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AFCON Archives 1970s: The Leopards of Zaire

In today’s AFCON Archives, the weekly deep dive into the history of Africa’s continental football tournament, we’re focusing on the Leopards of Zaire.

The Leopards reached the summit of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1968 and 1974, first as Congo-Kinshasa and then as Zaire after the nation was retitled in 1971. Despite their eminence in the continent, this Zaire side is remembered primarily for its 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia at the 1974 World Cup.

Is this a fair legacy for these Leopards?

The dictator Mobutu Sese Seko promised players untold riches / Evening News, Thursday January 25th 1968 (Accra, Ghana)

Zaire’s ascendancy from footballing obscurity to continental glory followed a path blazed by Ghana, who had used football to promote nationalism and Pan-Africanism during Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency.

AFCON Archives: Ghana’s Black Stars do the double

Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the nation from 1965 until 1997, drew direct inspiration from Nkrumah’s sporting project.

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Mobutu (right), in his signature Leopard print abacost, alongside Muhammad Ali

Neil Andrews, the author of Zaire ’74: The rise and fall of Mobutu’s Leopards, notes the role of football in marking the birth of the regime.

“He’d seen how The Black Stars, as they were known, had gained independence, but then formed a national identity through the football team.

“When Mobutu became president, he actually organised a football game. It was an exhibition game between Ghana and Congo, which the Black Stars won quite easily,” he tells the Sports Gazette.


Being roundly beaten by The Black Stars stoked Mobutu’s footballing fire. When the two sides met again in the final of the 1968 AFCON, Congo-Kinshasa were a different proposition.

Whereas Ghana had faced “The Lions” in 1966, they were hunted by “The Leopards” at AFCON 1968.

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Lions became Leopards after a rebranding in 1967

As well as this cosmetic change, Mobutu took practical steps to improve the national side.

He began by recalling “Les Belgicains,” players who had left Congo for Belgium during the early 1960s.

“Representatives went to Belgium, bought out their contracts, and they [the players] came back. He then prevented players from leaving the country,” says Andrews.

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By staying at Anderlecht, Julien Kialunda (top row, second from the left) was the exception that proved the rule

A reinforced Congo-Kinshasa kicked-off AFCON 1968 with a 3-0 win over neighbours Congo-Brazzaville, but fell to a 2-1 loss against Ghana in their second game in Group A. With qualification to the knockouts at stake, they then defeated Senegal 2-1 at Cicero Stadium in Asmara.

A 3-2 semi-final win over hosts Ethiopia booked Congo’s place in the final, while Ghana’s 4-3 win over the Ivory Coast ensured an ultimate showdown between these two rivals.

This time, though, The Leopards came out on top. Pierre Kalala Mukendi’s 66th minute strike proved enough to give Congo-Kinshasa their first AFCON title as they defeated Ghana 1-0.

Celebrations in Congo-Kinshasa and commiserations in Ghana both confirmed Mobutu’s status as the heir to Nkrumah’s sporting throne.

“During the latest African Cup competition, the Congolese Government promised the Congolese players with cars. Such incentives boost the morale of footballers. And no wonder the Congolese won the cup from Ghana.”

Evening News, July 17th 1968 (Accra, Ghana)

In Kinshasa, Mobutu co-opted the footballing triumph to consolidate his dictatorship.

The players returned to rapturous celebration and a national holiday, carrying whiteboards to help fans put faces to names since most had followed the tournament over the radio.

For Mobutu, though, the only name that mattered was his own.

“Mobutu himself declared the national holiday. He made it quite clear who was responsible for the success.

“Salonga, the national newspaper and his mouthpiece, credited Mobutu with the success. He was very visible at the celebrations and they gave him the trophy. He made it clear that he was the man paying for this,” says Andrews.

AFCON ‘70 and ’72

Congo-Kinshasa were unable to use 1968 as a launching pad for further success. The two years after their AFCON triumph were spent in a football wilderness after they failed to register for World Cup Qualifying.

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Morocco represented Africa at the 1970 World Cup

“Someone from the Congo forgot to submit their entry form and so, for the next two years, they didn’t play any competitive games. They played six internationals in a two-year period, with a ten-month break on one occasion,” Andrews explains.

They remained optimistic heading into AFCON 1970 but, as the tournament unfolded, that confidence was shown to be misplaced. With just one point to their name, The Leopards were eliminated in the group stages.

Mobutu enlisted Yugoslavian manager Blagoje Vidinić to revitalize The Leopards in 1971, the year that Congo-Kinshasa became Zaire.

In 1972, they reached the AFCON semi-finals but fell to a 4-3 defeat against Mali.

