Despite having won the 1968 and 1974 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Zaire's appearance as the first sub-Saharan side to reach the FIFA World Cup™ at Germany 1974 is most remembered for negative reasons: 14 goals conceded without reply and a famously odd yellow card against Brazil on 22 June, 1974 – 40 years ago to this day. However, one of their key figures, Kakoko Etepe, tells FIFA.com that the Leopards were confident going into the event.
“We were a great team in 1974,” Etepe remembers. “Many of the players in the team had won the AFCON tournament earlier in that year. A club from Zaire, Vita Club, had also won the CAF Champions Cup a year earlier, so there was a lot of international experience in the team. We also had a very experienced coach.”
Blagoje Vidinic, who won Olympic silver and gold with Yugoslavia in 1956 and 1960, had already coached Morocco to the World Cup in 1970, but four years later the former international goalkeeper could not repeat the respectable results he had achieved with the Atlas Lions. A 2-0 defeat in Zaire's opening game against Scotland was followed by a 9-0 thrashing at the feet of Yugoslavia. And then Zaire lost their final group game against Brazil 3-0, which famously saw Mwepu Ilunga rush out of his defensive wall to kick away the ball in front of a flummoxed Jairzinho, Rivelino and the referee.
Ilunga later claimed the move was an act of protest. Etepe said: "I have no idea why he did that. Possibly he thought that the ball was in play, but he did not explain it to us and it remains a mystery.
“We did well against Scotland, but against Yugoslavia we were just exhausted. We were really tired and we simply lacked the experience that was necessary to compete against such teams. At the finals today most to the African players already play for clubs in Europe. That was not the case with us in 1974. We did not have a single player who was under contract to a club in Europe.
“We had African experience, but that was simply not enough to compete at this level. But it was still a huge success for us to have been at the World Cup and represented Africa. It is something that I would not have wanted to miss.”
A twist of fate
But if most of the Leopards' players dreamed of signing lucrative contracts with European clubs after the finals, they were bitterly disappointed as there was very little interest following the 1974 performance. “For us football was not a full-time job,” Etepe explained. “We played with heart, which we had plenty of, but we did not receive riches. We had to work as well.”
Etepe continued playing football in Zaire and worked for car manufacturer Mercedes Benz, who then decided to send him to Germany for further training in 1977. “It took a long time for my visa to come through, but when it was finally was issued, I went to Germany for the second time," he said.
“I was playing part-time football and working at Mercedes in Stuttgart. It was then that VfB Stuttgart heard that there was a player who had played in the 1974 World Cup finals and they asked me to come along to training.”
Etepe enjoyed a successful stint with the amateur side, winning the German amateur championship in 1980. He also played one Bundesliga game for the first team and for some second division teams before retiring in Germany: "Football has given me a lot and I would not have achieved all that I have achieved had I not played at the World Cup.”
Etepe, whose son Yannick is also a footballer and was once on the books of Bayern Munich, says he has no bitterness about not having made a living from football, but he does admit a sadness when he looks at the fate of many of his Leopards team-mates from 1974, many of whom have fallen on hard times. “It makes me sad to think that some of them have nothing to show for their success. I still have contact with a few, like the captain Kidumu Mantantu, Mayanga Maku, Kibonge Mafu, Ntumba Kalala and Kazadi Muamba, many of whom live in Belgium.”
The 63-year-old is similarly disappointed when he looks at the state of football in the country of his birth, which is now called Congo DR. “We have such great players and we should really be there with the likes of Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria. We should qualify for the World Cup and challenge for the African Cup of Nations. It is sad that this is not happening, and I wish officials would do something about it to make sure that we once again become one of the strongest teams in Africa.”