by Neil Andrews
The first black African team to qualify for a World Cup suffered casual racism and horrific stereotyping in the western media, were accused of throwing games by opponents and learned they were being conned out of bonuses by their own countrymen mid-tournament and as a result ended with one of the worst records in the tournament's history - conceding 14 goals in three games while scoring none in reply. Nevertheless the Zaire team of 1974 lives long in the memory and not just because of THAT free-kick.
Financially backed by President Mobutu, who saw football as a way to gain popularity at home and status on the international stage, the Leopards won three African championships between 1968 and 1974 and strolled through World Cup qualifying under the management of Blagoje Vidinic, a Yugoslav who managed to unite the disparate tribes of a country the size of Europe.
Yet the World Cup campaign was dogged by controversy. When Zaire players learned that their bonuses had been syphoned off by hangers-on before the second game they threatened to strike and only the threat of violence forced them on to the pitch, where a demoralised team were hammered 9-0 by Yugoslavia.
Upon their return to their homeland players were banned from leaving the country and the most militant were never selected for Zaire again. Mobutu in turn diverted the proceeds of his 'soccer tax' to pay George Foreman and Muhammad Ali to fight in 'The Rumble in the Jungle', considering boxing a far safer bet than football.
Zaire '74 traces the fortunes of the most colourful finalists in World Cup history who blazed a trail for the likes of Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana in subsequent decades yet suffered as a result of the corruption of the Mobutu regime.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is Neil Andrews’ first book. He has been a regular contributor to the magazine When Saturday Comes for over twelve years and also had articles published in Nutmeg, FourFourTwo and the Austrian publication Ballesterer. He was a contributor to the books Glove Story and Glove Story 2 and is the driving force behind the website - www.goalkeepersaredifferent.com