed (in an interview with a Dutch magazine), that the substitution was a government directive - but not from Yugoslavia.

"Mr Lockwa, the representative of the Ministry of Sport, said after the third Yugoslav goal, 'Take that keeper off.' I did," Vidinic is quoted as saying. 

Desolate and humiliated, Zaire were already out of the tournament after two games but still had the tournament holders Brazil left to face.

Players' worries about receiving their bonuses soon transformed into fear for their safety, as Mobutu sent threats to the team with the message, according to Ilunga, that a defeat by four or more goals in their final game would not be tolerated and the Leopards, once the pride of the president and the country, would not be allowed to return to Zaire. 

Brazil scored early through Jairzinho in Gelsenkirchen, in what must have been an excruciating match to play for the mentally and physically exhausted Zaire team. However, the Leopards held out gamely until the second half.

Defending (perhaps literally) for their lives, it was both an opportunity to waste time and a chance to protest, not a lack of knowledge of the rules that prompted Ilunga rush out of his wall and punt the ball away with the minutes ticking down on the clock. 

“I did that deliberately,” Ilunga said, via the BBC. “I was aware of football regulations. I did not have a reason to continue getting injured while those who will benefit financially were sitting on the terraces watching. I know the rules very well but the referee was quite lenient and only gave me a yellow card.” 

As the watching world laughed and tut-tutted, Zaire held the score to 3-0 and achieved their objective. 

In the fallout, Mobutu kept his word and allowed the team to return home but personally summoned them for a meeting, with reports claiming the players were imprisoned in a compound for four days, as their fate was decided.

While they were eventually freed, Mobutu lost interest in football after his disgrace on the world stage and swiftly cut the sport's funding. Many of the 1974 team - heroes after their World Cup qualification and Africa Cup of Nations triumph - were left abandoned and in poverty still unable to play abroad, as the dictator turned his attention to his next image building venture - hosting the 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, which took place in Kinshasa in October of the same year.

Apparently still stinging from the humiliation, Mobutu even withdrew the Leopards from qualification for the next tournament in 1978, claiming the team 'not patriotic' enough, and while the country's name and government has changed, the Democratic Republic of Congo has not been to a World Cup since. Until they do, Ilunga and Zaire's 'ignorance' tragically remains the lasting image of a group of players who deserved better.

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