So far in Champagne Kit Campaigns, we have highlighted the outfits worn in successful World Cup qualifications by Norway, Russia and Ireland in the 1990s, and runner-up/third place runs for Netherlands and Brazil at the 1978 tournament. Staying in the 70s we now turn to a side who’s performance at the 1974 competition didn’t exactly warrant celebratory campaign, but their presence as first ever representatives from sub-Sahara Africa, some amazing kits, and one of the most memorable World Cup moments of all time, more than makes up for it.
Having previously competed unofficially as the Belgian Congo, the Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Léopoldville after the capital) national football quickly team joined FIFA in 1962 and CAF in 1963, following independence in 1960. Despite five years of “chaos” in the country, after-which a second “republic” was declared (Congo-Kinshasa) by a military commander in 1965, the team quickly thrived and ended up winning the 1968 African Cup of Nations in Ethiopia.
Flag of the Republic of Congo, 1960-1971.
At the tournament Rep.Congo appear to have worn a shirt inspired by their flag, although with a white/yellow sash over a red background rather than a red/yellow sash over blue, plus a white star instead of yellow. But during the final against Ghana at least, a white/light coloured jersey with red star and collar/cuff trim was used. Some players wore striped socks, some solid but several went completely completely barefoot which is excellent.
Barefoot Republic of Congo players - no.7 plus on the left with knee-pad - during the African Cup of Nations final vs Ghana, 21/01/1968.
A Rep.Congo player's offer of a jersey swap is rejected by a dejected Ghanaian following the former's first African Nations Cup victory, 21/01/1968.
By the time the two teams would meet again in 1973 – a CAF round two qualifier for World Cup 74 – Ghana would no longer be taking on the “Republic of Congo”. Military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, in power since the coup of 65, had changed the name of the country in 1971 to the Republic of Zaire, in reference to another name for the massive Congo River that stretches through the huge nation.
A new, evocative flag was also adopted by the regime – a green field and yellow disc, with an arm clenching a lit torch within – which of course had implications for the football team’s kit. Zaire could now be seen wearing an all-green strip with red, yellow and green trim on the v-neck collar/cuffs, and yellow sock turnovers. But most notably, a print of a red leopard and football inside a red circle on the chest, with the team nickname of “LEOPARDS” above and “ZAIRE” outside below, was an impressive centerpiece to the ensemble.
Flag of Republic of Zaire, 1971-1997.
A blurry shot showing Zaire in all-green during a World Cup 74 qualifier away to Ghana in a yellow and red strip, 05/08/1973.
Victory over Togo and Cameroon in the first two rounds was followed with a 4-2 aggregate win over Ghana to send Zaire to the final group round, along with Morocco and Zambia, from which the winner would take the only African spot at the following years World Cup in West Germany. In the first of these games, a 0-2 win away to green shirted Zambia in November 73, yellow shirts with red trim and a green turnover collar were combined with the green shorts and socks.
Yellow-shirted Zaire celebrate a goal away to Zambia during World Cup 74 qualification, 04/12/1973.
Zaire beat Zambia again at home a few days later, before a 3-0 win over Morocco in December. It would turn out be the match that sealed their historic World Cup qualification, as the first sub-Saharan African nation to do so, due to the fact that Morocco and Zambia had beaten each other in the other games. This rendered the final encounter between Morocco and Zaire meaningless, which was ruled a walkover anyway after Morocco refused to play, instead vainly demanding a replay of the first match citing Zaire’s underhanded tactics to win.
In 1974, before the World Cup there was the matter of another tournament in that year’s edition of the African Cup of Nations in Egypt. Since Republic of Congo’s victory in 1968, Sudan had won the 1970 competition followed by “the other Congo” (Congo-Brazzaville) – another former “Republic of Congo”, then a socialist state named the “People’s Republic of Congo”, becoming the”Republic of Congo” again in 1990 – taking the 1972 championship. This had included a “Congolese derby” in the first round which was won by Zaire.
The scoreboard during Zaire's 2-0 victory over PR Congo, African Cup of Nations, 27/02/1972.
