When he raced to the corner flag and gyrated his hips each time he scored a goal during the 1990 World Cup, Cameroon’s Roger Milla revolutionised the way scoring goals is celebrated. Since then, his act has been copied and modified by thousands of footballers and the act of celebrating a goal is now an art in itself.
Thank you, Roger Milla, African football will cherish this forever. When he did it, it was just about time. Africa needed something it could copyright in the world of the beautiful game. It needed something it could remember with pride.
Football has had many stages since England gave the game to the world but from 1930, the one that has afforded us our most enduring memories is, of course, the Fifa World Cup. Sub-Sahara Africa’s first foray into this big platform was 1974 when Zaire lined up against Scotland, Yugoslavia and Brazil in West Germany – and the result was a catastrophe.
(The country has changed its name almost with the agility of Celestine Babayoro’s back somersaults after scoring his goals: before independence, it was called the Belgian Congo, then it became the Republic of Congo, then it became Zaire and currently it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo).
NUMEROUS OFFICIAL TITLES
Zaire soaked 14 goals without scoring even one – the worst African World Cup record so far. The two teams that would proceed to the next round were determined by how many goals they had scored against them. Scotland had defeated them 2-0, Yugoslavia a whopping 9-0 and Brazil 3-0. Yugoslavia and Brazil advanced.
It was actually more scandalous than this but first some background. The prelude to Zaire being the first sub Saharan team at the World Cup is a long story. It must be seen in the context of the ambitions of their megalomaniac dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (full name: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Gbanda wa Za Banga, meaning the cockerel that leaves no hen untouched).
His numerous official titles included: “Father of the Nation,” “Messiah,” “Guide of the Revolution,” “Helmsman,” “Founder,” “Saviour of the People,” and “Supreme Combatant.” He was also Field Marshall of the Zairean Armed Forces although a scrutiny of his army background showed he received scarce military training; he was more a journalist than a soldier. But intelligent he certainly was; you don’t get to lord it over 80 million people for decades if you are a fool.
Mobutu had seen how Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and the father of Pan Africanism, had used football to advance his dreams of a united Africa.
He had invested heavily in the nation’s two big club sides Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak and the Black Stars, the national team. They were the dominant African sides of the early 60s.
Mobutu decided to match Nkrumah, but in his case just to massage his elephantine ego. Zaire’s national team used to be known as the Lions but Mobutu changed its name to the Leopards to match his trademark Leopard-skin head dress. He threw all the money he could into the Leopards.
In the 1968 Nations Cup tournament held in Ethiopia, Zaire defeated Ghana 1-0 to win the first of their two African crowns so far. The Ghanaians had been going for a third straight title.
1974 was a particularly momentous year for Zaire. That is when Mobutu decided to put up USD 10 million to stage the famous Rumble in the Jungle, the unforgettable world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa.
It was all to bring attention to himself but Ali sanitized the dictator’s project by remarking, according to Thomas Hauser, his biographer in the documentary “When We Were Kings”, that nation’s go to war to put their names on the world map and wars cost a lot more than 10 million dollars.”
But Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author, had something incendiary to say about the strongman in the same film. This is how he saw Zaire when he went there for the fight: “Mobutu was everywhere. His picture was everywhere.
He was the equivalent of Joseph Stalin in Africa. With the exception of Mussolini who was half ugly and half attractive, most dictators are ugly or plain – Franco, Hitler. Mobutu was the kind of guy you meet in a bar and you think, ‘Oh my God! Who is the poor woman associated with this fellow?”
In the absolutely riveting documentary “Mobutu: Roi du Zaire”, Sakombi Inongo, once Mobutu’s Minister for Information and the man behind the dictator’s image descending from the clouds as if he was an angel and which preceded every Zairean television news broadcast, says a particularly egregious
Mobutu hobby was seducing the wives of his Ministers. He made passes at Inongo’s wife, too, in his presence, and there is nothing the hapless minister could do because showing disapproval was exhibiting suicidal behaviour.
Inongo makes your heart skip a few beats when he narrates how he was present when the tyrant washed down a glass of human blood as you would drink room temperature water. It was his macabre way of psychologically crushing his enemies.
So Zaireans had a double treat in 1974 - becoming the first black Africans to qualify for a World Cup that would later leave a very bitter taste in their mouths, and hosting the epic Ali fight.
