Equinox (South Africa) January 2010
It hurts to lose. But it really hurts to lose 9-0. Just ask Zaire, sub-Saharan Africa’s first qualifers for a World Cup finals in 1974.
“When I signed for my first club I was over the moon.” No, no, these are not the words of a top football player looking back on his earliest steps onto the ladder of stardom; they are straight from my mouth. Granted, I was eight at the time and my mum actually did the signing on my behalf in the local butcher’s shop, but the sentiment is still the same.
So there I was as usual, kicking the ball around on the steps at the back of our house; whacking it as hard as I could and trying to control it as it shot back at me off the angles when my mum told me the good news. Well, I could have wet myself. Maybe I did. Me? Signed for a proper club?
What she failed to tell me was that, somewhere between the pork chops, the lamb mince and the sausages, she’d actually signed me up for an under-12 team. Me and my friends, all aged eight, all the players in the teams we played against, aged 11. I think you might get the picture. It was boys against men, or at least little boys against boys who were not so little. Okay, I should come clean here: we did have one 11 year old in our team. He was called Tom. We all called him Big Tom. But what could he do, just one giant against many every week? We were like those munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, running around aimlessly, up against boys who had already started big school and were soon to have hair in places we could never even imagine.
Needless to say we got walloped every week. Lots of goals one week, and even more the next. We managed to hold one team down to six one week and I’m sure our parents applauded us off.
This is why I have a great empathy with the Leopards of Zaire, pictured here playing Yugoslavia in the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Because despite the amazing acrobatic efforts of Illunga Mwepu (just how did he get into that position?) poor old Zaire lost the game 9-0. It remains, to this day, the heaviest defeat ever by a country in a World Cup finals match. (I just love that it’s a record between two countries that no longer really exist playing in another one that no longer exists).
Do you know how hard it is to lose 9-0? It’s pretty tough, it’s like losing 100-zip in rugby. The attacks have to be relentless and the scores have to keep on coming. Basically to lose 9-0 you have to be rubbish. Or eight years old.
Yet Zaire of 1974 were not exactly rubbish. Yugoslavia was their second match in the tournament but they’d only lost their first match 2-0 to Scotland, and they even recovered from their thrashing enough to keep a Brazil that included legends such as Rivelino, Edu and Jairzhino down to three goals. They had got to the finals – becoming the first sub-Saharan African side to ever qualify – by beating a good Zambian side and overwhelming the favourites Morocco.
So what went wrong? They can’t use my excuse of being too small because they were strong and fit, as well as skilful.
Well, it didn’t help that Mulamba Ndaye was sent off after 22 minutes and it can’t have helped that the Yugoslavian player in the photo, Dusan Bajevic, scored a hat-trick with goals in the 8th, 30th and 81st minutes. And it certainly didn’t go unnoticed that Zaire had a Yugoslavian coach, Blagoje Vidinic (and boy, did he get some stick).
But the truth probably lies in fear and money. Speaking about the game many years later, the acrobatic defender Mwepu told the BBC:
“Before the Yugoslavia match we learnt that we were not going to be paid, so we refused to play.”
He was right there. They might have eventually decided to turn up and put on their distinctive green and yellow kit but they certainly didn’t play.
There was also the threat of a certain Mobutu Sese Seko hanging over them. He might have showered them with gifts (a car and house apparently) when they qualified for the finals but the players can have been under no illusions as to how their country’s dictator could turn nasty when things didn’t go his way. You may recall 1974 was also the year Mobutu’s money (that he took from Zaire) brought Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to fight their famous Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, so he certainly knew all about using the positive image of sport. But fear rarely brings the best out in sportsmen and so it was with the Leopards that day against Yugoslavia.
After the game the same man that had lent them use of his presidential jet to fly in style to away matches, asked his strong men to go and have a little chat.
“After the match, he sent his presidential guards to threaten us,” Mwepu remembers in the same interview.
“They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.”
Well, return home they did, but with a record of played three, lost three, goals for zero and goals against 14, it’s fair to say it wasn’t to another new car and house.
It was left to Tunisia, Africa’s qualifiers four years later, to start rebuilding Africa’s shattered reputation. Thanks to their performances and strong showings in subsequent World Cups from the likes of Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal and others, 2010 will see Africa represented by six nations at a World Cup finals for the first time.
• The date of Zaire’s record-breaking 9-0 defeat in 1974 was 18 June, the same date that Cape Town will host a Group C match in 2010. DR Congo (Zaire) have not qualified for the finals in South Africa.