Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 90– Zaire’s World Cup from Hell (1974)

Zaire (now named the Democratic Republic of Congo) had gone through a bit of a golden period before heading to their maiden world cup in West Germany in 1974. In 1968 when still named Belgian Congo they won the African Cup of Nations for the first time and did it again in 1974 with ex Yugoslav international Blagoja Vidinic in control after he had taken Morocco to the World Cup in 1970.

At the time off the pitch Zaire was in a period of rare normality with the then anti-Colonial/Communist ‘President’ Mobotu Sese Soku’s private jet taking the team around the Dark Continent. Their star was Malamba Ndaye who top scored in the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations with nine goals and upon his return home received the ‘National Order of the Leopard’ which was the highest honour to be awarded in Zaire.

Zaire would be the first sub Saharan African nation to qualify for the World Cup and were seen as poster boys for the progress of African nations in the mid 70s. The fairytale of Zaire also saw President Soku giving massive gifts to the players as a thank you for putting the country on the map including a brick house, a new car and holiday for the players and their families to the USA. God knows what would have happened if they won the World Cup. Share in a copper mine?

First up in the World Cup for Zaire was Scotland who still had a host of established stars like Peter Lorimer and Billy Bremner as well young stars like Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain. The naivety of Zaire perhaps got the better of them in the game as Scotland kicked them around the pitch and won 2-0 when it could’ve been more. The Zaire players claimed that they were also racially abused saying Bremner was yelling “Nigger! Hey Nigger! Come here Nigger!” and spitting at players.

The second match was rock bottom for the side when they were taken apart 9-0 by Yugoslavia. The Europeans were up 3-0 after only 18 minutes which resulted in the strange substitution of Zaire’s star keeper Kadazi. Rumour was that President Soku (who was watching in the stands) sent some of his military heavies down to the bench to demand Kadazi be subbed. It didn’t help of course and even Ndaye was sent off despite someone else being the one who did the foul. After the game Ndaye claimed that the referee was ignorant and thought all black players looked the same.

The television commentary wasn’t exactly politically correct either. On British channel ITV the commentator claimed that the young winger Etepe Kakako trained by running down Zebras back in Zaire and that the defender Thismen Buhanga (the only player from Zaire to win African player of the year) was like Franz Beckenbuaer “but only black”. It was also during this game that the cameras showed the unfortunate pictures of the Zaire players on the bench rugged up and all smoking cigarettes. A side completely deflated.

They were out of the World Cup but it was okay as Zaire had an easy beat in their final game. Brazil. The defending World Champions were still in the hunt for a spot in the second round but a well organised Zaire managed to only go down 3-0 and by conceding a late third goal condemned Scotland in what a little bit of revenge.

One moment always seen as one of the ‘wacky’ occurrences of Zaire’s World Cup capitulation was when Brazil was lining up a free kick one of the Africans broke from the defensive wall and booted with the ball thinking he was allowed to do so leaving his teammates and the Brazilians bemused. Zaire finished with one of the worst records at a World Cup. They had scored no goals and conceded 14. Only South Korea in 1954 had a worse record.

It was only in the years after their World Cup from hell did the truth come about what had happened behind the scenes in West Germany. After being awarded so much by Soku for qualifying for the World Cup the President then told the players they would receive nothing for playing in the World Cup just hours before they were to play Yugoslavia. Initially the players refused to take to the field but pleading from Vidinic and perhaps some ‘suggestive’ comments from Soku’s secret police saw the players take part under protest. Hence, perhaps, the 9-0 loss.

Soku then said that if there was a similar scoreline against Brazil then the players wouldn’t be allowed to come to home to Zaire so perhaps that is why they played a lot better and only went down 3-0. It was also believed the player who took the ball up the field from the free kick in the same match that was seen as a hilarious moment of ignorance from the Africans was actually a protest against Soku that the players wouldn’t put up with such despotic actions. The loss of 3-0 was good enough for Soku though and the players were allowed to return home.

This would be the last time Zaire/DR Congo would make it to the World Cup. The up and coming youth weren’t up to scratch (many Zaire players retired following 1974 in protest) and then the country was withdrawn from qualifying for the next World Cup because ‘it wasn’t in the best interests of the country’. Football in Zaire was not just the only thing on the way down. The whole country was with Soku’s plan of a Central African utopia not going as he’d planned. Zaire wouldn’t achieve anything in football until 1998 when they finished third in the African Cup of Nations.

Their star players also experienced hardships following their golden era. ‘Leopard’ Ndaye was shot in the legs by rogue soldiers in 1994 after returning home from an event in Tunisia honouring his career. The soldiers believed he had been given a cash prize. In 1998 when the African Cup of Nations was being played in Burkina Faso a radio station reported Ndaye had been killed in a mining accident so minutes silence were held at all games. Ndaye was actually alive although he was homeless and living on the streets in South Africa.

The goalkeeper Zadazi also ended up homeless despite playing on until 1982 and tragically died a short time later. The DR Congo posthumously named him their goalkeeper of the century as a tribute. When others will reminisce about Zaire it’ll always be about the thrashings and the free kick mix up but there was much more to it than that with despot African dictatorship making its debut at the tournament along with the first sub Saharan African team. Africa has come a long way since then with South Africa hosting the event in 2010 and teams like Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon all doing the continent proud since. It should be remembered where it all started though.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Dilettante. Traffic Nerd. Behind the Almanac World Cup 100. Keen Cat, Cardie, Socceroo/Matilda, Glory Bhoy.

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