In his book, “The Story of the World Cup,” Brian Glanville, the famed British football journalist and author, had this to say about the Zaire of 1974: “They had fine individualists, had done well in Africa, but it was already clear from their performance in the recent African Nations Cup and from a mediocre tour of Europe that little was to be expected of them.”
That much was true – Zaire did have individually very gifted players. Although their captain, Kibonge Mafu was described by Brazil’s legendary Pele as one of the most talented players he had ever met, Kenya fans were star struck the most by their goalkeeper, Mwamba Kazadi. He was a household name in the country and children playing as goalkeepers called themselves by his name in school kick-abouts.
As for the rest of the squad that put African football to shame, one can only recommend watching the documentary film Entre la coupe et l’election (Between the Cup and the Election) by Monique Mbeka Phoba and Guy Kabeya Muya. Shot in 2006, the film traces their fate after the moment of fame in 1974 to Zaire’s first multi-party elections after the overthrow of Mobutu.
It is a sad one. Except for captain Mafu, the rest descended into penury, Mobutu having washed his hands of them the moment the last whistle in West Germany. At the time the film was shot, Mafu was running for political office, his campaign posters featuring him with Pele to remind those who may have forgotten who he once was.
The scandal that this team brought on themselves and the continent they represented was personified by one of their defenders, Mwepu Illunga.
Late in their losing game against Brazil, their players lined in a defensive wall against a free kick by the reigning world champions. The man to take was Roberto Rivelino, my favourite left winger and free kick specialist of all time.
As soon as the referee blew his whistle for Rivelino to take the kick, Illunga rushed out of his line and booted the ball as far as his mighty leg could take it. Everybody was stunned. “Now that’s a booking. That must be a booking for Mwepu,” panted ITV match commentator, Gerald Sinstadt, and he was right.
“What on earth did he do that for?” baffled BBC match commentator, John Motson asked on his microphone before offering this clinical answer to his own question: “A bizarre moment of African ignorance.”
According to an internet source, this incident has since appeared on numerous football outtake DVDs, and was voted the fourth most memorable World Cup moment ever in a 2002 poll of Britain’s Channel Four viewer and, most remarkably, sixth place in a poll conducted by Brazil’s leading sports channel in 2006.
The incident also featured in 1998 on the Phoenix from the Flames section of Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s ITV show, Fantasy World Cup, in which famous moments from football history are re-created. The match programme from the Zaire versus Brazil game has also become a collector’s item, fetching as much as £700 at auction.
Mwepu himself gave a candid explanation for his extraordinary act. Speaking to the BBC in 2002, he said: “I panicked and kicked the ball away before he (Rivelino) had taken it. Most of the Brazil players, and the crowd too, thought it was hilarious.
I shouted, ‘You bastards!’ at them because they didn’t understand the pressure we were under.
“I am proud, and still am, to have represented Black and Central Africa at the World Cup. But we had the erroneous belief that we would return home from the World Cup as millionaires......Look at me now. I’m living like a tramp. When we arrived home, our contracts were torn up and coaching roles never happened. I heard it said that Mobutu believed we’d set back the perception of African football 20 years......If I had my time again, I’d have worked harder at becoming a farmer.”
Writing for BBC Sport Online from Kinshasa, Mark Dummett quoted Mwepu speaking of the team’s bitterness at being abandoned by Mobutu. Following the disastrous outing at the hands of Yugoslavia, Mobutu took matters into his hands as only he could.
Mwepu told Dummett: “After the match, he sent his presidential guards to threaten us. They closed the hotel to all journalists and said that if we lost 0-4 to Brazil, none of us would be able to return home.
Mobutu was like a father to us. When we qualified for the finals, he welcomed us in his home and gave each of us a car and a house. Mobutu’s generals were so jealous of the gifts we were given that he had to buy them a car each, to keep them quiet.” In the end, they lost 0-3 to Brazil which meant they could return home without fear of retribution from the dictator.
African teams have since done much to erase this sorry episode. Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal have put on performances that have captured the world’s imagination. And Roger Milla ensured that there is something really special from Africa that all people aspire to – happiness. We have resurrected Mobutu and Zaire’s performance from the grave. Now let us return them there.