By Sammie Frimpong
Africa has had several high points in its 80-year history at the Fifa World Cup. There have been underwhelming moments, too, and none more so than that which occurred in 1974; Zaire (now the DR Congo) being the culprits.
Big Dreams, High Hopes
It was supposed to be the perfect bow for black Africa at the World Cup. Before Mobutu Sese Seko's Leopards, no African country south of the Sahara had appeared at the Mundial, and the notorious Zairean dictator seemed to have pulled all plugs to ensure his 'personalized' team made it count.
The freshly crowned Afcon winners had all they could have required -adequate preparation, a foreign coach, enough cash promises, colorful new jerseys, and an alleged fair dose of black magic- to put on a show to be recalled favourably by posterity. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, not much, besides the fact that the country had been grouped with Scotland, Yugoslavia and then defending world champions Brazil; Mulamba Ndaye and company might reasonably have expected to be walloped at some point. And indeed they eventually were, only by the 'wrong' team.
Baptism of Fire
A date with Yugoslavia -homeland of Blagoje Vidinic, Zaire's coach at the tournament- followed a well-fought 2-0 loss in the group opener against Scotland during which the central Africans impressed to the admiration of the world. Against the Plavi - perhaps the least fancied of their group opponents- Zaire were expected to achieve a decent enough result; a respectable draw, if not a shock victory.
Instead, it turned out to be an absolute nightmare; Africa's worst experience on the global stage by a mile.
As already indicated, Zaire showed plenty of promise in their opening fixture against the Scots, with goalkeeper Mwamba Kazadi and striker Adelard 'Goodyear' Mayanga Maku standing out for particular mention.
For the game versus Yugoslavia, however, the impressive Mayanga had been inexplicably dropped to the bench by coach Blagoje Vidinic. His replacement? A midfielder still unhealed and bandaged from a previous injury. Deficient in attack, it hurt even more that the Zairean defence had contrived to put on an awful display, conceding three times before the 20th-minute mark; a situation which prompted the substitution of Kazadi -who hadn't been at fault for any of the Yugoslav goals, anyway- by Vidinic. In came AS Vita Club goalkeeper Dimbi Tubilandu who, at a mere 5ft 4 inches, stood little chance against the giant Balkan forwards. Barely had Tubilandu taken his place in goal than Zaire shipped in a fourth. By half-time, the scoreline read 6-0, and only then did the clueless Vidinic deem it fit to bring on Mayanga, yet it only proved a lame attempt to salvage a long-lost cause. Zaire failed to score even once after the break, while their opponents got another three.
It could have been more, in fact, had Yugoslavia displayed greater ruthlessness. In the end, the final blast of the referee's whistle sounded more like a gift of mercy to the vanquished than the formality it should have been. Zaire had been spared conceding double figures on the day, although their overall 'goals against' tally at the conclusion of their World Cup adventures in West Germany certainly did take the figures into those realms: 14, and none scored.
In the book Feet Of The Chameleon: The Story of African Football, authored by Ian Hawkey, Mayanga sums up best how his team fared in that ill-fated game, letting themselves and an entire continent down in the process.
"We were static on the field, the defenders were nervous, our marking wasn't up to standard, our clearances were poor, we hadn't had any clear chances. We had really shown our amateurism."
Mayanga couldn't have put it any more vividly, really. Even for a team comprised entirely of domestic footballers, the performance was disappointing.
It was that bad.
Mayanga suggests his side's poor showing on the day might have been due to the other team's strengths. "[But] you also have to remember Yugoslavia were one of the best teams of the era," he says.
True, but only partly so.
That disaster was almost as much due to Zaire's own failings and, apparently, it wasn't just about what had ensued on the pitch.
There was more to it, although exactly what it was remains to this day anyone's guess.
Two of the stories had coach Vidinic as villain: that he had deliberately weakened his side with illogical and suspicious squad selection decisions to boost the chances of his country of birth and hand the game away on a platter; alternatively, he had been spineless enough to cower to pressure from 'above' to replace Kazadi with the less suitable Tubilandi.
The theory that gained the most currency, though, was that which is explained by Mayanga in some detail in Hawkey's book.
"Now we were straight into the administrative problems. Before the Scotland game, the authorities told us, 'Go out and play and, even if you lose, and lose honourably, we'll give you your bonuses.' We never saw them. We were disappointed with the score but everybody was saying we gave a good account of ourselves. I think the arguments were behind the loss of motivation for the next game."
Indeed, there had been talk of the Zairean players declaring a boycott of their remaining fixtures at the tournament -and, mind, this wouldn't be the last time such a thought would occur to an African team at a World Cup, for two dozen and eight years later, again in Deutschland, the Togolese national team threatened something similar on their own World Cup debut- but they apparently settled for something not so earth-shattering but hardly any less controversial. Cue the horror show witnessed at Gelsenkirchen's Parkstadion on June 18, 1974.
Oh, and one little terrible detail of the whole horrifying episode that almost went omitted...
As that record defeat -no African team has lost by a wider margin at the World Cup prior or since, of course- unfolded, Mulamba Ndaye, Zaire's talismanic forward from TP Mazembe and topscorer at the Nations Cup earlier that year, had been sent off for berating referee Omar Delgado in what was clearly a case of mistaken identity. Defender Mwepu Ilunga -who would go down in World Cup history in Zaire's final group game as perpetrator of one of the competition's most unpleasantly confounding incidents which is in itself a story for another day- was the actual culprit, and perhaps had he, instead of the prolific Ndaye, been given the marching orders, Zaire might have got one goal for themselves that could have made it all look a little less embarrassing.
Or maybe not.