From the 74 Cup of Nations, we get our first real close-up look at Zaire’s kits during this time (with white shorts used at least one) and that gorgeous trim and logo. The jerseys bore the brand of Le Coq Sportif, although one red Adidas goalkeeper top made an appearance with – appropriately enough considering the shirt make – French flag sleeve striping. This time there was no bare feet, as evident by every player’s fresh Adidas trainers seen during a pre-game warm-up.
Zaire in Le Coq Sportif kits, and one Adidas tracktop, line-up during 1974 African Cup of Nations vs Zamvia, 12/03/1974.
The Zaire team warms up ahead of a game in the African Cup of Nations wearing Adidas runners rather than boots due to having to use concrete, 1974.
Zaire again took on Congo in the first round, this time in a losing effort, but the reversal of fortune from two years previous would continue as they went on to make it to the final. There, a now orange-clad Zambia were waiting to extract some revenge for what happened in World Cup qualification, but a 2-0 win in a replayed final after an initial 2-2 draw solidified Zaire’s status on top of the continent going into the “global” tournament that summer.
The Zaire captain with the African Cup of Nations trophy following victory in the final replay over Zambia, 14/03/1974.
Zaire – World Cup 1974, West Germany
The 1974 draw consisted of four pots – Western Europe; Eastern Europe (which would have contained the very western Spain if it wasn’t for the fact that Yugoslavia beat them in a qualification play-off); South America; and Rest of the World, made up of Australia, Haiti, Sweden (which does make sense since Scandinavia isn’t western or eastern Europe), and of course Zaire. In Group 2, Scotland were drawn from western Europe, Yugoslavia from the east, Brazil from South America and Zaire from the Rest, creating a colourful and diverse pool.
Zaire vs Scotland
When Zaire’s World Cup kicked off against the Scots on June 14th, 1974, the use of Adidas apparel at the Cup of Nations proved not to be a false indicator. Adidas was now the official brand of the kit and the famous three-stripes were added to sleeves and shorts, but not socks which only had two joined stripes. A trefoil was also on the shorts but not shirt, as rules – in theory – allowed for only one of either stripes or brand logo on Adidas teams’ jerseys at this World Cup:
Despite being the “home” team for the tie, Zaire went with their exuberant yellow/green/yellow away kit for this debut match at the tournament, at which stricter regulations on clashes were applied as always, allowing Umrbo’s Scotland to wear their traditional colours:
The most pleasing aspect the new Zaire ensemble was the configuration of stripe colours, with green/red/green over the yellow background of the shirt and yellow/red/yellow over the green of the shorts:
The goalkeeper was still wearing red as with the Cup of Nations Adidas shirt, but now thankfully with yellow stripes on the sleeves:
Despite a number of decent chances for Zaire, the on-paper superior opposition were able to take a comfortable 0-2 win. But there was no question of who had won in the style charts (sorry Scotland).
