Wednesday, 21 May 2014

World Cup Stories - Mwepu Ilunga, Zaire 1974


This was a famous incident which could probably qualify as being too famous for this piece.  But there is a back story which bring a whole new meaning to proceedings.

Zaire, whipping boys of the 1974 World Cup, are losing 0-3 to mighty Brazil.  There’s five minutes to go and Brazil are lining up for a free-kick about 30 yards out in a central position.  The Zaire wall is on the 18-yard box, and there are four Brazilians debating who is going to have a go at increasing the score.  As they’re standing there, suddenly one Zairian rushes from the wall and boots the ball down the pitch.  Cue much hilarity at the poor African who doesn’t understand the rules.  The African, Mwepu Ilunga was to become as famous all around the world, but it was only in years to come that the sinister truth behind his behaviour emerged and puts a different light on the incident.

Zaire had become only the second African nation to qualify for the World Cup when they made the 1974 tournament in West Germany.  They were African Cup of Nations champions having beaten Zambia in Cairo in March.  Unfortunately for Zaire the World Cup proved to be more traumatic than anyone imagined. 

The country was in the grip of President Joseph Mobutu, who had changed the name from Congo.  He had been funding the national team to use it as an example of how well run the country was.  He promised the players various riches including cars, houses and holidays abroad and their performances appeared to be motivated by these.  But during the tournament, money which was being held for players’ bonuses went missing as the entourage of back-room staff and hangers-on helped themselves.  With the team extremely upset by such behaviour they were thumped by Yugoslavia, 0-9 in their second game having narrowly lost to Scotland in their first.  In reaction, Mobutu now threatened the players with all manner of consequences if they lost by four goals to Brazil.  One of them was that they would not be allowed back into the country and may never see their families again.

Cue the Brazil match.  Years later, Mwepu would explain the circumstances behind the match and how the squad’s move was going into the match.  He was clearly scared of whether he would be allowed back home that a moment’s madness can also be viewed as a desperate attempt to waste time and keep the score to just three goals.  Zaire lost 0-3 and although they were allowed back home, they were never rewarded by Mobutu who rapidly dropped the idea of promoting his country through the national football team.  Suffice to say, Zaire has never come near qualification since. 

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