A Kick for Freedom
Playing under threat: Mwepu Ilunga
Perhaps, one of the most iconic moments happened in the 1974 World Cup. Named as “A Bizarre Moment Of African Ignorance” by pundit John Motson, Mwepu Ilunga’s name was scratched into the set of experiences books, for every one of some unacceptable reasons. Even more offensive talks were being made around the world, though that might be something not pardonable. The football world was hard to be considered racist, yet it was scarcely reprimanded as it would be today. This was around this time that Brian Clough alluded to African sides as ’a heap of lance chuckers who actually eat one another.’
The incident happened when Brazil set themselves in position to take a Free kick with star men Rivelino and Jairzinho over the ball, and the defender, Mwepu Ilunga, set himself loose from the Zaire wall and shoots the ball the farthest he could, getting a Yellow Card for this strange act of his. Ilunga was not foolish; neither was it true that he did not know the rules or nor was it true that Zaire were jokers. Life had been horrifying and disturbing for them coming into the most pressurizing and prestigious football stage, and it was made even worse amidst the world cup.
Indeed, reality with regards to this incident lies on the more obscure side of football history. Zaire was under the influence of the furious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who was changing the country in all possible dimensions. He had hung up an order on his people to use their African names and banned the import of any kind of attire from the western world. Furthermore, he changed the country’s name from Congo to Zaire in 1971 after coming into power after a coup in 1965.
The lives of Zaire’s players wasn’t a happy one after the world cup as many of them lived their whole lives poor; some drove taxis, some were beggars, and some just died of one disease or another in which included the star of that historic moment, Ulunga who died in 2015.
Had that incident been related to a white team, like Germany or England, and had they done the same thing as Ilunga did, it would not have been taken the way it was taken in Zaire’s case. Most of the western world would have then very easily considered it as an act of defiance and not foolishness. But because it was Zaire, a team of African Black men, the western world was on its toes to jump and attack Zaire’s intelligence and ability which tells us a lot about the racism that was prevailing in the football world and outside world then.
The aftermath of that world cup was that the players reached home safely, and Mobutu grew tired of football, and instead of continuing to promote and spread football, he introduced boxing into the country by hosting a huge encounter between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The players who went into that world cup never got paid, and Mobutu exiled a few years later and died. This freekick and this moment are much more than a player defying the rules of the game and presenting himself as a clown. It helps us learn all the things which led Zaire to that point where they were furious, annoyed, scared and anxious and at that moment, such an act by one of the team’s members is nothing but a right act to let out all that frustration and anger and save their own lives. Words like “naïve” and “clowns'' were unjustly associated with this incident and this team, but it was actually a real representation of how life had inhumanely treated them and played with their hearts.