Result: Zaire 0-2 Scotland
Yugoslavia vs Zaire
In a roll-reversal from the first match, Zaire were now the “away” team but it was Yugoslavia who donned an all-white strip, suggesting that the onus mayhave been on the first-drawn country to change at this World Cup (please tell us). All-green was used in response by the African champions to avoid a shorts clash (white and yellow appearing the same on black and white TVs):
Following the first game there had been disagreements within the camp regarding pay and suspected theft, and any semblance of improvement in footballing terms quickly vanished for Zaire as the Balkan Brazil scored at 8 minutes and continued to score regularly. After going 3-0 down 18 minutes in, the goalkeeper was embarrassingly pulled off, which at least gives us a look at his black shorts which featured brilliant red/yellow/green striping:
The substitution didn’t help much as the Europeans scored again immediately. By the end it was 9-0, which naturally means most of the footage of the Zaire kit form this game can only be seen in between Yugoslav goals and celebrations:
Unfortunately, the only real look we can get at the amazing yellow/red/yellow stripes and “crest” on the Zaire home shirt is from the forlorn bench late in the drubbing, along with some beautiful tracksuits featuring a heart-placed logo and standard sleeve colourway (and smoking):
The three-striped v-neck collar seen above also deserves props (ok maybe this view wasn’t so unfortunate). And just about visible on the shirt, the logo is actually now yellow, unlike the red of the previous home shirt and still on the tracksuit top:
Result: Yugoslavia 9-0 Zaire
Zaire vs Brazil
Now out of the competition, Zaire at least had the privilege of regaining their honour against the reigning World Champions Brazil before their trip ended – a nation with similar green and yellow flag. With yellow the colour of choice in football shirt terms for Brazil though, there would be no need for away kits this time:
Still, there were changes. First because all-green no longer made sense due to Brazil’s blue shorts, and so the fabulous green/yellow/green full home colours made their first appearance. The result was one of the most aesthetically pleasing kit match ups in World Cup history:
Secondly, and less explicably, Zaire were wearing a different home shirt to the previous game. A plain yellow turn-over collar and yellow sleeve-striping replaced the colourful variations, and in a breech of tournament rules a white-trefoil shockingly appeared on the chest:
The intricate yellow leopard logo – the only consistent feature from last time – suggests that it wasn’t a rush-job replacement shirt, but that it had been brought as an alternate home jersey, had therefore slipped by FIFA’s regulations, and was now in use in a World Cup match (the Argentine away jersey similarly featured both stripes and trefoil). Why it was needed ahead of the first shirt, though, remains unclear.
The above shot of the Zaire wall is of course seconds before the infamous moment referenced in the intro, when Mwepu Ilunga kicked the ball away while Brazil waited to take a free kick:
**(A similar incident occurred in the life of this writer when, as a circa 10 year old goalkeeper playing as outfielder for the first time, I thought a dead ball goal kick was in play and ran up and took a shot as the opposition ‘keeper and everyone else watched on confused. I missed)**
What appeared to be a farcical misinterpretation of the rules was later explained by the player as a form of political protest against his country’s dictator. Adding an extra element of tension, behind the scenes Zaire’s humiliation at the hands of the Yugoslavs had enraged the regime, who had threatened that anything more that 3-0 defeat to Brazil meant the players would not be allowed home. Thankfully the game finished at “just” 3-0 to the South Americans, but the scoreline, and often opposition, are largely forgotten when the most memorable moment of this match is brought up.
While the motivation behind the “foul ball” may well be more serious than most imagined, for us the use of the alternate trefoil shirt is the real reason this match should be famous. We will use the yellow card that followed the incident to highlight the superb Adidas numbering, rather than ridicule, as Zaire’s ill fated but stylish-as-fuck World Cup came to a close:
Result: Zaire 0-3 Brazil
ZAIRE ELIMINATED, FIRST GROUP STAGE
Breakdown Team: Republic of Zaire Year(s): 1974 Competition: World Cup 74 Kit Supplier: Adidas Competitive Games: 3 Kit Colour Combinations: 3 Kit Technical Combinations: 3
Tragically, the ominous rage of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko during the tournament turned to utter disinterest of football afterwards and the sport lost most of it’s funding in the country. The team followed an expected slide in fortune and could not even enter a side for the next World Cup qualifiers. Several players, who had so recently been champions of the continent, later became destitute and died on the streets while their African contemporaries were starting to make good careers in Europe.
Despite three defeats at World Cup 74, including the 9-0 loss, no goals scored and that moment against Brazil, plus the political undertones and unjust aftermath, the Zaire 74 side will forever live in our hearts as style icons of their day worthy of champagne. As for their country, the dictator ruled until 1997 when the state was finally renamed the Democrat Republic of Congo.
Rep.Congo vs Ghana, 1968
Zaire vs PR Congo, 1972
Ghana vs Zaire, 1973
Zambia vs Zaire, 1973
Zaire vs Zambia, 1974
Zaire vs Zambia, 1974
Zaire vs Scotland, 1974
Zaire vs Scotland, 1974
Zaire vs Scotland, 1974 (Dailymotion)
Yugoslavia vs Zaire, 1974
Yugoslavia vs Zaire, 1974
Zaire vs Brazil, 1974
Zaire vs Brazil, 1974