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.

Like John Motson watching on, many forgot about this as basic obliviousness from the country not known for their footballing capacity. That it was unfair of the world to guarantee Zaire didn’t have the foggiest idea about the football rules is enormously rude to a fit and fair group of players who had fought off each and every other African country to qualify for the biggest stage of world football – 1975 World Cup.
Coming into the World Cup, Mobutu expensed out vigorously in football in his country and was adamant to form a destructive side. He forcefully called back a few players who had moved to another country and set out to prepare well for the big stage that was about to be set up in Germany.
Given the fact that only one team could qualify for the World Cup from the whole of Africa, Zaire had to pull out something very close to impossible. Being a pretty talented side consisting of local stars like Ricky Mavumba, Kazadi Mwamba and top scorer at the AFCON 74, Mulamba Ndiaye, they did precisely that. They paved their spot for the World Cup after beating Morocco and Zambia in tight encounters.
Mobuto was naturally over the moon to hear this news, and all the players were each compensated with a house and new Volkswagen vehicle; not only that, but he even went further on to welcoming them into his huge manor, which was astounding to many people around. Things were solid heading into the competition. The country was required to perform well; this placed high responsibility on the players’ going into the tournament, and the situation had become much more pressurizing than it already was.

The team was accompanied by government officials and members of the military to boost them up. Things started quite well for them as they fiercely fought with strong teams like Scotland, which had names like Denis Law, Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish; they fought well, and it was beyond what the audience had expected of Zaire. Even though they were defeated by a two-goal margin, it was still a satisfactory start to the tournament. However, things started getting ugly for them from here onwards.
A question about match fees broke out, with numerous players reportedly disclosing the fact that the officials of their country had taken their rightful money. They were, at last, each given 3000 Deutsche Marks by FIFA to silence the chaos that broke out among the team and which persuaded them to play and tried not to ruin the standing and glory of the World Cup.
Their next opponent was Yugoslavia which was not at all better and more competitive than their first opponent, and yet they were beaten nine goals to none, which is a record defeat in world cup history. During this match, their first priority goalkeeper was substituted for another keeper whose friend was a Zaire’s official and was sitting in the stands eager to watch him play. And this was a crucial point in the game that led to the team’s downfall in that match as, till that point Zaire had conceded only three goals.

This resulted in country-wide embarrassment for Zaire, and Mobuto was furious that he ordered a few of his own close men to head toward Germany and intimidate the team. They did what they were told, telling the players that if they lost by a margin greater than three to defending champions Brazil, they would not be permitted to enter their country. It was clearly a death threat to them and their families.
Diving into the match with Brazil and jumping into the second half of the game, Zaire were already two goals down, and the players were beginning to shiver and started dreading for their lives. Here comes again one of the most iconic moments of World cups and arguably, one of the most famous free kicks of football history, along with David Beckham’s freekick against Greece and Roberto Carlos’s freekick against France.
Ilunga comes running from Zaire’s wall to the ball as the Brazilian stars set up to take the freekick. He comes hard at the ball and kicks it as far as one could see, trying to boot the ball away from the danger area and consume more time to prevent conceding another goal. Although the match with brazil ended with a score of 3-0, Zaire’s men were allowed to come back home.
Ilunga well understood what he was doing, and obviously, he knew the football rules. He later said that his plan was to be sent off in a protest. Others support the view that he simply needed to burn through however much time as could be expected to stop the third goal from occurring. Both the possibilities made sense, but the western world saw it as nothing but a clown act. Even the referee was concerned about the aftermath of Zaire’s defeat being heavier than just a three goals margin as he called off the fourth goal scored by Brazilians.

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.


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