Mobutu redoubled his efforts once more. The ban on overseas players was lifted, allowing talents like Kembo Uba Kembo and Joseph Kibongé Mafu to join the squad.

AFCON ’74 

The climax of Zairean football was undoubtedly 1974, headlined by qualification for the World Cup and a triumph at AFCON 1974 in Egypt.

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Zaire was the first Sub-Saharan African nation to reach the World Cup

As ever, Mobutu was quick to take credit.

Mobutu’s actual ‘contribution’ to the AFCON victory in 1974 had come in the form of a threatening phone call after a group stage loss against neighbouring Congo.

“[Mobutu] received a triumphant call from his equivalent across the river, Marien Ngouabi, which obviously poured oil onto the fires of his rage.

“And so, he threatened the coach and players, if they didn’t win the next game and qualify they wouldn’t be allowed back to the country,” Andrews explains.

Thankfully, a 4-1 win over Mauritius ensured their progression to the knockout phases, where the host nation Egypt awaited them.

A brace from Pierre Ndaye Mulamba, whose nine goals across the tournament remains a men’s AFCON record, helped Zaire to a 3-2 win over the tournament favourites.

“Ndaye scored the winner and this earned him a number of nicknames back home. He was known as Volvo and the Assassin of Katanga, one newspaper even called him Hitler because he played like a dictator on the pitch,” says Andrews.

He played a crucial role again as Zaire claimed their second AFCON title, striking twice in a 2-2 stalemate against Zambia before bagging both goals in a 2-0 win during the replay.

Though he had threatened the players, Mobutu claimed their victory as his own.

“Vidinić actually admitted that he left the celebrations after they had won in 1974 because people started chanting his name instead of Mobutu’s. He was very wary that Mobutu wanted to be seen as the leader,” says Andrews.

Zaire at the World Cup: A fair legacy?

The ecstasy of AFCON 1974 was matched by the bitter disappointment of the World Cup. Zaire suffered three losses in three group games, including a 9-0 thumping by Yugoslavia.

High-profile errors from these defeats have endured as the legacy of this continent conquering Zairean side.

“People look and laugh. There is a lot of ignorance about who they were,” says Andrews.

In reality, Zaire acquitted themselves fairly well until off-field chaos took its toll. In their first group game against Scotland, they made a strong impression despite a 2-0 loss.

 “They were carving out chances and the speed with which they were playing really surprised the Scots. They actually played really well to the point that Pelé came in and congratulated them after the game,” says Andrews.

Ahead of their calamitous performance against Yugoslavia, though, external influences began dragging the team down.

The players’ bonuses went missing, while their expenses fund had been drained by the government officials travelling with the team.

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The two finalists, West Germany and Holland, also had disputes over money at the 1974 World Cup

Discontent bubbled before reaching boiling point on match-day. Suspicions about the allegiances of Vidinić, a former Yugoslavian international, meant the coach was escorted away from the changing rooms.

The team-talk was given by a member of the Zaire FA instead.

Needless to say, it did not go well.

“He decided to tear up the tactics, change the players. And this was when they said they’d had enough.

“You had this farcical element where they went hiding around the stadium. At one point you had nine players in the dressing room,” says Andrews.

Compensation from FIFA led the players to see the game through, but the damage had been done.

“The team that took the pitch were deflated, had no morale.

“It’s an extremely unfair legacy. The 9-0 game was the defining moment of African football at that World Cup, which I don’t think is fair,” Andrews adds.

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Zaire lost 3-0 to Brazil in their final group game

There was no fanfare when they returned to Zaire on this occasion – only the wrath of Mobutu, who was as quick to distance himself from their defeat as he was to claim their victories.

“When they came back, there was no one there to greet them. They were taken to Mobutu’s palace where he scorned and threatened them for embarrassing Zaire and embarrassing him,” says Andrews.

It marked the death of Mobutu’s interest in football, leaving the players to rue the years in which they had acted as unwilling promoters of a regime who now left them stranded.

“Their ongoing temperament is very, very bitter, even to this day.

“By then, Mobutu was such a despot that he didn’t need football anymore. It’s quite disgusting the way they were treated when they returned and how they were just abandoned,” says Andrews.

The surviving victors of 1968 and 1974 are now recipients of a government pension but some – like Kazadi Mwamba – had already lived and died in a poverty that Mobutu’s false promises had helped create.

These Leopards represent far more than a 9-0 loss.

You can read the full AFCON Archives collection here.


  • Jonny Coffey

    Jonny Coffey, 21, is a London-based sports journalist focusing on football. Fascinated by tactics, Coffey is famed for his introduction of inverted full backs to the second division of Cambridge college football, and his admiration for Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. A lifelong Arsenal fan, his interest in analysing wing play is a thinly-veiled ploy to rave about Bukayo Saka.