Football, protest and Zaire

The 1974 FIFA World Cup, was held in West Germany. Australia, East Germany, Haiti and Zaire made their first appearances at the final stage.

This article is not about the winner of the tournament (for the record, it was West-Germany), not about the best player or the worst referee, it is all about a football player and the modern history of his country.

Mwepu Ilunga (22 August 1949 – 8 May 2015) was a football defender from Zaire.He is not remembered for his impressive career or for having helped his country to qualify at the World Cup as the first sub-Saharan African nation in this competition.Ilunga will always be remembered for the moment in the final group-stage match when he run out of the defensive wall at a Brazil free-kick and kicked the ball down the other field-side.Since then, he is remembered as an undisciplined player who did not know the game rules.



However, only after his death the truth of the event seems to emerge. His unjustifiable kick was actually an intended protest again the authoritarian Zaire’s President Joseph Mobutu.What looked like a wild moment of indiscipline was a protest from Ilunga against Zaire’s President Joseph Mobutu decision to retract the players’ bonuses and his blackmail.

After having lost 9-0 against Yugoslavia, the President Joseph Mobutu sent a message to his country football team. If Zaire had lost more than 5-0 against Brazil, all the players would have not been able to come back to their home country.

In that period, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), was governed by a military junta headed by Joseph Mobutu.


After a coup d’état in 1965, he established a single-party state in which all power was concentrated in his hands. Starting from 1966, following the “campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness” Mobutu began to rename cities and costumes in Congo. The country was thus called the Republic of Zaire.During his dictatorship he accumulated an enormous amount of personal wealth through the use of corruption, economic exploitation and violence.

Mobutu consolidated power by publicly executing political rivals, secessionists, coup plotters, and other threats to his rule. Who did not follow his rules were tortured or killed. Under his government, Zaire experienced uncontrolled inflation, a large debt, and massive currency devaluations.

Mobutu’s loves for power and money (his fortune was around 5 billion US dollar), allowed the creation of a new word: “Kleptocracy”. It can be described as a systemic problem with officials and/or a ruling class taking advantage of corruption to extend their personal wealth and political power.

Only in 1991, given the disastrous economic conditions of Zaire, President Joseph Mobutu decided to share part of his power with the opposition leaders. However Mobutu was able to “de-facto” lead the country with the army until 1997, when the rebel warriors of Lauren Kabila forced him to leave Zaire supported by Rwanda during the First Congo War (1996-1997).


Despite the initial favor of the West which presented Laurent Kabila as a new democratic leader, the new President followed the policies of his predecessor. He accumulated an incredible amount of wealth and imposed the cult of his personality. Fearing a coup d’état by his old allies, Kabila entered in war against Rwanda and Uganda supported directly by Angola and Namibia. The Second Congo War (1998-2003) started in 1998. It is the most war deadliest war of modern African history. Tragically, during this war, rape was used as a weapon against women to promote an “ethnic cleansing”.

On the 16th of January 2001, Kabila was killed by one of his bodyguard. Apparently the bodyguard was paid by the Rwanda government as a revenge of the 1998’s war.

Ten days after his death, his son Joseph Kabila became the new president of the country. In 2002 peace agreement signed Africa, which nominally ended the Second Congo War, maintained Joseph Kabila as President of the Congo. In 2005 there were the first elections in Congo to decide the new President. Unfortunately, this election were characterized by irregularities and violence; Joseph Kabila won. In December 2011, Kabila was re-elected for a second term as president. After the results were announced, there was violent protests in all Congo because different officials showed that a strong majority had voted for the opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi.

As its modern history reveals, Congo has a long road ahead before completing the democratization process.


Francesco Stefani


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