The Leopards of Zaire in the 1974 World Cup
The Leopards of Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) qualified for the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany.
The former leader of Zaire, president Mobutu, was elected in 1965 after the nation carried out a series of elections. The elections were anything but democratic, as voters had two boxes to choose from. The first one was a “yes” in favor of Mobutu, and the other was a red box, or a “no” for Mobutu, which meant that you and your family would most likely die a very painful death.
Few chose the second option, and those who did didn’t live to tell the story.
In 1971, Mobutu changed the country’s name to Zaire (the river that swallows all rivers) and his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” Yes, seriously.
So he thought a great soccer team would strengthen his rule, and he appointed Yugoslavian coach Zoran Vidinic.
The Leopards, however, ended up playing like kittens, losing 2-0 against Scotland, and 9-0 against Yugoslavia. The Zaire team were humiliated, and Mobutu was furious.
Next came all-mighty Brazil, which brought upon one of the strangest scenes in soccer history. As Brazil was setting up to take a free-kick, defender Mwepu Ilunga ran toward the ball, and launched it into the air.
At this moment, everyone’s thinking “what the hell is wrong with him? Is this team so backward that they don’t even know the rules?”
But they did know the rules. What the referee, and spectators around the world didn’t know was that the Leopards were visited by Mobutu’s officials before the match. Men dressed entirely in black came into the dressing room, and stated, “Everything’s fine if you lose 1-0, or 2-0, or even 3-0 against the Brazilians. But after 3 goals, you can forget about going home, and as for your families, well – you can forget they ever existed.”
The yellow card Mwepu Illunga received for his illegal kick was a sweet alternative to what could have been.