Africa led by Ghana protested the rule of playing a play-off match with Asia-Oceania team to qualify for 1966 World Cup. No African country featured in the 1966 World Cup. Until then only Egypt had played in the 1934 World Cup where they scored two goals but lost 4-2 to Hungary. Morocco went to 1970 World Cup that was won by Brazil and drew one match against Bulgaria but bowed out in the first round.
In 1974 Zaire (now DRC) national team, The Leopards’ became the first Sub-Saharan country to play in the World Cup. They were the 1974 AFCON winners when they beat Zambia in post-match penalties.
They had Ndaye Mulamba, Mayanga Maku and Kakoko Etepe among others. They went to West Germany under the tutelage of Yugoslavian coach Blagoje Vidinić.
President Mobutu Sese Seko wanted to use football to gain acceptance for his military regime among the masses. The results came and he was so excited by his country’s qualification that he invited the squad to his house and gave each one of them houses and cars.
He set up a fund to cater for the squad while in Germany. He also sent a large delegation of government officials to accompany the team for full support. Their first match was against a Kenny Dalglish led Scotland in Dortmund. They put up a good show in football terms but Scotland went on to win the match two goals to nil.
Zaire played so well that despite the win, Scotland manager Willie Ormond who had said that if they can’t beat Zaire then they better pack their bags and go home still felt like swallowing his words.
That show made the hangers on excited that the team will perform and may be get more cash from Mobutu. They dipped their hands into the kitty and wiped it out. The players realized that they will be going home empty handed and got furious. The second match was four days later that many things happened in between.
Some influential players declined to play the second match in protest. Unconfirmed reports say that FIFA allegedly paid the players to play so as to save face for the World Cup. Eleven players stepped onto the pitch half-heartedly to play Yugoslavia.
The Leopards’ were three goals down in the first twenty minutes and it looked like they will soak in more. They went on to lose the match by 9 goals to nil. Zaire looked sloppy but the underlying scenario was kept a secret. Mobutu was furious with the players after that humiliation.
The next match was against Brazil, the 1970 winners. President Mobutu sent his elite guards to Germany to convey his message. They are reported to have told the players that they were allowed to lose the match but they must not lose by 4 goals to nil. If they allow in 4 goals they should not return home to Zaire. Right back Mwepu Ilunga spoke about it years later. Ilunga is remembered for walking from their “wall” and kicking the ball as Brazilian players were ready to take a free kick 25 yards from their goal. It looked bizarre but Zaire was two goals down midway down the second half. Ilunga managed to waste some minutes to slow down Brazil and got a yellow card for it.
People did not know that all Ilunga wanted was for the players to fly back home after the match. The world saw ignorant Africans and Zaire got the “clowns” label at the World Cup. Brazil later scored a goal to win the match 3 goals to nil without knowing how close their shave was for the Zaireans.