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We laughed at him for over 40 years. But he didn’t deserve it

Mwepu Ilunga, national hero

 

It’s the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Brazil is beating Zaire 3-0 and there are only five minutes of the game left. The referee blows his whistle to award Brazil a free kick for a foul committed by the African team. Zaire sets up a defensive wall; Brazil gets ready to take the kick… and then this happens:

A Zairean defender springs out of the wall and boots the ball as hard as he can. He’s admonished by the referee for this apparent rush of blood and given a yellow card. The defender’s name was Joseph Mwepu Ilunga.

For many years, Mwepu’s seemingly reckless act has been explained away as follows: forming part of the first sub-Saharan team to play in the World Cup, he simply did not know the basic rules of the game. This theory, put forward by the media at the time, reflected the attitude of amused condescension held by many in the West towards Africa during the process of traumatic – for the invading powers – decolonisation.

However, the theory was incorrect. Mwepu and his teammates knew the rules perfectly well: the defender’s act was one of deliberate self-preservation. Zaire had lost their first match of the tournament – against Scotland whose captain had spent the game racially abusing his opponents – 2-0. The Zaireans were then routed by Yugoslavia 9-0. Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of Zaire, reacted by sending some of his presidential guards to pay the players a visit before their next game against the world champions, Brazil.

Backed by Belgium – former rulers of Zaire – as well as by the CIA, Mobutu had snatched the presidency following a coup against the democratic socialist government of Patrice Lumumba in 1960. Mobuto’s brutal kleptocracy bled his country dry until his rule ended in 1997.

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Mobuto’s men warned the players that as far as the president was concerned, the team’s performance in Germany was a ‘national disgrace’. They were told to make sure they didn’t lose by more than three goals if they wanted to get back to Zaire in one piece.

With the score at 3-0 to Brazil, and with five minutes still left on the clock, the motivations behind Ilunga’s illegal clearance were a mixture of the following: to waste time, to protest the treatment of his team, and to save his life and the lives of his teammates. In a further twist, Mwepu shouldn’t have even been on the pitch in the first place.

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During the game against Yugoslavia, Mwepu had kicked the referee. However, the referee got the players mixed up and ended up sending off another Zairean, N’Daye, instead. “The referees can’t tell us apart. And they don’t try to either. They only see our colour. My teammate said it was him, but the referee wouldn’t listen. I cried terribly at that injustice,” said N’Daye afterwards.

Mwepu and his teammates lost the game but saved their skins. They were allowed to return home, but were treated with contempt by Zairean authorities for the rest of their lives. Some died in destitution. Others sought exile far from home.

Joseph Mwepu Ilunga died in May 2015 in Kinshasa at the age of 66.

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