Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer.
I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**
Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):
In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.
Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.
*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.
**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.
***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.
****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.