African Football at the World Cup: The Early Days, 1934-74
The great Pelé once foretold of an African team winning the FIFA World Cup before the year 2000. Although Pelé is notorious for his oft-wayward predictions, this is at least a testament to the talent that has emerged from the continent over past decades.
In fact, as I write this article, AC Milan play Juventus in a Serie A match, in which seven Africans, or players of African descent, are involved. Additionally, earlier today Ivory Coast international Yaya Toure scored a crucial goal for Manchester City in the Capital One Cup Final.
Nowadays, Africa produces some of the most explosive and athletic players in the game, many of whom are recognised household names. However, the world did not truly open its eyes to this hotbed of talent until the 1990s.
Egypt travelled to Italy in 1934, becoming the first African side to contest the Jules Rimet Trophy, after invitations for the 1930 finals didn’t extend to the continent.
Unfortunately for Egypt, who were managed by Scot James McCrae, their four day boat trip proved to be in vain, as they were knocked out by Hungary in the first round. The team lost 4-2 after a questionable refereeing display from the Italian Rinaldo Barlassina and it would be another 56 years until Egypt would return to the finals.
There followed a 26-year absence of African representation on the world stage. War, failure to qualify, and protest prevented the appearance of an African nation at the World Cup finals from 1938-70. It was consistent and united pressure from the continent that finally forced FIFA’s hand. An automatic place at the finals for African sides was guaranteed in time for the tournament in Mexico. After seeing off competition from Nigeria and Sudan, it was Morocco that took that spot.
Morocco faced a baptism of fire in León, coming up against a West German side containing the likes of Beckenbauer, Müller and Overath who would go on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy four years later. However, Morocco defied the odds, going 1-0 up in the first half. Unfortunately Germany won in the 80th minute after a goal from the formidable Gerd Müller overshadowed Uwe Seller’s earlier efforts.
Morocco went on to lose 3-0 to Cuba, but picked up the first African point at a World Cup following a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in the final game of the group stages. According to keeper Allal Ben Kassou, they ‘showed the rest of the world that African football had to be taken seriously’.
Perhaps the most infamous of this trio of African sides was the 1974 Zaire (today DR Congo) outfit. Unfortunately, their campaign has since been reduced to a single moment. In their final group game against World Cup winners Brazil, fullback Mwepe Ilunga broke out of his team’s defensive wall, punting the football up field, to the disbelief of the waiting Brazil side and the watching world. Sadly many have since misinterpreted this as a moment of hilarity, believing Ilunga simply didn’t know the rules of the game.
The story behind Ilunga’s act is one of tragedy, not farce. Zaire’s dictatorial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, was delighted with his team’s qualification to the World Cup, rewarding his players with a new house, car and a holiday. However, after player wages were withheld following the loss to Scotland, the team rebelled, and almost withdrew from their game with Yugoslavia. After a number of contentious tactical moves by manager Zoran Vidinic, the team was thrashed 9-0, a scoreline that remains a World Cup record to this day. Sese Seko was displeased with his team, and threatened them with banishment from Zaire if they lost against Brazil by more than three goals. Therefore, the act of Ilunga can be seen both as one of protest (he was hoping for the referee to send him off, later complaining that ‘the referee was quite lenient and only gave me a yellow card’) and also one of fear (Brazil were winning 3-0 at the time of the free kick) and an attempt to waste time.
The tragic decline of the team continued upon their return home. Ilunga told the BBC that ‘We got back home without a penny in our pockets (…) I’m living like a tramp.’ Star midfielder Ndaye Mulamba also criticised the treatment of retired African footballers: ‘Here, when you play they know you, but when you finish your career they forget you’. Ilunga’s hoof is still ranked on many lists as one of the funniest moments of all time. Perhaps the biggest shame is that the truth still hasn’t truly been recognised.
With Zaire’s ill-fated campaign, conceding 14 goals and scoring none, the reputation of African football on the world stage took a knock, despite Morocco’s respectable performance in 1970. It would take another 12 years until the world truly opened its eyes to the talent that Africa was producing, and for teams to fully respect African opponents at the World Cup.